Competition Favors Colored Heads

“Come, we will have a punch and I will give you a dry shirt,” Symphar said. “The trousers are of no consequence, but one must have a dry shirt.” His house was tile-floored, iron-roofed, solid, very plain. It contained many children, a few chickens, and a flush toilet whose lid he tastefully lowered.

Good local rum, clear and strong and cheap, a little sugar syrup and a bit of lime peel—that’s a punch Martiniquais. The first one of the day is called le decollage—the takeoff. We took off, clicking glasses, and drank. Symphar grew philosophical.

“You know, most of the erudition here is in colored heads. The pure whites, the Weis, descendants of the French colonists, will admit this. They are born to the exclusive class. But we must compete, and only our best are selected. Perhaps that is why our people produce the doctors and the lawyers.

“Yet we are all French. This is a department, not a colony. We are part of France.”
In one sense or another, France has moth¬ered Martinique since 1635, when Pierre Belain d’Esnambuc claimed it in France’s name. Columbus landed there in 1502, during his fourth voyage. Before his brief visit, its splendid forests and perfect beaches lay un¬touched except by Arawak and Carib Indians, up from South America (the latter being among the few human groups who liked peo¬ple because they tasted good). Later, Euro¬pean buccaneers used the island to plunder selected European shipping.carib_indians

The French colonists, although invaders like their predecessors, were more civilized. They grew sugarcane, then grew rich when African slaves replaced European convicts and indentured laborers. The small French community kept socially to itself. But its men peopled the island with a new breed of mu¬lattoes. These had no rights, but their fathers gave them favored jobs and some education, and kept their mothers out of the cane fields.

Abolition did not come to Martinique until 1848, 15 years after England ended slavery in her islands. The French slaves, however, acquired not only freedom but franchise. They were suddenly voting citizens of France.