Volcanic in origin and surrounded by coral limestone reefs in the south, Martiniqueâ€™s 416 total square miles resembles a right-handed mitten anchored in the north by the ominous 4,656 foot Mont Pele.Â Martinique is centrally located in the Eastern Caribbean chain between the windward islands of Dominica and St. Lucia.Â With a population of 430,000, Martinique is the second most populous island in the Lesser Antilles after Trinidad.Â About one-third of the total population resides in Fort de France, Martiniqueâ€™s capital city on the west coast.
Columbus discovered Martinique in 1502 but did not establish a colony, leaving the indigenous Caribs temporarily undisturbed.Â In 1635, a group of about 100 French colonizers came from St. Kitts, settling on the western coast in the area later known as St. Pierre.Â The colony built a fort, planted crops, and after many violent skirmishes, struck a truce with the Caribs to peacefully coexist on opposite sides of the island.Â The 1650â€™s were enormously profitable for the French colony based on the shipping of agricultural goods to Europe, most notably sugar cane to France.Â The roots of Martiniqueâ€™s unusual, love/hate relationship with France began with this early colony â€¦ especially when a governor unsuccessfully attempted to enforce the Exclusif, an unpopular law prohibiting trade from Martinique to anywhere but France.
Like most of the Caribbean islands, Martinique changed hands several times.Â In the 1700â€™s, the British gained interest in the rich and strategically placed island causing a struggle nearly two centuries long.Â Even so, Martinique enjoyed relative political stability (for more than 20 years under the British flag) and avoided much of the chaos experienced in Guadeloupe and St. Domingue (which would become Haiti after North Americaâ€™s only successful slave rebellion establishing a black republic).
The French reacquired Martinique for good in 1815 under the Vienna Treaty; however, the return to French rule was bittersweet for islanders due to Franceâ€™s continued endorsement of slavery.Â Sadly, it was Martiniqueâ€™s own favorite daughter, Marie-Rose Josephine Tascher de la Pagerie, better known as the Empress Bride of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was behind the reintroduction of slavery in Martinique. Â After several slave riots, Victor Schoelcher mobilized the anti-slavery movement and abolition was declared in 1848.
Martinique is a spectacularly beautiful island.Â The imposing rocky cliffs in the north soften to rolling hills of lush rainforest, endless acres of banana trees, and sugar cane swaying rhythmically in the ocean breeze.Â The southern beaches enjoy crystal blue water and white sand beaches while the sand becomes increasingly darker and striking towards the more volcanic north.