It might not been well known internationally but France still counts four regions in the Caribbeans under its sovereignty. Saint-Martin Island and Saint-Barthélemy island both have a certain autonomy, but the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique are still considered as overseas departments just like three other territories in the world (French Guyana, Reunion Island and Mayotte). In 17th-century, the islands’ native population was massacred and approximately at the same time slavery started to develop under the French rule. Following the French revolution and local revolts in parallel of the glorious one lead by Toussaint L’Ouverture in San Domingo (now Haiti), slavery is abolished in 1794. In 1802, Napoleon (then Consul, not yet Emperor) re-establish slavery that will have to wait 1848 to be absolutely abolished on French territory.
Napoleon’s wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais, grew up in Martinique. She was the daughter of a renowned ‘local’ plantation owner that owned [sic] three hundreds slave. She married Napoleon in 1796 (and therefore became Empress in 1804) and she is said to have been the one that influenced her husband in the re-establishment of slavery. In 1856, a statue of her was setup in Fort-de-France, the capital city of Martinique that carries a clear reference to its colonized status in its very name. Aimé Césaire, magnificent poet of Martinique, known internationally as a main actor of the decolonization, was mayor of Fort-de-France between 1945 to 2001. He did not change the names of the streets that had a colon name nor did he withdraw the statue of Empress Joséphine, as he wanted to insist on the metis history of Martinique that should consider the vicissitudes of the past as part of the island’s identity. In 1991 however, a group of people succeeded to ‘behead’ the statue of Joséphine in a symbolic execution like the one the guillotine would have provided for her when she was almost sentenced to death with her first husband in 1794. Since 1991, and despite various debates, the statue remains headless.
This story can recall another, also involving Napoleon: the spectacular demolition of the Vendôme Column — on which a statue of Napoleon was standing — during the 1871 Paris Commune. As I have been writing in the past, ideologies like colonialism — in that case, systematically linked to slavery — or imperialism requires not only architecture to implement themselves, but also material symbol to provide a dominant narrative. When the statue of Joséphine was installed in Fort-de-France, it was not only a way to acknowledge the ‘local’ origin of the Empress in the island, but also to perpetuate the European domination on both the creolized African and native populations. Withdrawing the statue to replace it with national symbols could have been done in the process of decolonization — a process that is not completely over since Martinique is still part of France. Maybe the ceremonial of dismantling the statue could have constituted a strong symbolical event like the one of the Vendôme Column or the one performed by the Iraqi on the statue of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. However, this beheaded statue constitutes in my opinion a much stronger symbol of the struggle against imperialism and slavery as it reverts absolutely the symbolic power of the statue against itself. The statue was establishing a narrative that required to be explicit, and therefore embodied by this mass of marble. The counter-narrative that is expressed through this visual object is just as expressive: through the absence of the head, as well as the red paint stains that are here to ensure the understanding of this counter-narrative, the statue is wearing the signs of the defeat of the ideology that was both its essence and its purpose.
For French listeners, France Culture radio broadcast La Fabrique de l’Histoire dedicated its week to Martinique. Today’s show was entirely spent in conversation with the great Patrick Chamoiseau, often writing accomplice of the superb Edouard Glissant (see past articles).