Firestarters: Insurgent Women in the Insurrection of Southern Martinique and the Paris Commune



Six months before the Paris Commune, Black people of South Martinique revolted against the newly created Third Republic’s colonialism. Jacqueline Couti describes the two revolts on both sides of the Atlantic through the specific concept of state misogyny that murdered, criminalized and deported women of the Commune and the South Insurrection.

A few months before the Paris Commune of Spring 1871, a challenge to the French Empire-turned-Third Republic came not from its European heart but, rather, from one of its oldest colonies: Martinique. On September 22, 1870, oppressed working-class citizens in the Martinican countryside took to the streets (and fields) to revolt against the bourgeois status quo and profiteering, crying out for equality, respect, and true democracy. Martinican women stood at the forefront with their fellow insurgents, not only daring to dream of a better and more just world, but demanding it.

In her 2000 play Lumina Sophie dite Surprise, about Martinican women’s participation in the 1870 Insurrection of Southern Martinique, Suzanne Dracius calls the women “Pétroleuses of the South.” The anachronistic use of the term Pétroleuse (female arsonist and pyromaniac), for rural women of African descent fighting for equality, better working conditions, and social justice erases their Creole identity. In the early days of the French Third Republic, Martinican women were the first to embrace insurrectionist militancy and the grassroots movement against oppression. In fact, the idea of the Pétroleuse also flattens the different experiences of women from the elite and the proletariat who participated in the Paris Commune (March 18–May 28, 1871), whose detractors wielded that term as a slur to demonize Communardes as unruly and a menace to society, and to minimize their political engagement.

Comparing the rhetoric labelling insurrectionists as unruly “viragoes” and rejects from both sides of the Atlantic reveals Martinique to be a magnifying glass that amplifies not only French oppression and racism but also misogyny and classism. The interplay of gender, race, and class in colonial repression of women in the aftermath of the 1870 Insurrection foreshadowed the reactionary backlash that followed the 1871 Paris Commune. The present text calls attention to an intriguing process of othering and dehumanization which at fleeting moments becomes visible in the expression of a masculine suspicion of women that hides a deep-seated fear and hatred. This misogynistic leeriness, which can be found both among Martinican men and Frenchmen from the continent, is integral to the French state. This mistrust hides a controlling set of bourgeois biases that restrict women to the roles of submissive mother and wife for the greater good of the nation. Women who dare to break free from the shackles of their purported gender roles generate a visceral hatred — what can be termed a national misogyny — that always demands retribution for perceived transgressions.

The 1870 Insurrection of Southern Martinique: The Firestarters ///

Two events led to the civil unrest that took place in Martinique between September 22 and October 1, 1870, with the political turmoil in mainland France due to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 as the backdrop. In February 1870, Léopold Lubin, a Black resident of Le Marin (a village in the south of Martinique) and member of a family of entrepreneurs, had two violent altercations with Augier de Maintenon, a young European (French born off the island) commissioner of naval aid. Lubin ended up in court facing deportation to the penal colony in French Guiana. One member of the jury that presided over Lubin’s trial, the white Creole (French born on the island) plantation owner Cleo Codé, known for his reactionary and racist opinions, publicly boasted of his intention to have the accused convicted. A movement of solidarity developed among the rural population already angered by socioeconomic disparities and racial discrimination. Many Martinicans in the South, still reeling from their disappointment in the aftermath of the 1848 abolition of slavery, which had not lived up to their expectations, saw Lubin’s plight as yet another racial injustice and turned violent on September 22, after the governor announced the proclamation of the Third Republic. Codé was the only casualty among the white elites, but insurrectionists (including women) followed their enslaved ancestors’ ways of hurting the white elite and set several plantations on fire and destroyed much property. Thousands of insurgents understood the change of regime as a sign that racial, social, and economic discrimination against them would finally disappear. The army’s and militia’s responses were swift and brutal. Many insurgents died; others were arrested and tried in war councils (military trials similar to court martials).

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“Lumina Sophie being tried by the War Council.” / Artwork by Bruno Dulthéo for the 150th anniversary of the Insurrection of South (2020).

Among the insurgents, 38 women were arrested, out of whom 14 were convicted. Eight of the convicts who were sentenced to deportation were particularly vilified as undesirable rejects. In the war council proceedings, men from mainland France deplored the unruliness of these women, their lack of respect for the law (patriarchal and colonial orders) in general and men (both white and Black) in particular. Even their lawyers depicted them not as leaders, but rather as disparaging, timeless stereotypes of working-class Black women: noisy, hysterical, belligerent. The court documents and the few essays published at the time call attention to the layers of prejudice surrounding sex, race, and class that condemned these insurrectionists from the outset as “viragoes” and “monsters.” In his 1871 essay Insurrection de la Martinique, the former governor of Martinique Charles Menche de Loisne portrays the insurgents as “bloodthirsty.” His text reveals that the revolt was motivated by political and racial considerations, facts that the military trials minimized. Like Martinique’s white Creoles and bourgeoisie, Menche de Loisne denounced the excessive behavior and ferocity of the insurgent women whom he finds “crueler than men.” He especially vilifies the seamstress and field-worker Lumina Sophie, also known as Surprise. For her detractors, who accused her of arson and blasphemy, the pregnant 21-year-old insurrectionist was an aberration. Colonial officials took her newborn son from her, and he died shortly after she was deported to French Guiana.This vilification of female insurrectionists as monstrous finds an odd echo in the condemnation that shrouds the Communardes in infamy.

Women in the Paris Commune: Beyond the Myth of the Pétroleuses ///

The Paris Commune constituted both a reaction to the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and the Prussian siege of Paris, and a manifestation of the opposition between the republican Paris (favorable to direct democracy) and the National Assembly with a monarchist majority that defended representative democracy. For many women, though, particularly women from the working class, the insurrection period offered an opportunity to demand equal rights and promote an inclusive idea of democracy that would erase gender and class inequalities and discrimination. They were especially against the exploitation of working-class women.

Women had played a crucial role since the beginning of the Commune, including during the temporary government, in various organizations, clubs, and newspapers. They could not vote or be a part of the official government as they could not run for office. And yet, they put their lives on the line to go on the battlefields as nurses and/or cooks. Women were present from the beginning of the hostilities. On March 18, 1871, they used their bodies as shields, putting themselves between soldiers and cannons to prevent them from removing the artillery that had been placed in their neighborhood. They also facilitated the erection of barricades throughout Paris and defended the city alongside men in the final battle against the Versailles army. During the “Bloody Week” (May 21-28, 1871) that killed over 20,000 Communards, many women were killed. The army arrested about 1,000 women; 138 were eventually convicted and punished.

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“The Boulevard Saint-Germain Pétroleuses being tried by the 4th War Council in 1871.” / Drawings for Univers Illustré.

Contrary to the insurgents in Martinique, who were mostly from the working class, a number of Communardes were writers, journalists, and essayists, and were very active and vocal about their political engagement before, during, and after the Commune. André Léo edited the newspaper La Sociale; Elizabeth Dmietrieff co-founded the organization L’union des femmes pour la défenses de Paris et les soins aux blessés (Women’s Union to Defend Paris and Care for the Wounded); Paule Mink was a political organizer, guest speaker, and leader of political and anticlerical clubs for working-class Communardes. They all escaped repression and lived in exile in other European countries. The famous Louise Michel, who was a teacher deported to the penal colony of New Caledonia, was eventually granted a pardon. On her return to France, she was able to write her memoir and share the horror of the Communardes’ repression. But despite their efforts, even these elite women were rarely in control of the narrative of their lives and activism. This was particularly true for the impoverished Communardes who were not leaders and were killed or deported to penitentiary colonies, reduced to Pétroleuses. Their stories still need to be told.

If the memory of the insurgent women of Martinique fell into oblivion, the same is not true of the Communardes. Male French novelists, journalists, and essayists have disseminated distorted representations of the Communardes as more evil, more cruel, and more ferocious than men, as “viragoes,” “madwomen,” “prostitutes,” and “rabid dogs,” since 1870, feeding the mythology that reduced the women to deviant Pétroleuses. This mythification that fed the French imaginary highlights the power of literature in the repression of women. Women insurgents were disciplined not simply through the implementation of laws, but also at the symbolic level through the construction of a particular imaginary that demonized them and, in some cases, even erased their existence.

The same kind of misogynistic discourses characterize the depictions of Black women insurgents of Martinique. In Martinique, the military trials proceedings, texts, and discourses of the 1870s made it clear that these women were barbaric deviants; they did not respect the moral and societal codes and as such could barely be considered as human. They did not behave the way they were supposed to as women and colonized individuals. Some women were punished more than others, though. While French military judges were unforgiving to poor and uneducated women without representation or family connections, Black women had it even worse.

Political Regimes May Change, but the National Misogyny Remains ///

Looking at the way the French state punished insurrectionists reveals the continuity between the Second Empire and the Third Republic as far gender and class are concerned. In the 1850s, the Second Empire instituted deportation for both men and women to the penal colonies of French Guiana on the South American continent and New Caledonia in the Pacific. Influenced by the British model of penitentiaries in Australia, the French model had three objectives:

  1. To empty coastal penitentiaries on French soil because the population was not happy about them.
  2. To get rid of political opponents of the French state, and then to get rid of all criminals, (including women).
  3. To use convicts as a type of free labor to repopulate settler colonies such as French Guiana, which was not doing well after the 1848 abolition of slavery.

The goal of deporting women was to force them to be useful to society. They would first work off their indentures in some kind of sweatshop; once free, they would marry other former convicts and be allocated some land taken from Indigenous Guianese or Kanak. The objectives were very patriarchal in nature; the state wanted to create families able to produce children to populate the colonies. In 1869, though, the penitentiaries of French Guiana were closed to Europeans and restricted to colonials due to the insalubrious conditions and various hardships causing a high mortality rate among white women. However, the Third Republic transported seven Pétroleuses to French Guiana in 1873.  Female convicts continued to be sent to French Guiana until 1883. These women, who were never able to go back, seem to have been stripped not only of their Frenchness and citizenship, but also of their whiteness.

Insurgents on both sides of the Atlantic went through military trials that sealed their fate as unworthy members of the French state and forced them to undergo a dehumanizing process of Othering, transforming them into rejects. However, there is a distinction to be made between the Communardes sent to New Caledonia but who could sometimes go back to the mère-patrie (mother/fatherland), and the convicts unofficially labelled Pétroleuses who were sent to French Guiana. The latter usually had heavier sentences, often condemned to penal labor for life or a death sentence commuted to labor for life. In the case of the Pétroleuses, the state decided that they should go to the worst colony and almost certain death. Thus we see the inequality between the female convicts; the ones sent to New Caledonia had slightly better lives than the ones sent to French Guiana. Far from being sites of rehabilitation, the penitentiaries in French Guiana were places where the women’s othering was permanent; no return to France was possible.

Looking at the brutal repression of women in the colonies following the 1870 Insurrection in Martinique can help us better understand what happened in France following the 1871 Commune, as far as institutionalized misogyny is concerned. Brutality, like enlightenment, is ingrained in the French fabric. Examining the violent repression that quashed Martinican insurgents and the way in which the army, as the hand of the state, crushed any type of dissension allows us to see that the military authoritarianism endorsed by the French state already forewarned the horrors of the Bloody Week of 1871. This approach also manifests how conflictive ideas of the Nation around repression and discipline, equality of rights as well as justice (and particularly of excluding unwanted elements) often manifested in the colonies first. This process of othering fueled by a virulent national misogyny illustrates how the state decided to strip individuals of their Frenchness and/or whiteness. Looking at the Insurrection of the South allows us to perceive the sexist, gendered, and racist prejudices in French nationalism — a gruesome reminder that sexism and racism are often tightly connected. The oppression of Martinican insurgents and the Communardes demonstrated the Third Republic’s exclusionary characteristics. In fact, the new regime, like its predecessor, betrayed the French motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” Even at its inception, the French Third Republic was already failing French citizens thirsting for equality and justice on both sides of the Atlantic. ■