French, African, and Indian Cultural Narratives in Martinique: The Architecture of Shifting Social Hierarchies from 1848–1884

By Mahadevi Ramakrishnan.

Published by The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies

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In the early 19th century, notable shifts in the demographic, political, and economic climates in Martinique, France, and elsewhere catalyzed the abolition of slavery in 1848. Former slaves then left the plantations to either farm for themselves or find other opportunities, creating a significant labor shortage that threatened the lucrative sugar cane industry of the French plantocracy. A major restructuring of the Martinican architecture of social hierarchy was imminent. A decree issued by Napoleon III in 1852 allowed for the recruitment of émigrés or indentured laborers to work on the plantations. Shortly after, the first vessel carrying Indian indentured workers (or coolies) from the French enclaves arrived in Martinique. As the new subordinate group, the Indian indentured workers found themselves in a deliberately crafted position within the architecture of the existing Martinican hierarchy comprised of two host communities: the numerically dominant former slaves, and the economically and culturally dominant French colonists. Indian workers were not only a minority on the island, they were occupying the position on the plantation formerly held by the slaves with many of the same pressures to assimilate into the dominant French order. However, there is substantial evidence that their terms of engagement were more favorable than those of the former slaves. In addition to being paid more for the same kind of work, they were allowed to exercise some of their social and cultural traditions, which generated resentment and hostility from the former slaves (Desroches, 1996). Thus, the Indian indentured workers were caught in a quagmire between these two inhospitable host communities, making the process of their integration into Martinican society very challenging. The three-way dynamic during this period helps explain both shifting cultural narratives and social hierarchies in Martinique during this period.

Keywords: Martinique, Francophone Studies, Cultural Identity, Resettlement, Diaspora, Cross-Cultural Communication

The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies, Volume 7, Issue 2, pp.27-36. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 216.378KB).

Mahadevi Ramakrishnan

Senior Lecturer, French Department, Colgate University, Hamilton, NY, USA

Mahadevi Ramakrishnan received her Doctor of Arts in Foreign Languages and Literatures from Syracuse University in 1993, with an additional concentration in International Relations. She teaches French in the Department of Romance Languages at Colgate University. Her primary research interests are in the evolution of cultural identity and language stemming from the process of adaptation of individuals and groups to different ecological contexts.