THERE are explosive possibilities in the French West Indies. For three years the predominantly Negro populations of Martinique and Guadeloupe have been stirring restlessly under the heavy hand of Admiral Robert and the French Navy. During that time these French authorities have been able to invoke the love which all West Indians feel for France in support of their policies. The Allied occupation of North Africa and the end of the fiction that Vichy was independent have removed that moral prop; there no longer is a legitimate or quasi-legitimate French Government on which the Admiral can depend for authority. The only factor except naked force which has kept the latent dissatisfaction of the population from bursting forth in action is gone.


Throughout the West Indies, the fertility of the soil and the difficulties which Europeans experience in doing hard physical work in the tropics, early prompted the importation of Negro slaves from Africa. In the French islands, the living conditions of the slaves certainly were not happy. But thanks to the influence of the clergy and to the family organization of French life, the French Negroes were less miserable than those of some neighboring colonies. In the rural regions, especially, masters acted as natural protectors of their slaves. Some were granted their freedom; the most intelligent and reliable were given positions of trust on the plantations or in commerce; a black militia was created. These were decisive steps in the improvement of the masses, and they drew the whites and Negroes unusually close together.

Many wrongs still existed, nevertheless. Nor could the Negroes forget that Christian doctrine taught the equality of all men before God. By the eve of the Revolution of 1789, their desire for liberty and for better living conditions had become general. The whites themselves were influenced by the liberal philosophies of the eighteenth century and opposed the freeing of the slaves only because it would ruin the whole economic system of the islands.

The suppression of slavery by the Constituent Assembly marked the beginning of a long period of unrest in the French Antilles. This humane gesture was made without the accompaniment of any precautionary measures to insure social order and keep the economic balance. As a result, work stopped altogether on the plantations and there was much political agitation, especially in the cities. The unrest continued through the revolutionary period and the British occupation which followed. It should be said, however, that in the fighting between the British and the Creoles on Guadeloupe, mulattoes and Negroes could be found on both sides; and many faithful slaves died beside their former masters. Slavery was reëstablished under Napoleon I, who regained the islands for France, and the unavoidable uprisings that followed were repressed by the Imperial troops.

It was not until the Revolution of 1848 that slavery was definitely abolished. Again the Negroes were freed en masse without any preparatory measures having been taken, and again this led to a complete stoppage of all activity in the islands. The National Assembly granted the planters 126 million francs as compensation in 1849, but it could do nothing to remedy the lack of manpower, except to introduce into the country workmen more docile than the emancipated Negroes. Between 1852 and 1859, 13,000 African blacks were sent to the Antilles; but a sufficient number of volunteers could not be found and France could not, with any decency, establish another form of slavery. Under agreement with England, about 65,000 Hindus were brought into the French West Indies. The local Negroes resented this intrusion and disliked the ambitious and hard-working Hindus, but the desired result was achieved: the Negroes went back to work, often on the same plantations on which they had labored as slaves. Now, however, they were free workers enjoying all the rights of men and citizens.

From 1848 to 1870 Guadeloupe and Martinique had 20 years of peace and relative prosperity. They were rapidly becoming real French provinces, tropical reflections of metropolitan France. Universal suffrage was introduced in 1870. From that date, whites and Negroes enjoyed civil and political rights equal to those of Frenchmen in the mother country; they were represented in the French Parliament, they had local self-government, and all French laws applied to them.

From 1870 to the present day, the Antilles have managed fairly well, considering the heavy inheritance of the past, the handicap of climate and the almost total absence of a middle class. There have been occasional strikes, burnings of sugar-cane fields and other excesses, which have been greatly exaggerated by those who wished to see colonial representation abolished; but they have been no more serious than similar troubles in France herself, and far less significant. In general, anyone who makes a careful examination of the evolution of these two French islands in this period must develop a good deal of admiration for the accomplishments of the Third Republic. A handful of former white masters who owned all the wealth of the islands, and a mass of former slaves who owned nothing, were placed side by side, on a footing of absolute political equality. Without shock and without violence, both groups adapted themselves to the new conditions of life.


The white populations of both Martinique and Guadeloupe are small. There are at most 5,000 whites out of a population of 250,000 in Martinique, although they own all the large estates and control all commerce. A few thousand doctors, lawyers, officials, professors, manufacturers and merchants make up a colored élite. The rest of the inhabitants are blacks, workers on sugar-cane or banana plantations, fishermen or small tradespeople.

The island of Guadeloupe is twice the size of Martinique, with an area of nearly 772 square miles, including the dependencies of Marie-Galante, Les Saintes, Désirades, Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthélémy.[i] Its population is, however, about the same as that of Martinique. The white element is very small, numbering perhaps some 1,500 inhabitants. The colored élite is likewise limited in size. Officially, the frictions of the past are forgotten, and blacks and whites rub elbows in friendly fashion in political campaigns, in daily work and occasionally on a Sunday hunt. There are, nevertheless, marked social distinctions. The whites have their clubs to which no colored man may belong. A colored person is never received in a white family, and intermarriage means estrangement from the whites. Relations between the races are not, of course, perfectly harmonious. Many of the blacks still remember the bad old days and some men of mixed blood are bitter. This causes a certain amount of dissatisfaction which is intensified by the haughty attitude and behavior of some of the whites.

The political organization of the islands, under the Third Republic, was like that of France. By the terms of the 1854 Senatus-Consulte, the Governor enjoyed more extensive powers than those of a prefect, but these powers were granted him only for the defense of the territory and the maintenance of public order. In no way did they impede the free exercise of the political rights of West Indian citizens. The counties were organized as in France and the municipal councils were elected by universal suffrage. The General Council, which voted the budget and managed the interests of the country, enjoyed more extensive powers than did its counterpart in France; it was able to oppose the Governor and the Minister of Colonies. Parliamentary representation by a senator and two deputies for each island, elected as in France, completed the political pattern.

The Administration always tried, in principle, to keep an equal balance between the various elements of the population. Maintenance of order was not too difficult. Tension appeared only during elections, when it sometimes developed out of the lively political campaigning of the Negroes. Care had to be taken not to let the masses get the impression that their political rights, of which they were extremely jealous, were being interfered with in any way. Public life was, on the whole, left to the Negroes; the whites interfered only in case of absolute necessity and then indirectly, through the power of their money. The most intelligent among the colored people, who were often educated by the white planters and were sometimes their illegitimate offspring, soon became the heads of municipalities; later they took their seats on the General Council and finally became deputies or senators.

The exercise of political freedom on a par with that of the French served as an outlet for Negro energies and made it possible for the West Indies to live in order, peace and prosperity for almost a century. The Negroes made no attempt to interfere with the economic and social privileges of the whites. The voter's certificate, together with freedom of speech and of the press, were their most precious possessions. They valued them as symbols of their freedom, of the great distance they had come since the days when they had not even the right to call themselves men.

The whole modern history of the islands has been marked by this jealous concern with political liberty. Governors paid with their lives for attempts to violate what the people considered to be their rights. Gendarmes or sailors were never able to impose on the West Indians anything that, in their view, was unjust or illegal. The average town councillor of the smallest village knew all the electoral and legal rules; he knew his rights as well as any metropolitan lawyer. And the political rights and privileges which they enjoyed inspired in the black population of the West Indies a feeling of love, amounting almost to idolatry, for Republican France.


The people of Martinique and Guadeloupe had no doubts about ultimate victory over Germany when France went to war in 1939. Village monuments to the dead show how great a contribution they made in the last war. They were ready to do as much this time, and the departure of the first contingents for France brought enthusiastic demonstrations of attachment to the mother country. The defeat, the invasion, the armistice came like bolts from the blue.

Admiral Robert, who had been appointed High Commissioner at the beginning of the war, immediately aligned himself with the Pétain Government. His authority was strengthened by the arrival of several thousand European sailors on the Emile Bertin, the Béarn, the Jeanne d'Arc, and other warships. He proceeded at once, though by careful stages, to tear down the structure which the Third Republic had patiently erected. He eliminated individuals who protested too violently against his changes and awakened the privileged classes to the fact that they had everything to lose and nothing to gain by opposing him. Supported by them and by the sailors, Admiral Robert introduced a counterpart of the Vichy régime.

The General Council, fruit of a slow evolution which had begun with the colonial assemblies, was suppressed. Governor Nicolle, assisted by Secretary-General Bernier in Martinique, and Governor Saurin, assisted by Secretary-General Poirier in Guadeloupe, were made rulers of the Antilles under the watchful eye of the Navy. The mayors -- colored men except for four or five out of a total of 36 in each island -- were asked to give up their office and were replaced by mayors, mostly white, appointed by the Administration. The mayors, of course, no longer express the will of elected municipal councils, but receive and execute orders from above.

Martinique used to have 2,500 civil servants of all kinds; Guadeloupe had 1,800. All but two or three dozen of these were colored. The higher officials were thoroughly weeded out. Those who were affiliated with the Masonic Lodges, or who were suspected of sympathy with de Gaulle, or of pro-Allied sentiments, were removed; some were imprisoned. They were replaced by "reliable" agents from France, by sailors or by policemen. The police and the information service were put under the direct supervision of the Navy. The number of gendarmes was increased in both islands, and sailors replaced the easy-going policemen of prewar days. Rounds and patrols reminded the population at all times that the Navy was on the alert against a possible attack -- an American attack, for instance, like the one which was rumored last July, and for which the whole population hoped and prayed in vain.

Criticism of the policies of the Vichy Government, Marshal Pétain, Pierre Laval or Admiral Robert was absolutely forbidden; so was the expression of anti-collaborationist sentiments. The people were not permitted to listen to English or American radios, for they were the voices of the odious Anglo-Saxon imperialism. They were forbidden to pronounce the name of the "traitor" de Gaulle or to display a V. Every day, at noon, the official information service of the Navy at Fort de France issued the latest news -- the news most unfavorable to the Allies was always chosen -- and carried on a violent anti-Anglo-Saxon campaign. "The Voice of France in the Antilles" was nicknamed, in Martinique and Guadeloupe, "The Voice of Germany in the Antilles."

Anyone who aroused any sort of suspicion was summoned to Police Headquarters. All legal formalities were suppressed and all personal guarantees suspended. Death sentences were pronounced, although there do not appear to have been any executions. Many unfortunate individuals, however, who were guilty of being pro-British or pro-American, were sent to Guiana like ordinary criminals, or else confined in prison. The Béarn was transformed from an airplane carrier into a penitentiary for anti-collaborationists. All personal liberties likewise were suppressed; censorship of the press made the newspapers unreadable; domestic correspondence was closely watched and censored. Shortages of gasoline and tires drove most public conveyances from the streets. Spies abounded everywhere. Even in churches one could hear the New Order being praised. School exercises in the two lycées and the approximately 130 Creole grade schools were always opened with a prayer and the Hymn to the Marshal.

So it was that the colored population of Martinique and Guadeloupe was deprived of its liberties in the name of what it revered above all else: France. Before 1940, life in the West Indies was so easygoing, so gay, so extraordinarily simple, that these islands were in truth le pays des revenants, the land to which one always returned. Today the atmosphere is stifling.

The result of all this, in a country where freedom of conscience and opinion has come to be considered sacred, has been to stiffen the population in its opposition. But one cannot fight with knives against rifles and machine guns. That is the only reason why there is a surface calm in the West Indies. It should deceive no one. A plebiscite is said to have shown that 90 to 95 percent of the population supports General de Gaulle. This is quite understandable, since he has proclaimed the continuation of the Third Republic and its liberties. The population can only be patient, conceal its feelings, and wait.

The economic situation of the islands is almost desperate. In normal times, rice and dried codfish were the basic foods of the population; they were imported, of course. Cattle came from Venezuela and from other West Indian islands; flour, canned goods, vegetables and fruit were brought from Europe. Oils and fats, clothing, shoes and all petroleum products and building materials were also imported. The islands could pay for these large imports with their exports. In 1938, the last normal year, Martinique sent to France 52 million kilos of sugar and 10 million liters of rum. The sharp reduction of exports to France since 1940 has caused widespread unemployment.

For the past two years the mass of the people have been living in misery. They are reduced to eating tropical fruit and vegetables and, along the coasts, some fish; but even fishing was curtailed by the Navy to prevent escapes from the islands. Some food could be brought in from Santo Domingo until the three Dominican ships used in this trade were sunk, leaving only schooners available. Since then, the steamship Guadeloupe has been sent to New Orleans once a month for essential supplies. As soon as these arrive the authorities requisition what they consider necessary for the officers and men of the Navy and their families. Some privileged civil servants are also taken care of. The populace receives what remains. Some counties were without flour or butcher's meat for several months.

Economic misery on top of brutal interference with the political life of the people made the situation dangerous enough. Yet the authorities adopted still another ill-advised policy -- namely, anti-British propaganda. This was bound to cause resentment, for many families of the French Antilles are related by marriage to Creoles of the British West Indies and the relations between the French and English colonists, including the colored people, have always been excellent.

Before Hitler swallowed up all of France one might have believed that Admiral Robert -- a soldier who is not expected to know the political game -- merely executed the orders which he received from Vichy. But the fiction that Vichy is independent can no longer be kept up and Admiral Robert can no longer hide behind the Chief of State. He must change his objectives and his methods, and do so at once. One cannot deprive 500,000 colored people of a liberty which they love as much as life itself without running the risk of a terrible explosion. If that comes, neither religion nor feelings of humanity will be able to prevent dreadful violence. For three years feelings of revenge have been allowed to ferment in West Indian souls. Those in the Navy who are mainly responsible may leave, but the West Indian whites will still be there. The tragedy can be foreseen. Nor is it likely that the upheaval would be confined to the French West Indies. The history of the past 150 years has shown that all of the West Indies stand together and that when Martinique and Guadeloupe begin to move, the rest of the archipelago is likely to follow.

[i] The charming little island dependencies of Guadeloupe are still inhabited by the white de scendants of the Normans and Bretons who came there two or three hundred years ago. They live removed from the world, in patriarchal families of shipbuilders, fishermen and small farmers.

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  • JEAN CAZENAVE DE LA ROCHE, a member of the French Colonial Service who has held posts in the French West Indies and in French Equatorial Africa
  • More By Jean Cazenave de la Roche