Updated: May 29
”a giant organic landscape of whack-a-mole ”
We’ve been on the move this week, flitting from anchorage to anchorage. From Le Marin we motored out of the cul-de-sac to Sainte Anne taking care to avoid the local children practising dinghy sailing with their bright blue and yellow sails. Sainte Anne is a seaside town with a lovely old church facing the shady tree-lined town square and huge images of prominent Black figures nailed to the trees and on the buildings. I am not sure if this is a permanent fixture, or the legacy of Black History month. Unlike the UK which marks it in October, most other places, including the USA and France, mark it in February. Many of the Martiniquan personages displayed, championed the négritude movement of Francophone writers and politicians from the African diaspora who rejected colonialism and Eurocentrism. One of these prominent figures was Paulette Nardal, a journalist and author who gave voice to the challenges facing Black women in particular and championed the causes of both Pan-Africanism and feminism. She, with her sister Jeanne are credited with founding the intellectual basis of the négritude movement. We walked over to the main town beach, fringed with shady trees and had a lovely swim.
The next day we walked in the opposite direction along a trail among the trees parallel to the beach. Martinique has exceptional provision for these off-road walking trails, allowing you to walk in nature, shaded from the sun. We saw some very special sights. First we saw lots of holes in the sandy, leaf strewn earth. Hundreds and hundreds of them, about a couple of inches in diameter. As we walked through the trees, we saw movement all around us as the crabs that shelter in their own little shallow burrow scurried into hiding there on our approach, giving us the impression of a giant organic landscape of whack-a-mole. We could see their single orange giant claw jutting out protectively over their heads inside their personal dugouts. Who knew crabs could be so cute. As we walked along we passed dozens of tiny beaches facing on to the calm crystal clear water, each one big enough to hold a family. Eventually we passed one that was entirely empty and just for us. We leapt into the warm shallow water, giggling at this amazing paradise. Then we put on our clothes over our dripping swimwear and carried on walking. Eventually we reached a larger beach further round the coastline with a few cafés. One of the things we really like about how tourism is done here in Martinique is that infrastructure, such as cafés is way behind the beach, hidden behind trees and does not obscure the natural beauty of the place. Unlike some resort areas in lots of other countries where hotels take over the whole beach with their sunbeds, you cannot see the development from the beach which makes it a far more beautiful and serene experience. In addition, walkers get priority for the views with these protected trails just behind the beach. Drivers are not encouraged as the roads have not been built with scenic driving routes in mind. Behind the beach was a wooden walkway out onto a mangrove swamp from which to observe the mangroves, wading birds and crabs with information about this protected area. We walked on around the corner towards the very edge of this coastline where it meets the Atlantic, spying more sargasso weed, of course, as we approached the eastern side. Finally we turned back, stopped at the same private swimming beach on the way back to cool down again and arrived back at the boat in time to watch the sunset with the cats. Such a perfect day.
The next morning we departed for our next stop, an idyllic anchorage called Grand Anse D’Arlet, a sheltered cove lined by a white sand beach fringed with palm trees and with huge tropical green mountains jutting overhead. Finally somewhere sheltered enough from the wind to paddleboard! Our delight was shortlived as the local coastguard came to tell us we were not allowed to anchor here, even though lots of other boats were and there were not enough mooring buoys. However, we managed to persuade them to let us stay until the next morning. We wanted to make the most of this gorgeous setting and crystal clear water and pumped up the paddleboards and headed off to look for turtles. We didn’t find any, but saw lots of starfish and just enjoyed the peaceful feeling of being out on the water surrounded by the mountains. The next morning I got up really early to paddleboard again. This time I saw a flatfish, light grey with a segmented tail wending its along on top of the dark seaweed. I reluctantly headed back to the boat as we had promised we would leave by 8.00am. On our way out of the anchorage we finally saw a turtle, quite far out of the bay, gently raising its little head to breathe and then diving back under the water. We were heading for more idyllic anchorages; unfortunately our next favoured spots, although equally beautiful, were tiny and full of other boats, so we had to move onwards. We arrived at Anse L’Ane and anchored well away from the little seaside town and towards a tiny little deserted beach fringed with palm trees and a little island. We were hoping to paddleboard over there but the tradewinds were strong and it wasn’t particularly sheltered so we stayed on the boat and enjoyed the views from there instead. We were rewarded that evening with the rise of the full moon shining brightly over the water. Towards Anse L’Ane were the few lights of the little seaside town. Across the bay were the numerous glittering lights of Martinique’s capital, Fort de France. It was quite a magical night time view and the cats appreciated it too; they love looking out at all the lights at night.
From Anse L’Ane we headed to Les Trois Îlets (The Three Islets) early the next morning. We anchored behind one of the eponymous small round green cushion-like islets, being careful to avoid the sandbanks. We dinghied onshore and admired the ubiquitous church facing the charming tree-shaded town square that is a hallmark of these little towns. This church was ginger coloured with a large white cemetery attached. Up the road I saw a huge mural of the face of a man. We went over to photograph it. The mural overlooked a little school. Two teachers were entering with their books and invited us to come through the gate to get a better photo and explained that the mural was of the famous Martiniquan artist “Khokho”. Khokho’s real name was Joseph René-Corail and he was from Les Trois îlets. Primarily a ceramicist, but also a sculptor and painter he was deeply political, even being imprisoned for his anticolonial and pro-independence activism. His artworks reflected his belief in the use of local materials and motifs to create art that was authentically Caribbean.
From there we headed to La Pagerie, a museum set on the ruins of the former house of Empress Josephine, beloved of Napoleon Bonaparte. But this museum is not about her, it’s about slavery. As the information was all in French and our French is terrible, the young museum steward told us to ask him any questions we had. One of the questions we had was about the headless graffitied bust of Josephine, displayed there among the rich and ornate artefacts that had once belonged to her and her family. The man passionately explained that Josephine represents for many Martinicans, the egregious concept of Béké. White French creoles that came to Martinique to exploit its resources and become hugely rich at the expense of the indigenous Kalinago, most of whom were killed or exiled in the seventeenth century and then the slaves who were brought from Africa to work on the plantations. The béké continue to own the majority of industry here and so the resentment is not merely one tied to the past, as the steward was at pains to stress. Josephine’s statue which stood in Fort-de-France was graffitied first in 1991 as she is supposed to have been responsible in influencing Napoleon to restore slavery. Following the George Floyd protests, the statue was torn down completely in July 2020 and from there the headless bust daubed in black paint came to the museum. Josephine’s family owned three hundred slaves, which were used to process sugar. The outside wall of the old family kitchen has the names of all the slaves owned by Josephine’s family in one particular year - 1815, thus making visible their individuality and humanity. Inside are the manacles showing the brutality that they would have been subject to and information about the horrors and hierarchies, that perpetuated the system of slavery enabling the life of huge wealth and privilege for the béké, such as Josephine’s family. These include the colourism that made mixed race slaves more expensive than Black ones and the sexual violence perpetrated against female slaves by male plantation owners.
In his epic poem, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, Martiniquan poet, politician and coiner of the term ‘négritude,’ Aimé Cesaire, describes the sucking dry of Martinique by slavery and colonialism and mentions Josephine by name as contributing to this oppression.
‘In this inert town, this desolate throng under the sun,
Not connected with anything that is expressed, asserted,
Released in broad earth daylight, its own
Neither with Josephine, Empress of the French
Dreaming way up there above the n***** scum,
Nor with the liberator fixed in his whitewashed stone liberation.
Nor with the conquistador
Nor with this contempt, with this freedom, with this audacity…
The poem also explores the personal impact of this oppression.
At the end of daybreak, the famished morne…
“At the end of daybreak…the restrained conflagration of the morne like
A sob gagged on the verge of a bloodthirsty burst.”
The direct translation of ‘morne’ in French means ‘dreary’ or ‘bleak’, but in Martinique it is a geological feature, such as a peak or mountain. Cesaire repeats the refrain of the morne, playing on the double meaning of this word to drive home his point of the impact of the exploitation of Martinique and its people by the béké. If you would like to read the English translated version of the full poem, I include the link below.*
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