A history of settlement that dates back thousands of years; fierce colonial history; plantation homes; colourful pageants and celebrations; centuries-old distilleries; entire cities ravaged by volcanic activity. All this and more make up Martinique’s unique historical and cultural character—much of which can be experienced by visitors to the island.
When Christopher Columbus sighted Martinique on his fourth voyage in 1502, the island was inhabited by indigenous Indians, the Caribs, who called the island Madinina, which means ‘Island of Flowers. There, they built a small fort and established a settlement that would become the capital city, Saint-Pierre. Colonisation began in 1635, when the French, who had promised the native Caribs the western half of the island, established a settlement.
The settlers quickly went about colonising the land with the help of slave labour and by 1640 had extended their grip south to Fort-de-France, where they constructed a fort on the rise above the harbour. As forests were cleared to make room for sugar plantations, conflicts with the native Caribs escalated into warfare, and in 1660 those Caribs who had survived the fighting were finally killed and forced off the island.The French proceeded to eliminate the Caribs and later imported African slaves as sugar plantation workers. In the 18th cent. Martinique's sugar exports made it one of France's most valuable colonies; although slavery was abolished in 1848, sugar continued to hold a dominant position in the economy. A target of dispute during the Anglo-French worldwide colonial struggles, Martinique was finally confirmed as a French possession after the Napoleonic wars.
On May 8, 1902, in the most devastating natural disaster in Caribbean history, the Mont Pelée volcano erupted violently, destroying the city of Saint-Pierre and claiming the lives of its 30,000 inhabitants. Shortly thereafter, the capital was moved permanently to Fort-de-France. Saint-Pierre, which had been regarded as the most cultured city in the French West Indies, was eventually rebuilt, but it has never been more than a shadow of its former self.
Martinique supported the Vichy regime after France's collapse in World War II, but in 1943 a U.S. naval blockade forced the island to transfer its allegiance to the Free French. It became a department of France in 1946 and an administrative region in 1974.