martinique's institutional history
Christopher Columbus lands in Martinique on June 15th, 1502, in Carbet.
Testimonies about the centuries preceding this historical event survive and show that the island was inhabited as early as the second millennium BC. Between 2000 B.C and the beginning of our era, several waves of migration of the Arawak Indians, natives of the Orinoco basin through Venezuela, spread into the West-Indian arc.
Starting from the violent and passionate clash between the European explorers and the natives of America, five centuries of modern history have brought to Martinique a series of events sometimes painful, but sometimes imbued with hope.


I - The institutions before the 1789 French revolution

In 1635, Richelieu creates the new “Company of the Isles of America” or “St Christopher Company”. A contract is signed between this company and Messrs l’Olive and Duplessis, who from that moment on commit themselves to occupy and govern on its behalf the Caribbean islands belonging to the French crown. The Norman Pierre Belain d’ESNANBUC establishes himself in Martinique on the 1st of September 1635 with a hundred companions.
The first institutional status of the island is then founded: a French land administered and run by a company with a purely commercial interest.

The Black Code
After the episode of the companies’ governing ended in 1679, Martinique’s administration was guaranteed by a sovereign council of which two members came directly from the King’s authority: the Lieutenant-general and the administrator. They chose the other council members (the governor, the Attorney General and the ordinary judge). This organisation lasted until 1685, year of the promulgation of the “Black Code”.
The “Black Code”, on Colbert’s initiative, is a code of laws intended to regulate slavery in the colony. Considering the period, it must be analysed as the building of a new institutional form, Martinique being above all a plantation colony organised around the forced exploitation of the Black labour force brought from Africa. It gives a special and legal status to slavery. Some acts of cruelty are forbidden, but it institutionalises others. Above all, it attributes to the slave the condition of chattel.

Departmental records

Departmental records

As far as the local institutions are concerned, the colony’s administration is marked by the supremacy of military authority, which, on account of the distance from France, took on complete power. As early as 1674, the King regains his prerogatives and sets up a unique military government for the Caribbean colonies. This unity takes place in two stages: in 1714 two areas under the command of a general are instituted, in 1763 Martinique and Guadeloupe are set up as separate governments having learnt from the lessons of the 1759 surrender which had led to a four year occupation by the English.
II - The colonial institutions during the post revolutionary period

France underwent drastic upheavals in its institutions after the 1789 revolution. Such upheavals had necessary repercussions on Martinique’s society and institutions, especially taking into account the Caribbean context, in particular the 1791 revolt in St Domingo which had led to the abolition of slavery there. Two fundamental questions are asked: that of freedom and that of the presence of the island’s representatives among the national representation. They will remain essential until 1848.

2.1 - The revolutionary period (1789-1794)
The Constituent Assembly is marked by manifest hesitations, in spite of the abolitionist speeches of Condorcet and Father Grégoire. The principle of the representation of the colonies at the National Assembly had difficulties asserting itself. The Constituent Assembly wished to avoid the critical question of the West-Indian Negroes. The Decree of May 15th, 1791, declared that the Legislative Assembly would never confer “…on the political status of the coloured people not born of free fathers and mothers, without the preliminary free and spontaneous wish of the colonies…”.
The debate is not stifled nevertheless. Father Grégoire, “the Negroes’ friend”, brings this question to the forefront of public opinion. The debate continues until February 4th, 1794, when the National Convention proclaims a general emancipation of the coloured

2.2 - English occupation (1794-1802
This occupation is marked by a pure and simple return to the Old Regime. The monarchy’s law courts are re-established on March 30th, 1794, notably the Supreme Council and the seneschal’s courts of Trinité, Marin, and St Pierre. The oath of allegiance to the King of England is instituted, the royalists regain possession of their properties, they regain their positions, the slaves are returned to their masters, and emancipation is forbidden.
2.3 – Administrative reorganisation from 1802
In the days following the Amiens treaty that re-established Martinique as a French island, an order from the consulate on May 26th, 1802, divides the authority in the island as follows:
- a General Captain with essentially military functions: he ensures the defence of the colony, both on an exterior and interior level; he is the governor’s heir.
- a Colonial Prefect, hierarchically subject to the General Captain, but having in fact a huge autonomy for the day to day administration of the colony; he is the equivalent of the administrator under the Old Regime.
- the Great Judge or Justice Commissioner in charge of keeping order.
Furthermore, slavery is re-established for economic reasons under the influence of the colonists and, according to some historians, of the Empress Josephine, a Martinican by birth and daughter of colonists.
Though it established the principle of legislative restriction, the Restoration from 1814 to 1830 restores the Old Regime’s type of government. A ministerial order of September 10th, 1817, brings a first set of reforms. It is now the governor who is entrusted with the powers, the administrator being suppressed. This new governor is in charge of the superior control of all branches of the administration and provisionally of the exercise of legislative power. He relies on his auxiliaries: the military commander and the director.
The period from 1830 to 1848 is the theatre of a juridical inflation, which in actual fact alters the exercise of power in the island very little.

Departmental records
II - From the condition of slave to that of full-fledged citizen

On February 24th, 1848, the July monarchy is overthrown.
François Arago, minister of the Navy and the colonies, is a liberal and sincere republican. Though admitting the necessity of the Blacks’ emancipation, he wishes to postpone this question until the definitive government. Under the pressure of the colonists he appears to satisfy their desires in his message to the governors of February 26th, 1848, while presenting abolition as an imminent prospect. This approach is rapidly challenged by the intervention of Victor Schoelcher who persuades Arago during a conversation with him of the urgency of putting an end to slavery.
The Decree of March 4th, 1848, is the result: “the provisional government of the Republic, considering that French lands can continue to make use of slaves, decrees that a committee is instituted below the provisional minister of the Navy and the colonies, in order to prepare, as soon as possible, the act of instant emancipation in all the Republic’s colonies”. As early as March 6th, the committee meets. It will sit until July 21st, but the major parts of its recommendations are ready by April 13th and result in the elaboration of the April 27th, 1848, decrees.

3.1 - The work of the committee
The first decree abolishes slavery. Its enforcement allows for a two-month delay from its promulgation in the colony. It provides for a compensation for the previous owners of slaves, entrusted to the National Assembly’s competence, and decides: “The colonies purified from servitude (…) will be represented at the National Assembly”. Other decrees organise freedom of work and the establishment of public instruction. Going farther than the Guizot law of June 23rd, 1833, which obliged each commune to open a school, it provides for compulsory and free elementary education for children between 6 and 10, 6 hours a day, and also lays down the principle of the opening of as many elementary schools in each town as necessary. Lastly, this same decree institutes an Engineering Training College. The May 3rd decree extends to the colonies the provisions relating to recruitment to the army and to inscription to the navy and the National Guard.

Departmental records
3.2 - The 1848 revolt
This monumental work, accomplished for the main part in about 5 weeks by the committee, is worth mentioning. However at the same time, the tone raises. Disturbances break out on the island’s “habitations”. The slaves, getting wind of what is going on in mainland France, do not want to wait and a revolt breaks out culminating on May 22nd and 23rd, 1848, with the armed struggle of the slaves from St Pierre. Without taking into account the initially planned delay for their enforcement (2 months), the decrees immediately come into effect.
The period of the Second Empire (1852-1870) is marked by the return to a centralism annihilating any trace of the local power, or even that of the general council with enlarged powers, and totally submitted to the governor’s authority. The “senatus-consulte” of May 3rd, 1854, specifies that “slavery can never be re-established in the French colonies”. It also provides for “a communal administration of mayors and town councillors, all appointed by the governor, and of a general Council, half appointed by the governor, and half elected by the town councillors”. The universal suffrage is in effect abolished.

3.3 - The Third Republic
The progressive return of republican institutions between 1870 and 1885 brings about an upheaval as universal suffrage is reintroduced. The citizens are free to choose their deputies, their general councillors and their town councillors. The senators are elected by indirect suffrage. The coloured bourgeoisie progressively occupies the political representation.

3.4 - The emergence of the assimilationist claim and the departmentalisation
The law of July 27th, 1881 establishes the freedom of the press and of printing. Public opinion emerges in a context of frequent polemical confrontations of the press organs. Associative life takes off with philosophical groups, literary circles, political parties, and the trade-union movement as soon as the 1890s. The 1900s are the years of the first great strikes, resulting from the impoverishment of the agricultural proletariat. With the 20th century, the assimilationist claim becomes acute. Among its most passionate spokesmen, whose words will echo back as far as the French parliament, are to be found Joseph Lagrosilière, Allègre, and Henri Lemery. In 1938, Martinique’s General Council unanimously gave a decision in favour of an integral assimilation with a departmental status. This claim will have to wait until the end of the Second World War to be achieved. The communist leaders of the post-war period, such as Aimé Césaire, Leopold Bissol, or Georges Gratiant, win electoral victories in Martinique. They bring a bill to the National Assembly.
The question is debated in Parliament, with a famous rapporteur, the young MP and mayor of Fort-de-France, Aimé Césaire: “… The bills submitted to you have the aim of classifying Martinique, Guadeloupe, Reunion, and French Guyana as French departments. Even before looking into the validity of this classification, you cannot fail to have noticed what is touching about such a claim from the old colonies. At a time when here and there, some doubts are put forward about the strength of what is rightly called the empire, at a time when foreign parts echo rumours of dissent, this demand for integration constitutes a tribute paid to France and its genius, and in the present international climate, this tribute takes on a particular importance (…). Nothing can be done if you have geography against you. Indeed, in affirming the principle of French unity and that of the extension of the law to territories which thus far have come under the decrees only, the proposals submitted to you do not exclude the possibility of leaving certain powers in the hands of the general councillors.” J.O. of the National Constituent Assembly’s debates n°23 of 03/13/46 and n°25 of 03/15/46.
This parliamentary debate ends in the vote of the law of departmentalisation of March 19th, 1946.


1 - The reform’s contents
It comprises three articles, which define the following principles:
- The setting up of the four departments of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Reunion and Guyana as French overseas departments.
- The extension of the laws existing in mainland France but not applied in the colonies, under the form of decrees to be enforced before January the 1st, 1947.
- The principle of the enforcement of the metropolitan laws subject to an explicit reference inserted into the text.
This last principle is abrogated by the October 1946 constitution, which stipulates that the laws voted in mainland France “are applicable in the French overseas departments except if there is an explicit reserve inserted in the text.” Article 73 of the 1958 constitution however stipulates that “the legislative regime and the administrative organisation of the French overseas departments can be adapted to their special situation”.

Departmentalisation also brings the benefit of the Nation’s social budget. Social assistance at that time is principally aimed at the fight against infant mortality, the distribution of drinking water and the fight against epidemics. In 1947, in the wake of departmentalisation, a new State representative is installed in the department: the Prefect. Social security is extended to Martinique in 1950 for civil servants, and in 1954 for the other professions. The labour legislation is widespread though leaving some notable differences.

2 - The first critics of the departmental system
As soon as 1949, Aimé Césaire declared: “from now on it will become clear to all eyes that there is a contradiction between the new political form given to this country, and the social, economic and administrative realities that you have not had the courage to modify, which are colonial, even colonialist”. [Ref: Origins of the Martinican nation – Camille DARSIERE – DESORMEAU coll. “Thesis & texts”.]
Yet, it is undeniable that departmentalisation brings significant improvements on the socio-economic level. But the needs are enormous. The criticism mainly concerns the difficulty of finding the spurs to action to an endogenic development. The sugar industry collapses, agriculture undergoes a major crisis and causes a rural depopulation which blights the capital city with unhealthy shantytowns.
Faced with the obvious insufficiencies of the departmental system concerning economic development and the fulfilment of the overseas citizens, there was an attempt in 1973 to set up a public regional establishment, but little came of this attempt…

TThe reform initiated in 1982 (increase in the powers of the departmental and regional assemblies, notably by the transfer of the prefect’s executive to the assemblies’ presidents) will be on the contrary perceived as a real progress, as a kind of response to the claim for autonomy which is beginning to be expressed.

Departmental records

3 - The region Martinique: specificities
TThe decentralisation reform does not concern the overseas regions alone. Yet, here the legislator wished to affirm the principle with more strength.
The Constitutional Council censured the first project, which provided for a unique assembly endowed with larger powers.
The 1982 reform, in addition to the creation of the region as a territorial organisation in full exercise, institutes a consultative component for the overseas regions: the Culture, Education and Environment Council (CEEC). This component ruled by the decree of March 26, 1984, comes up to the “identity” and cultural expectations, which are higher in the overseas departments. It expresses compulsory opinions on the budget and the regional plan concerning education, culture, and environmental protection. It can, in those same fields, express optional opinions of its own choice.
In addition, Martinique region, like the other overseas departments, can create regional public establishments called “agencies” in charge of the realisation of projects and of politics of regional interest, whilst managing a regional public service.
It’s also to be noted that the Martinique Regional Council can submit propositions of modification or adaptation of the legislative and statutory texts in force or at the planning stage to the Prime Minister; and more broadly any proposition related to the economic, social, and cultural development of the island.
In the same way, it can submit to the Prime Minister suggestions in relation with the working of the State public services in the region. The Prime Minister acknowledges receipt of those propositions within two weeks and sets down the date for his response.

4 - Resumption of the institutional debate
Almost 20 years later, an important part of the political community acknowledges today the necessity of taking one further step toward decentralisation. The outward aim is the necessity of rendering the institutions more effective. The question is notably to solve the problems generated by the notion of a monodepartmental region, and to identify more clearly the responsibilities between the two assemblies and their executive. And lastly the desire to attain stronger powers and means in order to favour economic development and cooperation within the Caribbean is debated.
Translation of Mrs. Maryanne DASSONVILLE
Liens vers les sites officiels