Martinique, the name of which may be derived from a native form Madiana or Mantinino, was probably discovered by Columbus on the 15th of June 1502; although by some authorities its discovery is placed in 1493. It was at that time inhabited by Caribs who had expelled or incorporated an older stock. It was not until the 25th of June 1635 that possession was taken of the island in the name of the French Compagnie des Iles d'Amerique. Actual settlement was carried out in the same year by Pierre Belain, Sieur d'Esnambuc, captain-general of the island of St Christopher. In 1637, his nephew Dyel Duparquet (d. 1658) became captain-general of the colony, now numbering seven hundred men, and subsequently obtained the seigneurie of the island by purchase from the company under the authority of the king of France.
In 1654, welcome was given to three hundred Jews expelled from Brazil, and by 1658 there were at least five thousand people exclusive of the Caribs, who were soon after exterminated. Purchased by the French government from Duparquet's children for 120,000 livres, Martinique was assigned to the West India Company, but in 1674 it became part of the royal domain. The habitants (French landholders) at first devoted themselves to the cultivation of cotton and tobacco; but in 1650 sugar plantations were begun, and in 1723 the coffee plant was introduced. Slave labour having been introduced at an early period of the occupation, there were 60,000 blacks in the island by 1736. This slavery was abolished in 1860.
Martinique had a full share of wars. In early days the Caribs were not brought under subjection without severe struggles. In 1666 and 1667 the island was attacked by the British without success, and hostilities were terminated by the treaty of Breda. The Dutch made similar attempts in 1674, and the British again attacked the island in 1693. Captured by Rodney in 1762, Martinique was next year restored to the French; but after the conquest by Sir John Jervis and Sir Charles Grey in 1793 it was retained for eight years; and, seized again in 1809, it was not surrendered till 1814. The island was the birth place of the Empress Josephine.
Martinique has suffered from occasional severe storms, as in 1767, when 1600 persons perished, and M. de la Pagerie, father of the Empress Josephine, was practically ruined, and in 1839, 1891 and 1903, when much damage was done to the sugar crop. Earthquakes have also been frequent, but the most terrible natural disaster was the eruption of Mont Pele in 1902, by which the town of St Pierre, formerly the chief commercial centre of the island, was destroyed. During the earlier months of the year various manifestations of volcanic activity had occurred; on the 25th of April there was a heavy fall of ashes, and on the 2nd and 3rd of May a heavy eruption destroyed extensive sugar plantations north of St Pierre, and caused a loss of some 150 lives. A few days later the news that the Souffriere in St Vincent was in eruption reassured the inhabitants of St Pierre, as it was supposed that this outbreak might relieve the volcano of Pele. But on the 8th of May the final catastrophe came without warning; a mass of fire, compared to a flaming whirlwind, swept over St Pierre, destroying the ships in the harbour, among which, however, one, the " Roddam " of Scrutton, escaped. A fall of molten lava and ashes followed the flames, accompanied by dense gases which asphyxiated those who had thus far escaped. The total loss of life was estimated at 40,000. Consternation was caused not only in the West Indies, but in France and throughout the world, and at first it was seriously suggested that the island should be evacuated, but no countenance was lent to this proposal by the French government.
The economy is based on sugarcane, bananas, tourism, and light industry. Agriculture accounts for about 6% of GDP and the small industrial sector for 11%. Sugar production has declined, with most of the sugarcane now used for the production of rum. Banana exports are increasing, going mostly to France. The bulk of meat, vegetable, and grain requirements must be imported, contributing to a chronic trade deficit that requires large annual transfers of aid from France. Tourism, which employs more than 11,000 people, has become more important than agricultural exports as a source of foreign exchange.
* Portions of this text originated from the public domain print edition of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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