Disasters, Citizenship, and the Janus-Faced Nature of the French Revolution

By Christopher M. Church

In the spirit of the revolutionary values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, France emancipated hundreds of thousands of enslaved Antilleans in 1848, only to disenfranchise them and burden them with mandatory labor through a system of work camps and passports. Such treachery was not new to Antilleans. They had experienced the pains of revolutionary vacillation before, when French statesmen had granted them freedom in 1794 only to rescind it by 1802. Turning French revolutionary ideals against the French state itself, local revolutions had tried and failed to secure that freedom with blood and fire.

So when the Third Republic offered the opportunity for freedom once more, it was with vigor that Antillean politicians argued for an indisputable change: full citizenship and departmentalization. With the Constitution of 1875, French Antilleans gained the first: formal recognition as full-fledged citizens with legal standing theoretically equal to that of their metropolitan compatriots. Over the course of the following decades, they advocated for the second: full assimilation into the French nation via departmentalization. That second key step—which would mark their transformation from a colony into an integral part of the French polity—would not come for another seven decades. Virtually no one who remembered the ratification of the Third Republic’s constitution would survive long enough to witness the island’s incorporation into France. It would seem that the arc of the universe, while bending toward justice, was gruesomely long.

Repeated natural catastrophes—fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions—amplified Antilleans’ suffering, physically as well as politically. Paradoxically, such disasters both hampered and legitimized Antilleans’ efforts to secure departmentalization over the course of the Third Republic, animated as it was by a republican logic, forged in the Age of Revolutions, that championed universal values and cultural assimilation via the civilizing mission. The logic of French republicanism demanded that Antilleans adopt French culture wholesale, and in return France would recognize them as equal citizens of the French nation. Through a “language of citizenship,” both mainland Frenchmen and Antilleans underscored compatriotism and shared national belonging during times of natural catastrophe. However, while the metropole requested cultural compliance, Antilleans expected economic assistance in their hour of need.

Environmental catastrophe pushed the limits of this republican logic of assimilation, and it ran up against an economic calculus focused on the profitability of what were in practice exploitative colonies. Though France had become a Republic once more, sugar remained king on the islands. In other words, the Antillean colonies continued to suffer the vacillatory animus that had plagued the French Republic since its origins. Since the Great Revolution, France shifted back and forth from authoritarian to democratic regimes, from the championing of equality to the reifying of inequity, and from genuine humanitarian concern to calloused disinterest.

Book cover of Paradise Destroyed by Christopher M. Church.

Vis-à-vis catastrophes and civil unrest, my book, Paradise Destroyed, explores the impact of France’s vacillation between an inclusive language of citizenship rooted in revolutionary values and an exclusive economic calculus grounded in racism. It describes how the citizens of Martinique and Guadeloupe suffered at the hands of nature, while demanding assistance—and the recognition of their Frenchness that went along with it—from a French society that always held inclusion just out of reach.

Disasters in Martinique and Guadeloupe prompted a powerful expression of this language of civic inclusion through public charity campaigns, but as the century came to a close, business elites and their political allies reevaluated the status of the Caribbean colonies altogether, questioning whether they were worth “France’s time” in the face of a collapsing sugar industry, and the devastation wrought by nature. Their concerns seemed solidified by the eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902, which killed 30,000 people in the blink of an eye and wiped Martinique’s most prominent city from the map. And yet, the eruption also brought forth the republican desire for national unity, as many in France took the eruption to be the equivalent of an attack on the French nation itself.

The tension between these two countervailing forces shaped the relationship of France’s oldest colonies to the French nation, as Antilleans struggled, often unsuccessfully, to receive governmental assistance akin to that provided to “proper” French departments. This dynamic, so old and familiar in France, that pitted a politics of radical inclusion against one of radical exploitation, continues to this day. Departmentalization in 1946 had not brought true equality. As French Antilleans increasingly move to the “third island” of Paris, so named because as many Antilleans live there as in Martinique and Guadeloupe, they experience discrimination as their compatriots and their government remind them of their second-class status. Since they and their families are left little respite from the annual arrival of the Atlantic hurricane season and the perennial threat of fires, earthquakes, and eruptions, their feeling that the French state could do more to mitigate ecological dangers has not dissipated. In 2009, the islands erupted into a general strike—the first one of the new millennium—to protest their inequitable treatment at the hands of economic and political forces. Antilleans continue to demand better emergency preparedness, more infrastructure investment, and more equitable wages to this day. Let us hope that France bucks the trend of the preceding centuries and moves beyond a republican logic that speaks from both sides of its mouth, so that Antilleans’ calls for liberty, equality, and fraternity do not fall on deaf ears.

Christopher M. Church is assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is the author of Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean (Nebraska, 2017), which was recently awarded the Alf Andrew Heggoy Prize by the French Colonial Historical Society.

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