This small island, about half the size of Rhode Island, was discovered in 1502 by Christopher Columbus, as were many of the Caribbean islands. In those days the island was inhabited by the Carib Indians who had already chased the Arawaks (an indigenous tribe also from the Orenoco valley), away from their shores. They named the island Madinina, "The Island of Flowers." In 1635, Martinique was colonized by the French, and during the next 130 years, the English and the French fought for control of it. Finally, in 1763, Martinique was definitively declared French. Since then, it has followed the same course of history as France. It was an agricultural country, and in the 18th and 19th centuries, slaves worked the island's tobacco and sugar plantations until slavery was abolished in 1848. Its status as a French colony continued until after World War II, and it became a department in 1946.
It was given the further status of Region in 1974. In 1902, a blast from Mont PelÃÂ©e (a still-active volcano) laid waste to Saint-Pierre with a burst of superheated gas and burning ash 40 times stronger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Only one of the town's 30,000 residents survived (and he was in jail). Saint-Pierre, long regarded as the most cultured city in the French West Indies, was eventually rebuilt. However, the capital was moved permanently to Fort-de-France and Saint-Pierre has never been more than a shadow of its former self.
In 1946 Martinique became an overseas department of France, with a status similar to those of metropolitan departments, and in 1974 it was further assimilated into the political fold as a region of France. Both of France's Caribbean outposts, Martinique and Guadeloupe, use French currency and stamps and fly the French flag. However, in recent years there have been increased rumblings for greater internal autonomy and separatist groups continue to organize.
A mix of Western-French language, Native-American vocabulary (anoli for lizard, manicou for opposum, toloman for arrow-root...) and African syntax, the Creole language still bears the marks of the conditions of its birth. The same is true for the whole west-indian culture, which still contains aboriginal technics like the making of manioc flour or basketwork, or the knowledge of plants (traditional phytotherapy), legacy of the Caribs. Being a French territory for more than three centuries, as well as Gaudeloupe, Guiana and Reunion Island, Martinique becomes a French Depatment in 1946, as requested by its representants, AimÃÂ© CESAIRE and LÃÂ©opold BISSOL.
Being a part of France, Martinique benefits progressively of many social and economic laws. The general context is changing : cane sugar is no longer competitive, the public administrations recruit large amounts of educated people, primary education tends to be general...
The economy changes deeply. Agriculture is no longer the basis, bananas for exportation failing to really replace cane sugar, and the service industry dominates widely.
Despite a superficial wealth, unemployment is massive, mostly among the young. In 1963, the Bumidom (Bureau of Migrations from Overseas Departments) is constituted, in order to send annually 10 000 people to continental France. There, they mostly occupy the lowest functions in hospitals and public administrations, progressively constituting an important, yet unorganized community. About 400 000 people from Martinique, Guadeloupe or Guiana live around Paris.
By the end of the XX th century, Martinique faces a crucial interogation. Being well advanced in the way of assimilation to the French and European culture, it has to be aware of its geographical environment : Caribean countries, much poorer, with which it has scarce contacts, but so much alike, after centuries of a similar history.