Page 12, 27th March 1987

27th March 1987
Page 12
Page 12, 27th March 1987 — CHARTP1-114()USE,

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Locations: Rome, Columbus, Paris


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"RESEARCH and travel are boon companions," as Christopher Morley once remarked.

My most recent chance to combine the joys of each are respectively due to the Empress Josephine and the beautiful island of Martinique.

When you ask the average person "what do you know of Martinique?" the usual response is "the Empress Josephine and Mount Pelee."

Josephine is the better "public relations" representative for this verdant West Indian island discovered by Columbus in 1493. In 1635, the French nobeiman, Pierre Belain d'Ensambuc, established the first European settlement on Martinique. It has remained French ever since except for brief periods of British occupation during the Napoleonic wars.

Sugar brought untold prosperity to this "island of flowes" which is what its name means. But this was accompanied by slavery. Both were introduced, in 1654, by Jacques Duparquet. The great Victor Shoelcher abolished slavery in 1848, this proved that the sugar canes could go on producing as much prosperity if greed were excluded.

Such success followed that Martinique became an overseas Department of France in 1946. Its delightful, largely black, population comprises all classes who mingle happily together, particularly during the carnival time leading up to and including the first day of Lent. The splendid Catholic Cathedral in Fort-de-France is thronged rather more on the first Friday of Lent than on the Wednesday before.

Carnival life

Indeed, from k soon after Epiphany, the towns and villages of Martinique come to life as on few other islands in the Caribbean. Carnival time — here called "Vaval" — truly takes over and lasts for a whole month. There are competitions for the best Creole song, dances and orchestras, and the most attractive beguines. The whole population seems to be involved.

The capital, Fort-de-France, and all the communes, elect a Queen. From the Sunday before Lent up to and including Ash Wednesday, tempestuous dancing seizes the entire island.

On Monday there are countless "burlesque weddings," with prizes going to the most ill-assorted pair. The "brides" are usually men dressed up in extravagant bridal gowns, dancing and cavorting on the bonnets and tops of cars being driven slowly through the town. All other traffic just gives up.

The "bridegrooms" are comely ladies sporting enormous moustaches and swaggering along with their hefty brides in peacock fashion. This takes up the whole of the Monday before Lent.

Children's day

Tuesday is the day for the children. They appear everywhere, dressed as bright elves and run behind the huge devil, who is studded with little mirrors. "King Vidal" leads the procession, on his chariot, followed by oxen. There are, behind them, countless other chariots with bands, tableaux and dancing elves. Once more all other traffic gives up.

Ash Wednesday in Martinique is the most amazing day of all. On this day the very apostheosis is reached. Everyone, but everyone, takes to the streets dressed in some combination, usually highly original, of black and white. The fight between good and evil now has to be fought out.

The black and white-clad men, women and children run behind the effigy of King Vaval which will be burned at midnight. Excitement reaches fever pitch. It is only when midnight is reached that the frantic clamour of the Carnival is finally over. Thursday is a quiet and sombre day. On the Friday the populace throng in their hundreds to church and receive the ashes. They sing lustily of the need for repentance and love of the Lord who has given them so much.


Now that it is quieter, it is possible to think of the famous Empress and visit the plantation of Pagerie where she was born — as Marie Josephine Tascher — on 1763. She was the eldest daughter of an impoverished nobelman and was brought to Paris by her aunt in 1779. There she married Alexandre, Vicomte de Beauharnais.

Her husband accused her of infidelity, though they did have two legitimate children, Eugene and Hortense. During the Revolution, Josephine became Citizeness Beauharnais while her more reckless husband fell foul of the radical Jacobins and died on the guillotine. Josephine got 'sucked into the Terror but escaped death as her time for trial was overtaken by happier events.

She was befriended by noblemen and found a place in Parisian society, there to attract the admiring glances of the young Napoleon Bonaparte. They were married in 1796. The subsequent story is familiar and somewhat pathetic.

She bore Napolean no children and despite becoming Empress, and revelling extravagantly in her imperial role, was forced to agree to a divorce, with the co-operative diocesan authorities agreeing to declare the marriage null and void. But Napoleon never underestimated Josephine's brain, even if railing at her alleged infidelities. He often sought her advice on matters of state even after the annulment.

It was Josephine's original marriage at sixteen that was to have the longest term consequences for dynastic Europe. Hortense married Napoleon's brother, the shortlived King of Holland; and Eugene became Viceroy of Italy, Both children were adopted by Napoleon, and Eugene had five children by Augusta, daughter of Maximilian of Bohemia. One daughter was to become the Queen of Oscar I, King of Norway.

Papal captive

Josephine's descendants thus remain numerous in the royal houses of Europe, and include Margaret II of Denmark, AnneMarie of Denmark, wife of King Constantine of Greece, and members of the royal families of Norway, Sweden and Belgium.

But the Pope of the day, Pius VII, was sorely tried by the train of events. After Napoleon's divorce from Josephine, he forbade the French cardinals from attending his subsequent wedding to Marie Louise. This ultimately led to the Pope's becoming a voluntary captive when Napolean occupied Rome in 1808. He remained stubbornly his own man, however, and bided his time.

After Napoleon's defeat at Laon, he returned to Rome, rebuilding the Church in triumphalist fashion. He reconstructed the Inquisition and re-established the banned Society of Jesus. In the same year as the Pope's return to Rome 1814, Josephine who had won his friendship years before, died at Malmaison, extravagant and larger-than-life to the end.

Volcano horror

That other great historical event associated with Martinique is still spoken of with awe to this day. It concerns the horrific eruption of Mount Pelee in 1902. In this gigantic eruption, Saint-Pierre, the island's principle city, disappeared in a matter of minutes. The disaster was comparable to that of Vesuvius. 29,000 people perished. The only survivor was a man imprisoned in a thickwalled dungeon. He eventually crawled out unhurt and lived to tell the terrible tale until his death in 1955. Much has been written about this terrible disaster but a curious fact was the lack of research with regard to the fourteen major ships sunk in the harbour. In 1979, however, a fisherman found his net entangled with one of the sunken ships and realized the possible historical interest of these underwater remains.

Sea Sculpture

Soon afterwards the famous French underwater explorer and scientist, Commander Jacques Cousteau, began explorations in the harbour of Saint Pierre. He found the sunken ships in a remarkable state of preservation. While all treasure had long since been stripped from the hulks, nature had fashioned through hot gasses released by the volcanic eruption an astonishing series of beautiful heat-wrought "sculptures," many of them encrusted with submarine flora.

Cousteau's films of the spectacular resultant scenes helped ,him to achieve much of his fame as an oceanographer, beginning with his captaincy of the Calypso after 1951. He had already shared in the invention of the aqualung and was the foremost pioneer of underwater archaeology and the use of television cameras underwater.

Musical worship

Matrinique is intensely Christian, with about 240,000 of its 324,000 population being Catholic. The Cathedral in Fortde-France has recently been extensively renovated. On Sundays and feasts it overflows with chanting worshippers who bring their genius for rhythm and music to the service of religion. When the wild frenzy of carnival is over, the "island of flowers" waits patiently until it can burst out into yet more singing and dancing in the streets with the coming of Easter.

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