This article was published in
" les trésors du patrimoine créole "
éditions de l'Arsenal, Paris, 1995,
ISBN 2-910470-11-3
on the occasion of events around "Creole Spring".

It is therefore protected under the Law of Intellectual Property, but the author will allow distribution of all or part of the text for ends which are strictly non-profit. In no way does he allow the use of the text for commercial gain.

Brief History of the West Indies and French Guyana

by Philippe Rossignol. Translation by Tian Uddenberg

Historic Highlights

It is with the islands that Christopher Columbus and Europe had their first historically verified contact with America. These islands, situated as they were 'before' the continental landmass, were therefore known as 'Ante-islas' or Antilles.

These were separated into Windward islands, the first encountered by a sailor coming from Europe, and Leeward islands, in particular, Saint Domingue.

Nowadays, under the influence of the USA, one speaks of the islands of the Caribbean Sea, referring to those inhabitants who, together with the Taïnos and the Arawaks, peopled the islands.

It was not until the C17 that France could begin to settle the Antilles, this in spite of the Treaty of Tordesillas which partitioned the New World between Spain and Portugal, to the exclusion of all other nations.


At the end of the C16 and beginning of the C17, expeditions were mounted to the Americas (or as the area was then known 'La Merique') in particular by Normands. These were only 'private' voyages, with a goal of trade, or of pillaging convoys and towns of Spanish America. The search for gold, but also agriculture and trade in exotic goods like tobacco and dyestuffs, were all at the heart of journeys which were long, perilous, and sometimes profitable.

Many 'joint charters', or agreements of association conserved in the Archives of Normandy, bear witness to these expeditions. An expedition of filibusters which left Le Havre in 1618, ended pitifully in Martinique where the Caribs welcomed and fed the survivors.

It was in 1625 that Richelieu, with a few Parisian associates, created the "St. Christophe Company" (Compagnie de Saint-Christophe) which was formed to develop half of the island of St. Christophe, now St. Kitts. Its government was entrusted to Belain D'Esnambuc, an unsuccessful Normand filibuster.
Shared by the English and the French, the island had a lively history and ended up being ceded to England in 1713. The English had deported the French inhabitants in a horrible way, separating individuals of the same family to ensure they would neither be able to be reunited or to return.

In 1635 a wealthy inhabitant of St. Christophe, L'Olive, joined with Duplessis and some Normand merchants in the colonization of Guadeloupe.
The governor of St. Christophe, Poincy, sent one of his nephews, Duparquet, to colonize Martinique.

The 'St. Christophe Company' became 'The Company of the American Islands' (Compagnie des isles d'Amérique) and obtained the monopoly of trade with the Antilles. In 1649, the Company of the American Islands was bankrupt, and each island was resold.

St. Christophe was bought by the Knights of the Order of Malta, of which Poincy was a commander. Guadeloupe was bought by Houël and his brother-in-law Boisseret, and Martinique by Duparquet. This then was the time of the 'lord proprietors' treated by Fr. DuTertre, a Dominican priest, in his Histoire Générale des Antilles habitées par les Français, which appeared in 1667.

The year 1665 saw another historic change :
Louis XIV, (it was actually Colbert), decided to create a 'West India Company' (Compagnie des Indes occidentales) which bought the islands back from the lord proprietors in a move that was quasi expropriation. Houël and the Boisseret children were forcibly returned to France. This second company in its turn became bankrupt in 1674 and the colonies were returned to the Crown.

These first fifty years of colonization profoundly influenced the mentality of the colonists :
Wars with Spain, England and Holland taught the inhabitants to rely on their own defences, France being far away, and preoccupied by events on the European continent.
Running warfare, with its more or less vague rules, was the means to fortune for numerous corsairs, filibusters, or even pirates. Tortuga, from 1625 would be the base for adventurers from many countries, of all conditions, whose legends spread far and wide, often eclipsing the dangerous, thankless and utilitarian work of the first colonists.

Adventurers all, these first inhabitants, because a love of adventure was a prerequisite for undertaking a voyage which could last several months under very difficult conditions.

To the fact of neglect at the hands of successive companies, which lead to famine and revolt, were added wars with the Caribs, illness, hurricanes, etc.
The attraction of wealth was probably a powerful driving force, but among the 'engagés', who signed a three year indenture for 300 livres of 'pétun' (tobacco), how many survived ? How many made a fortune? How many were fooled by the already bewitching advertizements about lands in a marvellous climate?

Sugar Islands

If the beginnings of colonization were characterized by a preponderance of the cultivation of tobacco or indigo, the last years of the C17 and the C18 saw an explosion in the cultivation of sugar cane.

The Dutch from Brazil (from which they were driven in 1656), found refuge in Martinique, but mostly in Guadeloupe. They went there with their slaves, their knowledge of the cultivation of sugar cane, as well as of the manufacture of sugar.
From then on a profound transformation took place in the Antilles.
The massive importation of slaves would transform it into a society where the indentured and the 'petits colons' no longer had a place, and where large estates would take the place of small holdings.
Dependence on metropolitan France would become complete, since the law of exclusivity forbade all trade with foreign countries and governed the trade and refining of sugar.

Ports like Nantes, Bordeaux, or later, Marseille, would profit from a monopoly which linked their destiny to that of the Antilles.
Fr. Labat, so celebrated in the Antilles, would observe this transformation and portray it with a verve which made him the most well known of our chroniclers and probably the most republished.

The governor and the 'intendant' represented royal power, one in the military arena, the other with regard to finances and legislation. Not subordinate one to the other, they often had ongoing feuds, in which the offices of the Maritime Ministry were the referees.(This was neither the time of the colonies nor the DOM TOM (départements d'outre mer, et territoires d'outre mer)). These disagreements could affect the inhabitants, and in 1717, Martinicans did not hesitate to ship out both governor and intendant. The Sovereign Council, which comprised the major landowners, had judiciary and legislative power over what concerned the island in which it sat.

Each 'quartier' (the word 'commune' was not used), had a militia made up of residents and commanded by a militia Captain who was, in general, one of the most wealthy landowners.

If the smaller islands and Guyane remained settled by small landowners living on their holdings, a large part of French Saint Domingue, the future Haiti, was in the hands of estate managers, and the landowners often lived in France. The economic and therefore political weight of Saint Domingue grew incessantly. The court of Louis XVI included a large number of Creoles, for the more or less impoverished nobility did not hesitate to contract 'good marriages' with rich heiresses from Saint Domingue.

Masters sent certain of their slaves to be trained in France, and communities of freed men, about which unfortunately little is known, lived in the large centres like Paris, Bordeaux, Nantes and Marseilles.

Those who remained on the island included, among others, descendants of the first buccaneers, living in pairs, sharing everything and inheriting one from the other. They owed their name to the 'boucan', a kind of grill on which they smoked the meat of oxen and wild pigs which they killed. They did not hesitate to rejoin the filibusters in time of war for more or less fruitful expeditions, and made for themselves a well deserved reputation for bravery and aggressiveness.
Ocxmelin has left us a story about his stay among them which has also been republished several times.

All this wealth depended on slaves grouped into 'ateliers' (workshops). An atelier could comprise several hundred Creole slaves, (born in the islands), or 'bossales', which is to say 'born in Africa'. 'Chattels', they had no rights, and sometimes members of the same family were sold separately. From 1687, the Code Noir codified the relationship between master and slave to avoid incidents of cruel abuse.

This population, by far the largest (since the censuses show it to have been three to ten times larger than that of whites or mulattos), remains relatively unknown.
Few documents of the period give any precise idea of the life of the slaves. Historians are constrained to reconstruct all or part of it, but sometimes project their own modern ideas.

This long period which lasted from the 1670s to the Revolution included many wars between European states. Point à Pitre owes its birth to the English occupation of 1759 to 1763.

The Revolution

The period extending from 1790 to 1802 was a time of separation for the islands.
While Guadeloupe alone in the Americas defended the most difficult ideals of the Revolution, using its feeble resources to help Guyane, Martinique retained the old order, sticking to the King while under English domination.
Saint Domingue, through a bloody revolution, won its independence.

1789 to 1792 saw intense political strife among the different actors in the Antilles.
Representatives in France of the of white landowners sat in the Constituent Assembly (l'Assemblée Constituante).
With the help of personages like l'abbé Grégoire, Robespierre, and Rebwell, free men of colour obtained equality of rights in 1790 and 1792. At last, on February 4, 1794, The Convention "declared abolished the slavery of Negroes in all the colonies".

Sonthonnax, commissioner sent by the Convention to Guadeloupe did not wait for the decree and had prceeded with Emancipation from the month of August, 1793.
This is the first official document written in Creole which we have :
"Toute nègues & milates, qui zesclaves encore, nous déclaré io toute libe. Io gagné même droit que toutes les autes citoyens Français; mais, io va suive zordonnance que nous va fait."
"All Negroes and Mulattos, who yet are slaves, we declare all to be free. They won the same rights as all other French citizens; but, they will follow the laws we will enact."

In Guadeloupe and Martinique, the struggle played out on two levels.
- 'Patriots' versus Royalists. The former were principally composed of townspeople : functionaries, merchants and artisans in the ports of St. Pierre, Basse-Terre or Point à Pitre; the latter, of resident landowners.
- Free People of Colour versus those above. Acting as 'allies' they found themselves divided between the two sides.

These fratricidal struggles led to emigration and expulsions which affected every class of the population depending on which side won. Sometimes the Royalists expelled the Patriots, and vice versa.
Documents can be found in the archives of many metropolitan French towns dealing with 'refugees from the colonies' to whom aid was granted.

The year 1794 confirmed the separation of Martinique and Guadeloupe. The English seized Martinique (March 23) and it remained under their control until 1802, so the laws of the Revolution were not applied there.

Guadeloupe, at first also captured by the English (April 20), was quickly retaken by the French (June 2), and under Victor Hugues was subject to a regime some call a reign of terror, but which was also a glorious episode in the struggle against England, then the mistress of the seas. This regime lasted until 1798, when Victor Hugues was recalled to France and then reassigned to Guyane where ... he re-instituted slavery.
Many were the former slaves who covered themselves in glory on the corsairs, which alone permitted the survival of Guadeloupe, cut off as it was, from mainland France.

It is during this period that Guyane was used as a penal colony, and this label stuck to it until Kourou.

Besides Josephine, many other Antillians became famous; Dugommier, general of the Republic died on the field of battle as valourously as Pelagius; and the Knight St. Georges was a great musician.

From Napoleon to Emancipation

Guadeloupe and Saint Domingue, both having actively participated in the Revolution, both suffered cruelly on the 'return of the old order'.
In St. Domingue there was the failure of the Leclerc expedition, the detention of Toussaint Louverture and the revolts which led to independence.
In Guadeloupe's Basse-Terre, Delgrès' revolt ended tragically in a collective suicide (28 may, 1802). In Point à Pitre, Igace and his partisans were exterminated.

The governments of Louis XVIII, CharlesX, and Louis Phillipe were slow to develop the administration of the colonies.
Even though the Slave Trade was abolished in 1817, it was not until 1831 that that Law was effectively enforced.
People of Colour obtained the same rights as whites in 1830.

It was not until the Second Republic that more and more powerful movements in favour of Emancipation could triumph. If Schoelcher remains the best known figure, we cannot forget important people like Bissette and Tocqueville either.

At the same time at the start of the C19, the continuing introduction of beet sugar and the protection from which this benefited, meant the decline in importance of cane sugar and consequently, deep hardship for the Antillian economy.

From Emancipation to Departmentalization

Deprived of labour, the landowners turned to 'free workers' by the boat load from India, Africa, and even from China.

The large estate gave way to the factory, most often controlled by metropolitan capital. But the continued expansion of beet sugar and the difficulty of changing to other crops did not contribute to social stability, already shaken by intense political strife.

At the time of the First World War, many Antillians and Guyanese fell under the Tricolor on the battle fields of Europe, and it was only at the outcome of the Second World War that the status of 'département' was given. All this shows that the history of the Antilles, Réunion and Guyane was as long and glorious as that of many metropolitan provinces.

The genealogist, or as he is now called, the family historian, is always surprised in the course of research on the Antilles, Guyane or Réunion. He happens upon ancestors from all nations and all continents: English, Irish, Swiss, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch; but also occasionally Turks and Caribs. Africa is represented by Ibo, Congo, Ouolof, Arada etc., originally from the west coast of Senegal or Congo.

Similarly, the white settlers came from every province of metropolitan France, and if we deduce from the fact that the first Normand settlement profoundly and indelibly influenced the culture of a place like St. Barthélemy; that all these settlers were actually Normand, that puts us into the realm of legend.
The same can be said of women of easy virtue, philandering younger sons of noble families, swindlers, and petty thieves, of whom very little can be proven, but on whom pseudo-historians seize hungrily and sensationalize. Have they nothing better to say about those who live in the Antilles, in Guyane and in Réunion; and about those who are proud of their Creole birth or traditions ?

The richness of the history and humanity which created it, is an inexhaustible font of discovery and admiration. The word 'Creole' which from the beginning identified those born in the islands of non-American ancestry, white, black or animal, is much richer than 'béké' or 'Afro-Caribbean'.

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Révision 26/08/2003