Martinique: A beautiful French island in the Caribbean

When it comes to studying the French language and culture, we tend to focus on mainland France. But of course, that’s not where all Francophones live or come from. And it’s not even, officially, the entirety of the country of France.

Let’s take a look at another part of France and Francophone culture: Martinique, a fascinating French overseas department.

Where is Martinique?

Martinique is an island in the Caribbean Sea. It’s part of the Antilles archipelago and thus a part of the West Indies. Martinique is located between the islands of Dominique (Dominica)and Sainte-Lucie (Saint Lucia). Other nearby islands include Barbados and fellow French overseas department Guadeloupe.

Is Martinique a part of France?

Geographically speaking, Martinique isn’t a part of France, as you’ve probably guessed. But politically, it is an overseas department of France. This means that it follows the same laws as mainland France, has local government representatives with seats in the Sénat and Assemblée Nationale, the same national institutions (education, police, etc.), and people born there are French citizens.

French overseas departments, regions, and territories are often collectively referred to in the French media as les DOM-TOM. This is a French acronym that stands for les Départements d’outre-mer, Territoires d’outre-mer. Here’s a full list of les DOM-TOM.  

Since France is a member of the European Union, Martinique is also a special territory and Outermost Region (OMR) of the European Union.  

What is the currency in Martinique?

As part of the European Union, Martinique’s currency is the euro.

What is the population of Martinique?

According to the most recent data, Martinique’s population is  355 094 people.  Many sources note that the population is in decline, as more and more young people are heading to mainland France for education and job opportunities.  

What language do people speak in Martinique?

A view of the town of Les Anses-d'Arlet, with its small beige colored church with high, pink painted belltower in the center, surrounded by houses and other buildings. Most of the buildings are beige or yellow colored, with red tile roofs. Most of the church rooftops and the top of the belltower look to be tild with slate. The view of the town is taken from the beach and dock in front of it. Behind the town we see grassy hills and mountains rising up. The sky is partly cloudy, with clouds that you could almost think were plumes of smoke from volcanoes.
View of the town of Les Anses-d’Arlet and its church, Saint-Henri des Anses-d’Arlet.

As part of France, the official language of Martinique is French.

Martiniquan Creole (créole martiniquais), which evolved from French, African and Carib languages as well as Spanish, Portuguese, and English, is also a commonly spoken language.

French tends to be used for formal and official occasions. That said, the people of Martinique are proud of Martiniquan Creole and see it as a part of their national identity, so politicians and other public figures may use words or expressions in this language in speeches or media appearances, as well.

You can learn more about Martiniquan Creole in this fascinating article written by a native speaker. It includes some common words and phrases, as well as an audio recording.  

How is the French spoken in Martinique different from the French spoken in France?

Like any region of France, Martinique has its own local accent and special words and phrases. The accent of people from Martinique is often grouped with the accent of fellow DOM-TOM, Guadeloupe, and called un accent antillais (an Antilles accent). 

Unfortunately and a bit strangely, it’s hard to find audio of an Antilles accent that’s not part of a comedy routine (either by native speakers or mainland French comics). This video of an angry man from Guadeloupe at least gives us a good general idea of how a real accent antillais sounds.  

Essentially, the consonants tend to be more rounded and the cadence is influenced by African languages. You can also hear that the man uses a few Creole words. This isn’t likely to be the case if someone from Martinique is speaking in a formal context or talking to Francophones from other places.

Like many accents in French, the accent antillais has stereotypes associated with it. The most common is that people from the Antilles are “on island time” and lazy. Obviously, stereotypes are just that – stereotypes. It’s best to get to know a culture firsthand and go beyond them. I’ll suggest some ways to do that a little further on in this article.

What is the capital of Martinique?

The capital of Martinique is Fort-de-France.

There’s a tragic reason behind this. The former capital, St. Pierre, was almost totally destroyed in a volcanic eruption in 1902. The eruption killed 30,000 people. It’s said that only a single man, a prisoner in the city’s thick-walled jail, survived.

Key dates in Martinique’s history

A view of mountains covered in greenery, and trees and lush vegetation framed by high palm trees in the Jardin de Balata.

Here are some major dates and events in Martinique’s history:

Ca. 1st century CE – The Arawaks, considered a peaceful people, come from Central America to settle the island.

Ca. 11th century CE – The Caribs, considered a more warlike people, come from northern South America to settle the island, killing most of the Arawak men.

1502 – Christopher Columbus stops on the island on one of his voyages to the New World. He isn’t too into it though, since it’s got lots of snakes. But he does take the opportunity to get fresh water and do some laundry!

1635 – A group of around 150 French residents of St. Kitts flee to Martinique after the English take over their island. The French settlers claim Martinique for King Louis XIII.

The period of colonizing and claiming Martinique will continue for centuries, with wars, local power struggles and rule by the French and British, depending on the outcomes of wars and treaties.

Ca. 1720 – Martinique becomes the first place to cultivate coffee in the Western Hemisphere. Other crops the island was known for include sugar and bananas.

1815 – At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Martinique officially becomes French once more. That’s remained the case up to the present day.

1848 – Unrest, slave uprisings, and new ways of thinking fortunately convince France to finally abolish slavery in its overseas territories, including Martinique. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that all people were treated equally on the island. Over the subsequent centuries, racial tensions have been a dark part of life there.

May 8, 1902 – Eruption of the volcano Mont Pelée. 30,000 people die. The capital, Saint Pierre, is destroyed.

1939-1943 – During World War II, Martinique is controlled by the Vichy government, which is complicit with the Germans, who refueled their U-boats there. Free French forces liberate Martinique in 1943 – coincidentally on Bastille Day!

1946 – Martinique’s official status changes from a colony to an Overseas Department of France.

What is Martinique like today? 

Today, Martinique is known for its culture, including Zouk music; agriculture, including bananas; and toursim. Tourists love its beautiful beaches, especially those on the southern part of the island. Hiking in the mountainous tropical forests of its interior regions is also popular.

On a much less positive note, racial tension and economic disparity persist in Martinique today. Additionally, the use of the pesticide chlordécone has had disastrous effects on a majority of the population, as well as the land.

Still, Martinique is a beautiful place to visit, and its people are proud of their heritage and full of warmth.

How can I learn more about Martinique?

On a sandy beach, palm trees lean towards the blue ocean. Most of the palm trees are part of groves of vegetation, which we can see extending down the coastline, but the large palm tree in the foreground stands alone in the sand, reaching towards the water that arrives nearly to its low leaning trunk.

You can learn more about Martinique by doing online research. Reading an entry on a site like Wikipedia or information on Wikivoyage   is a good place to start for a general overview.

Of course, one of the best ways to get to know any place is through its art and literature. There many famous and respected Martiniquais writers, musicians, actors, and more. Here’s a list with links to  some of their works.  

I hope you’ve enjoyed our journey beyond mainland France to discover Martinique. Have you ever been there in real life? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

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Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.