Josephine's humble beginnings on Martinique

LES TROIS-ILETS, Martinique (AP) — Even now, Paris feels a world away from this tropical paradise.

How much farther the immense capital must have seemed to Marie-Josephe-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, a teenager on a remote sugar plantation with an improbable future. "You will be queen," a fortune-teller told her, according to the local legend.

Indeed, she would leave this southeast Caribbean island and rise through French society through the last days of its monarchy, the French Revolution and Reign of Terror to marry Napoleon Bonaparte, who would crown her Empress Josephine.

If she returned to Martinique today, she would find a sophisticated French-influenced culture enhanced by the flavors and rhythms of the non-Europeans who have lived here for centuries. They make up most of the population of this chic yet laidback island, which dips into the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other.

Josephine's humble beginnings on Martinique are explored here in a museum, the Domaine de la Pagerie, just outside the resort village of Les Trois-Ilets, named for three little islands just off shore.

When Josephine lived here in the mid-18th century, Martinique was a French colony. Her family owned more than 200 slaves on their plantation south of the capital, now called Fort-de-France, and the songs sung by these slaves and their descendants in Martinique's sugar cane fields are now performed by professional musicians and dancers wearing bright Madras plaids in luxury hotels.

Just the foundation of their "great house" remains, a modest stone square set in a green field of grass under the gaze of a white stone bust of Josephine.

The original house, set atop a small hill with a view of its fields in the valley below, was blown down in a hurricane when Josephine was not much more than a toddler. Financial problems kept her parents from rebuilding, so the family moved into the upper quarters of the property's sugar factory. The foundation that remains supported a wooden house built after Josephine left for France in 1779.

The stone factory walls remain standing in the shade of leafy palms. Another circular building has been restored as an open-air pavilion, where a handful of massive rusted cylinders and gears rest, long past use as parts in the sugar-grinding machines.

The kitchen, also a separate building, has been restored as a small museum containing Josephine's tiny, canopied bed, portraits, porcelain gifts bearing Napoleon's and her faces when they were the toast of Europe, and a copy of her letter of marriage to Napoleon, along with other historical documents.

There are also rusted chains that once shackled slaves, resting at the bottom of a glass case.

The legacy of slavery still tarnishes Josephine's reputation in Martinique. Many still blame her for Napoleon's reinstitution of slavery when France regained control of its colonies from the British, even though it's unclear whether Josephine influenced that decision. It certainly would have benefited her family, members of the island's wealthy elite who have considerable land holdings to this day.

Perhaps this is why Josephine's face and name are absent from most of the island's narrow streets, colorful buildings and even the Pagerie's gift shop, which mostly features postcards of island scenes. And there's nothing subtle about the condition of the statue of Josephine in the main square in Fort-de-France, where the intimidating stone fort still looms over cruise ships and ferries in the harbor. The white stone figure is regal in a flowing, low-cut gown, but it was vandalized years ago — beheaded, red paint splattered down the white dress and Josephine's name struck from the pedestal.

The most prominent faces instead in Fort-de-France are two late intellectuals, Aime Cesaire and Edouard Glissant, whose writings explore black identity in a French-speaking country.

Banners celebrating their works hang in the sleek, modern airport named for Cesaire in 2009. Cesaire's book-filled office has been preserved in the capital's main theater, a landmark building that also bears his name.

Martinique is a department of France. French is the official language and the euro is the official currency. Locals drive Renaults and Citroens on twisty mountain roads and shop for the latest European fashions in boutiques.

But its cuisine -- French staples spiced with curry, fresh seafood, tropical fruits -- is flavored by what's grown locally along with the mix of African and Indian dishes brought to the island over the centuries. The covered market in the heart of Fort-de-France has packs of spices and vials of vanilla for sale and Madras plaid tablecloths for those who want to try the cuisine at home.

A meal is complete with a tumbler of ti punch, a sweet cocktail made with white rum, sugarcane syrup and lime. Tours at any of the island's rum distilleries will explain and let you taste the subtle differences between the white rums and the golden "vieux" or aged rums.

Even as empress, Josephine longed for her childhood Caribbean home. She tried recreating Martinique's tropical splendor at her home near Paris, Malmaison, a refuge famous for its gardens and greenhouse.

Visitors to Martinique can experience a similar retreat at the Jardin de Balata, a botanical garden perched in the hills above Fort-de-France. A paved walkway winds its way through bromeliads, orchids, palms, flowering trees and a cluster of the Balisier flower, the flower of Martinique, a red blossom that looks something like a Bird of Paradise. A rope suspension bridge offers a more daring view of the lush tropical foliage.

Farther north along Martinique's Caribbean side are the black sand beaches around the small town of Saint-Pierre, built around the ruins left by a volcano that smoked through Josephine's lifetime and finally erupted in 1902.

Off the island's Atlantic coast are the "baths of Josephine," shallow turquoise waters where the young, would-be empress swam, according to local legend. It's hard not to feel a bit decadent when the catamaran crew tosses a cooler containing a bottle of rum into the water with you.


If You Go...


GETTING THERE: Air France flies to Fort-de-France from Miami. American Airlines flies to Fort-de-France through San Juan, Puerto Rico. Flights can be pricier to Martinique than to some of the other islands frequented by Americans.

TRAVEL TIPS: Think of Martinique as Tropical France: You'll be spending euros, and speaking French is widely expected on an island still off most Americans' radar. Nightlife varies from Miami Beach-style restaurants and bars to the local hang-outs where Martinique's smooth, golden beer, La Lorraine, is cold and relatively cheap. A car is helpful for journeys to rum distilleries or other attractions, unless you arrange a tour; boat tours are another way to see both coastlines. There is a Club Med, but all-inclusive resorts don't divide the beachfronts as they do in other Caribbean locations; in fact, all beaches in Martinique are public.

LES TROIS-ILETS: The village is about a half-hour ferry ride (6 euros) from the capital, Fort-de-France. You can also drive into the village along the Bay of Fort-de-France coastline.

DOMAINE DE LA PAGERIE: . A roughly 15-minute drive from the center of Les Trois-Ilets. Open Tuesday-Friday, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2 p.m.- 5:30 p.m.; weekends, 9:30 a.m.- 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.-5 p.m.


Editor’s note:Yahoo Philippines encourages responsible comments that add dimension to the discussion. No bashing or hate speech, please. You can express your opinion without slamming others or making derogatory remarks.

  • 15 wounded in 2 explosions in restive southern Philippines

    MANILA, Philippines (AP) — At least 15 people have been wounded in two separate blasts that hit a police camp in a restive southern Philippine province where Muslim militants operate, police said Saturday. …

  • 15 wounded in mosque attack at Philippine police camp
    15 wounded in mosque attack at Philippine police camp

    Fifteen people including 10 police officers were wounded in an attack on a mosque at police camp on a remote Philippine island long plagued by Islamic militancy, officials said on Saturday. Successive blasts targeted the mosque inside Camp Kasim on the island of Jolo early evening Friday -- an initial grenade attack followed by a bomb explosion less than 10 minutes later that was intended to target police who rushed to the scene, local authorities said. "It seems the (first) explosion was set …

  • US missile cruiser docks at Subic
    US missile cruiser docks at Subic

    A US Navy missile cruiser has dropped anchor in Subic Bay as part of “routine port call,” amid rising tension in the West Philippine Sea stirred by China’s island building activities and other threatening moves by its forces. The arrival of the Ticonderoga-class missile cruiser USS Shiloh (CG-67) at the Subic Bay Freeport in Olongapo City yesterday was “just a routine port visit for ship replenishment and routine maintenance of shipboard system,” said Philippine Navy Public Affairs Office …

  • Agri, power sectors should brace for El Niño
    Agri, power sectors should brace for El Niño

    The agriculture and power sectors, as well as the general public should brace for a prolonged El Niño phenomenon that could further reduce water supply for electricity and irrigation, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) warned yesterday. Flaviana Hilario, acting deputy administrator for research and development of PAGASA, said the El Niño condition is expected to intensify from weak to moderate by August this year. Anthony Lucero, …

  • China to US: Help cool down Phl on sea row
    China to US: Help cool down Phl on sea row

    The US should help “cool down” the Philippines and realize that its meddling in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) dispute would only stir tensions, a Chinese newspaper reported. “Washington should know its meddling in the South China Sea has been destabilizing the region. The US has vowed not to take sides in the territorial dispute, which involves China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. …

  • No stopping K to 12 despite SC case, protests
    No stopping K to 12 despite SC case, protests

    K to 12 is the fruit of years of comprehensive consultations involving different sectors in education,” Aquino said during the launching of the program at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) in Pasay City. Organized by the Department of Education (DepEd), the launch was attended by teachers, students and representatives from different stakeholders supportive of the K to 12 program. It was held two years after the signing of Republic Act 10533, or the Enhanced Basic Education …

  • MNLF pushes review of peace pact with gov’t
    MNLF pushes review of peace pact with gov’t

    The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) maintained its bid for completion of the tripartite review of the implementation of the peace agreement with the Philippine government in 1996. The MNLF’s desire to put consensual closure to the tripartite effort was relayed by its leaders to Sayed El-Masry, the special envoy of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), during the annual foreign ministers conference in Kuwait last Thursday. The MNLF peace agreement with the government in Sept. 2, …

  • Noy to raise sea dispute issue with Abe
    Noy to raise sea dispute issue with Abe

    President Aquino is expected to raise the West Philippine Sea dispute during his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan next week. However, there is no word yet if the Philippines will specifically ask Tokyo to join calls for China to stop its massive reclamation activities in disputed waters. Aquino will leave for Tokyo on June 2 for a state visit until June 5. …


Should Aquino be held accountable over the Mamasapano operations?

Poll Choice Options