The Slavery Abolition Day in Martinique is observed every May 22, which goes by Emancipation Day in some former colonies. It’s a day that celebrates the emancipation of slaves in the French overseas region of Martinique. A national holiday in Martinique, Slavery Abolition Day takes the form of singing, dancing, parades, speeches, conferences, and plays in many major cities on this island. Martinique, an overseas region (or ‘department’) of France, was, for years, a French colony with brief periods of British and Dutch rulers. This holiday was established to acknowledge the island’s long history and fight against slavery and oppression.
History of Slavery Abolition Day (Martinique)
The first people to land on Martinique — then called Madinina — were the Spanish in the 15th century, who later proceeded to ignore this place in favor of their other, more prosperous colonies. It was only in the 17th century that the French, seeing Martinique’s potential — they were major producers of sugarcane, a famous cash crop at the time — claimed this island. They brought in the slaves a year later, to work in the sugar fields.
Over the next decades, the French ruled Martinique, suppressing any form of rebellion from the natives and expanding their sugar production until it was the only major product cultivated on the island. Increased production combined with exploitation drove a mass requirement for slave labor on the island, and by 1778, the French were bringing in more than 13,000 Africans per year, with approximately 60,000 slaves working on the island at any given time. The British briefly took over the island in 1794, returning it to the French by 1802. They repeated this cycle, taking control from 1809 until 1814, after which Martinique remained a French colony. During these periods of political instability, the slave trade on the island continued, unaffected. Of course, like most countries, the slaves rebelled here too, in a series of unsuccessful revolts over the years. Ironically, slavery as a practice had been abolished in the French Republic in 1794, a decision that did not reach its colonies. Even as countries and colonies around the world threw off the shackles of slavery, the practice continued in Martinique.
It was only in 1848 that Martinique abolished slavery. Imprisonment of a slave had caused a major revolt on the island, which could not be suppressed. The governor quickly declared slavery abolished on the island, to stop the chaos and bloodshed. While the region remained a French territory, the slave trade ceased to exist. Only the memories and the descendants remain, many of whom are the reason the island of Martinique celebrates Slavery Abolition Day each year.
Slavery Abolition Day (Martinique) timeline
The French land on the island with 80 to 100 French settlers and quickly overcome native resistance with their superior weapons and armor.
The governor of Martinique abolishes slavery under duress, to contain a large-scale slave revolt that breaks out on the island.
May 22 is declared a national holiday in commemoration of the abolishment of slavery in Martinique.
The French National Assembly votes Martinique as a department or a Département d'outre-mer, which signifies that the island is now an overseas region of France instead of a colony.
Slavery Abolition Day (Martinique) FAQs
Who abolished slavery in Martinique?
The abolishment of slavery in Martinique cannot be accredited to one particular person or event. However, many Martinicans credit French Victor Schoelcher, French Minister for foreign territories in 1848 for abolishing slavery on the island. This was because he was the one who convinced the French government to grant a Proclamation of Emancipation to end slavery in the French Antilles.
When did slavery start in Martinique?
A year after the French colonized Martinique, King Louis the 13th signed a law on October 31, 1636, to authorize the use of slaves in the French Antilles, which introduced the slave trade to the island.
Are Martinique French citizens?
Martinicans are all French citizens, with complete political and legal rights.
How to Observe Slavery Abolition Day (Martinique)
Read up on Martinique
Learn all you can about this Caribbean island — the culture, people, and cuisine. Visit this place, virtually or in person, to get a real look at how their past has influenced their present culture and traditions.
Learn about the previous slave revolts
Dig up everything you can about the previous slave revolts and how they inspired the people to keep fighting. Hear from descendants and those whose families were affected by slavery, through documentaries, talks, or online papers.
Spread the knowledge
Don't commemorate this important day alone. Share your knowledge of these events with loved ones, to ensure that this history does not get forgotten.
5 Interesting Facts About Slavery And Martinique
Slavery was first abolished in 1315
Way back in the 12th century, Louis X of France had abolished slavery within France, but the law didn't apply to the colonies — back then or in every subsequent abolishment decree in later years.
Christopher Columbus first discovered Martinique
Columbus first saw Martinique in 1493 while on another voyage, but only landed on the island in 1502.
Columbus named the island
The island, first called 'Jouanacaera' or the “island or iguanas,” was later dubbed 'Martinique' by Columbus.
French artist Paul Gauguin painted Martinique
Multiple paintings by this Post-impressionist artist feature Martinique, and reproductions of these are on display in a special Gauguin museum in Le Carbet, Martinique.
Sugar's still their main product
The sweet ingredient is still a major source of production for the island, after bananas, but is mostly used for rum production.
Why Slavery Abolition Day (Martinique) is Important
The celebrations highlight the slave resistance
Across Martinique, various talks, plays, and conferences also prominently feature the generations of slave revolts, which, in part, led to the abolishment of slavery from the island.
It highlights the island's diversity
This day helps draw attention to the diversity of the local people in Martinique, who, due to their long history with colonization, are of various mixed races including African, Asian, European, Indians, and more. The day is thus giving us a much-needed understanding of various machinery that eventually led to the abolishment of slavery, a process that has shaped the world as we know it.
It's a way to remember
Slavery Abolition Day is more than a day to commemorate the date slavery was officially abolished on the island. It encourages people to pay homage to all those brave men, women, and children who were torn from their homelands and forced into a life of servitude.
Slavery Abolition Day (Martinique) dates