Precheur; alter. 1899.

Edited, 22/05/17

More than a short blog post is necessary to describe historical root of the imposing omnipresence of Catholic church in Martinique. Here I give the main points and I hope not to neglect any important one. The reason for this post is that I am always surprised to see how full churches are in Martinique, with people from all ages, from all social class and all ethnic categories. Some town are nowadays only animated by the church activity.

In Martinique still today, being a priest (or the guru of any religion probably, however I’ll be talking mainly about the catholic religion because of its historical importance in the French Caribbean) is considered as ultimate success for a large part of the population and religious people are given a large respect of a wide range of the population.

Why is the catholic religion historically important?

Conversion of “savages” was the excuse for colonization. Here, I am talking about a need for devout Catholic to get slave to salvation through evangelistic propaganda and “save their soul”. Slave could find in some priests some sort of compassion. Later, after Louis XVI died, religion was a mere way to remind slaves their duty towards their master, and religion allowed the colonial society to maintain itself. Therefore, the unsaid roles of religion in the slave society were to control the crowd and to promise paradise after hard work on earth and ensure the servility of slaves.

At the opposite, in English Antilles mainly occupied by protestant, evangelization wasn’t carried out for a long while because it would have been impossible for masters to maintain as a slave a “brother in God”. As a consequence, the roots of religions are probably deeper in the French Caribbean than in the English islands, and consequences are expected to be different.

Later, after slavery was abolished and a bishopric settled in Martinique, previous slaves could freely access to what was before a white people privilege: get freely to church and date and marry who they wanted without consent of a master. And later again (much later), black people could get into the church machinery, as priest or monk. I still remember my grandmother, born in 1911 telling me how chocked she was when she saw the first black bishop in the street. “Oh my god, how can the bishop be black?” she said.
Baptism became a ritual for integration into the creole society and was a compulsory step for all child born in the island. When some parents would for a reason or another decide not to baptize their child, another member of the family would secretly take the child to the baptismal font. Funeral was also a large business entirely controlled by church: until law separating church and state, church was responsible for registration of birth, marriage and deaths. Church brought education and most school were managed by priest or monks. Thus, being part of church became a way to get into education. However, education provided wasn’t suppose to quench curiosity about everything, as said the first Bishop of Martinique (Mgr Leherpeur): “child should acquire necessary knowledge to be able to read, to count, and to deal with his own life. However, he should not try to go deep into history, philosophy or law, because this would divert him from its life purpose, he would be repelled with his condition and be useless for the society”.

When Lafcadio Hearn visited Martinique in 1880, he found a colony “in appearance more catholic than Rome”. Cross, alter and religious statues were everywhere. Small chapel were organised inside houses. In order to discourage the leftovers of African religion and what was considered as obscurantism (cf. below), religious rituals were presented as a magic recipe able to give people quick solution to their problems. Epidemics, hurricanes and earthquakes were promised to unbelievers. Catholic rituals, statues and prayers were ever presented or perceived as a way of protection against natural threats or curses. Priests were and are still requested to bless boats, cars, houses, statues… and the multiplication of rituals were considered as a way to increase their power. This trend seems still pregnant in the contemporary society, see the recent television coverage on the subject here:  lejourduseigneur.com/paradoxes-de-foi-martiniquaise/ 


After church in Trinité. 1894.

Thus, French Caribbean devotion could and still can be considered as a peculiar piety. It was and still is an extroverted one, with spectacular rituals, full of large (and expensive) celebrations: being a catholic was costly and some people because of lack of money to organize the party would skip the First communion or wedding. One other aspect of the peculiar Christianity in the French Caribbean was the position of wedding in the culture. Despite the efforts of the local church, wedding didn’t become popular, even after slavery was abolished. When mother was the cornerstone of the family, fathers would frequently come and go from one household to another. In the white creole society where wedding was common between white creole, white man married with their white wife would often share the bed of one or several black women or “fanm dewo”. Men having children with several woman is still tolerated, or simply silently accepted if not proudly acknowledged as sign of manhood.
Moreover, some African animist rituals remained and magic belief from west of France were introduced. People easily believed in zombies, in curses and tried to understand future from their dreams. Still nowadays, before All Saints, cemeteries are deeply cleaned and refreshed and a crowd of relatives visit their dead and gone. In the popular thought, dead and alive could share the same world and occult and normal were part of everyday life.
Several components of the folklore denote  the singularity of the relationship with divine in Martinique. “Gadé zafé” is the one who could find, for a significant stipend, why your business doesn’t work properly, why you don’t get pregnant or whatever why. White roosters can still be found in some intersections. It aims at putting a curse on somebody or removing one from you and you need to pay “quimboiseur” for that. It could happen that the cure given by quimboiseur included host or holly water stolen from church. “Dorlis” is the one who came in your bed at night and have sex with you without you feeling anything. “Soucougnan” was the creature able to change its shape during the night and become whatever it wanted. Politicians craving for votes, high-society ladies who couldn’t find a husband or get child and all kind of rich or poor people visited the “quimboiseur” on Saturday and prayed in church on Sunday morning for the same grace. Prayers were often considered as a salary to get something from God. In case of dementia or any kind of mental illness, one would typically see, first the quimboiseur, then the priest and finally, maybe the doctor.


After church Fort-de-France. 1899.

Short bibliography:

L’Eglise martiniquaise et la pitié populaire. XVII-XXe siècles. Catalogue de l’exposition organisée par les Archives départementales de la Martinique. Février-Mai 2001. 123 pages.

Geneviève LETI. L’univers magico-religieux antillais. ABC des croyances et superstitions d’hier et d’aujourd’hui. Editions L’Harmattan. 2000. 190 pages.

Christian LESNE. Cinq essais d’ethnopsychiatrie antillaise. Editions L’Harmattan. 305 pages.

Pictures from http://www.patrimoines-martinique.org/
Clipart from pinterest