Fort-de-France – city and capital of the French overseas département and région of Martinique, in the West Indies. It lies on the west coast of the island of Martinique, at the northern entrance to the large Fort-de-France Bay, at the mouth of the Madame River. The city occupies a narrow plain between the hills and the sea but is accessible by road from all parts of the island. Formerly called Fort-Royal, it has been Martinique’s capital since 1680.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, France amassed a vast empire in North America and the Caribbean. Today, the three Overseas Departments of France in the Western Hemisphere—Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana—encompass virtually all that remains of that imperial sovereignty.
MARTINIQUE is one of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean, and its beauty is matched by the richness of its history. Although discovered by Columbus, the island was taken for France in 1635 and has since been a possession of that country, except for three short periods when it was under British occupation.
A singular feature of its history is that it has bred a race of queens. Joséphine, who was to become Empress of France; her daughter Hortense, who became Queen of Holland; Madame de Maintenon, morganatic wife of Louis XIV; and Aimée Debuc, the sultan validah, or queen mother, of Turkey—all were born on Martinique.
Fort-de-France, with more than 100,000 residents, is the only significant metropolitan center on the island. The city is picturesque in that the architecture is colorful, and the effects of the tropics tend to explain, and even soften, the rather shabby aspect of much of the town. Open drainage ditches alongside some streets are an eyesore and a nuisance, but they no longer carry sewage and are gradually being covered up.
Martinique was first settled by Europeans in 1635, and many parts of the island are associated with the history of the past three centuries. However, the climate, earthquakes, and the total destruction in 1902 of Saint-Pierre, then the island’s principal city, have erased many vestiges of the past.
It was only after Saint-Pierre was destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount (Mont) Pelée that Fort-de-France gained prominence. Interesting archaeological sites exist on the island, once the scene of important developments of Arawak and Carib cultures dating back to the beginning of the Christian era.
Martinique and Guadeloupe are densely populated, tropical, and agricultural. Sugar, bananas, pineapples to a lesser extent, and assistance from metropolitan France are the economic underpinnings of the islands, providing them with a standard of living higher than that of most of the rest of the Caribbean. French culture is pervasive. The tourist industry has been slow to develop, although tourists are much in evidence during winter. They arrive aboard cruise ships, but generally leave after spending less than a day on Martinique.
Martinique lies about halfway down the arc of the Lesser Antilles that extends from Puerto Rico to Trinidad. It is some 900 miles north of the equator, about 280 miles from the South American mainland, and 4,400 miles from metropolitan France. Guadeloupe is 100 miles north of Martinique. Its island dependencies of French Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthélemy are 150 miles north of Guadeloupe proper and about 100 miles from the U.S. Virgin Islands. French Guiana, wedged between Brazil and Suriname on the north coast of South America, extends from the second to the sixth degree of north latitude.
Lightweight clothing is worn throughout the year; washable, wrinkle-free fabrics are preferable. Cotton underwear and children’s clothes can be purchased locally. Good quality yard goods are available, but expensive. Men wear clothing similar to that worn in Washington, DC in the summer. Dark suits are appropriate for evenings. Women rarely need hats (except sunhats) or gloves; these are worn almost exclusively at church ceremonies. Dressy cottons are comfortable and suitable.
During winter, some women wear cocktail dresses of silk and brocade. Also necessary is an ample supply of low-heeled shoes for walking over the rough sidewalks and streets in town. Shoes may be found locally, but none narrower than a B width. A coat is never needed but, on occasion, a fabric stole is useful.
A number of supermarkets are found in Fort-de-France, including large ones in residential districts. Most stock is imported, and prices are high.
Variety of produce is usually good, although delay in transport can result in occasional shortages. A few American brands are carried locally, usually manufactured under license in Europe. Locally produced meat and fish have their own sizable markets in downtown Fort-de-France, and several similar markets sell local fruits and vegetables.
Supplies & Services
A few tailors and dressmakers do good work relatively inexpensively. Shoe repair is adequate. Dry cleaning and laundry services range from fair to good, but are expensive by U.S. standards. Beauty shops have reasonable prices, offer adequately skilled service, and are beginning to install up-to-date equipment. Radio and other household repair service is apt to be casual, with disregard for deadlines or commitments. Pharmacies are well-stocked with French drugs, but precise equivalents of American products are not always available.
All local education is in French. The public and parochial elementary and secondary schools have lower academic standards than in metropolitan France, although they operate according to the same system. Kindergartens are both available and good. During the past few years, Americans have enrolled children in elementary schools or kindergartens in Fort-de-France, but it is hard to gain admission to some of these institutions. American children who speak French have no difficulty making friends among the children in the various communities on Martinique, either local or from metropolitan France.
High school students are normally sent to boarding schools in the U.S. or elsewhere. For teenagers who want to stay with their parents and are willing or able to follow French courses, education is possible here. Fort-de-France has a school of music and a number of private music and dance teachers. Tutoring is available in diverse subjects to those whose French is adequate. A branch of the University of the Antilles and Guiana, a government-owned institution whose headquarters are on Guadeloupe, offers a four-year program in some subjects and a two-year program in others.
The Martiniquais are sports-minded. Everyone, it seems, plays or closely follows one or more sports. Football (soccer), cycling, and basketball are among the more popular games. In recent years, Americans have enjoyed sports such as tennis (four courts are available through membership in two tennis clubs), riding (two riding stables are in the residential environs of Fort-de-France), golf (one nine-hole course 45 minutes from Fort-de-France), gymnastics, and judo classes for both men and women. Boating is popular and may be attractive to those willing to assume the expense involved. Sailing lessons under French governmental auspices are inexpensive and popular. Martinique is a fairly good spot for scuba diving, spearfishing, and snorkeling.
Being a beautiful mountainous island, Martinique would seem to offer much in the way of outdoor activities. However, much of the island’s potential is undeveloped, and the hot, humid climate is not conducive to sustained physical effort. Few parks or public recreation areas exist on the island, and the only beaches near Fort-de-France are artificially made beaches adjoining the principal hotels, mostly across the bay in Trois Islets area. Black volcanic beaches are in the north, and beautiful white-sand stretches in the south are accessible within an hour’s drive. Hiking in and around Fort-de-France is difficult because of the climate and the total lack of serviceable sidewalks or footpaths. The higher mountains have trails for hardy hikers. Only in French Guiana is there any worthwhile hunting. For those who enjoy the out-of-doors, nature studies are attractive.
The area around Victor Hugo, Schoelcher, and Antoine Siger Streets in Fort-de-France is replete with boutiques and duty-free shops. There are also a department store, a designer fashion shop, and an arts and crafts center in this area. There are a few small museums on Martinique. The sugar-plantation birthplace of Empress Josephine has been turned into an historical repository and included here is a display of Napoleon’s love letters. Other archives include the Volcano-logical Museum in Saint-Pierre, a new gallery dedicated to Paul Gauguin, and a small museum that displays pre-Columbian and colonial artifacts.
There are 30 hotels on Martinique. Discotheques, nightclubs, and gambling casinos light up the night, but dining seems to be the favorite evening activity; an endless choice of restaurants feature French and creole cuisine. Twice a year, a small company of actors comes from France, once to produce classical French plays and once to sing operettas. Occasionally a musician, a traveling lecturer, or a local artist offers his talent for public enjoyment. There is considerable interest in music here, and amateur musicians can find ample scope to develop their talents in a congenial atmosphere.
The American community on Martinique is small, and is confined to a few business people, missionaries, several American spouses of French citizens, and some Martiniquais who have acquired American citizenship after living in the U.S., but have chosen to retire in the Antilles. Social organizations, such as the local bridge club, attract many of these Americans. The most socially active times of year are the Christmas/New Year holiday season and pre-Lent carnival, and early summer. Most social life is centered around the family and, for this reason some single Americans assigned here have found it difficult to establish contacts. Reasonable fluency in French is the principal requirement for establishment of professional and personal relationships.
For me, when I first debark from the cruiseship, my attention was immediately captivated by the large bay and the Fort perched on the hill to my right from where the cruiseship was docked. Certainly a breathtaking view, what with all the small boats and yachts sprawled across the entire bay.
What warm sunny morning that turned out to be! To add to the festive mood, there was actually a local festival going on along the waterfont!.