Coastal Defenses and Creole-Metropolitan Relations in Old Régime Martinique

Friday, January 6, 2017: 8:50 AM
Room 402 (Colorado Convention Center)
Arad Gigi, Florida State University
This paper traces the construction of the French imperial defense structure in Saint Pierre, Martinique, during the Old Régime. It explores the relationship between the monarchy and the city’s creole elite surrounding these massive construction projects in order to shed better light on the nature of creole-metropolitan relations in early-modern France and the sources of the Revolutionary break.

            I look closely at three different episodes in the history of the construction of Saint Pierre’s fortifications – in the 1680s, when the monarchy first assumed direct role in shaping overseas colonization, the post-War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714) period, when tensions between colonists and the monarchy mounted, and in the military re-organization of the post-Seven Years War (1756-1763). Analyzing these different affairs, I make a twofold argument. First, motivated to find the origins of the Age of Revolution, historians regularly portray creole-metropolitan relations—be it in the French, English, or Spanish empires— as inherently tense and unstable. I suggest, however, that we stir away from these artificial divisions. Neither the creoles nor the monarchy were a coherent, unified political entity, and the relationship between the king’s officers and the local population were often good and mutually beneficial.

Second, I argue that fortifications were not merely defensive edifices, but also offensive instruments that were utilized by the emerging state to assert its sovereignty, both physically and symbolically, in a period when sovereignty was increasingly understood in territorial terms. Saint Pierre’s inhabitants assisted the expansion of the French state’s reach to the Caribbean, and thus played an important role in facilitating the rise of the modern state. Consequently, I argue that the state did not just expand from the center outward, but was molded from the contours inside.