Saturday, August 16, 2014
She looms in the middle of the tropical splendor of La Savane Park, in Fort de France, Martinique's bustling capital. Strolling past the palm trees, I spotted the marble statue dedicated to the island's most famous daughter, Josephine Bonaparte. Of course, that wasn't her name when she was born in Trois-Ilets in 1763. She was named Marie Josephe Rose deTascher de la Pagerie and was called Rose until she met Napoleon after she moved to France and he nick named her Josephine. It seems that Josephine and the statue that was erected in her honor in 1859, represent the tangled and discordant relationship between France and Martinique. Although Martinique is an overseas department of France, the colonial history and legacy of slavery casts an uneasy shadow over the relationship.
In 1991, after remaining in tact for 132 years, Josephine's statue was vandalized. Her head was severed from its base, in much the same way that French aristocrats were guillotined during the French revolution, a fate suffered by Josephine's first husband and one she narrowly escaped herself. A few years later, red paint was splattered on the shoulders and base of the statue. Scrawled in creole on the pedestal are the words, "Respect Martinique, Respect May 22." The phrase references the date of the 1848 slave rebellion that finally led to the abolition of slavery in Martinique, after Napoleon reinstated the institution in 1802 after a decade of freedom, at the urging, it is said,of Josephine to benefit her family's flagging sugar plantation. The head remains missing and the paint was never removed.