Seeking Imperialism’s Embrace: National Identity, Decolonization and Assimilation in the French Caribbean, by Kristen Stromberg Childers

Olivette Otele on a timely reappraisal of the decision by some French territories to remain in the republic

February 9, 2017
St Barths, French West Indies
Source: iStock

In 1946, people from the French territories of Martinique, Guadeloupe, La Réunion and Guiana chose to join the French Republic instead of fighting for independence as their colonised West African and Indo-Chinese counterparts did. For both the Caribbean novelist Édouard Glissant and the anthropologist Michel Leiris, the choice to become French departments was based on fear, self-denial and alienation. But in Seeking Imperialism’s Embrace, Kristen Stromberg Childers argues that departmentalisation was a sensible and well-regarded decision at the time. Antilleans believed that mainland France would hold to its part of the bargain by applying French universalist values of equality to overseas brethren who had fought alongside the Allies during the Second World War.

As the poet and statesman Aimé Césaire noted, the vast majority of the French Antilles’ populace supported departmentalisation in 1946. The territories had come out almost unscathed by the war’s naval blockade. They helped to defeat the Vichy regime supported by the Békés, the white Antillean elite who hoped that full independence would return them to a pre-abolition era of white rule. Meanwhile, the segregationist, Békés-supporting US lay in wait, ready to take over if France were to grant independence. Antilleans voted for departmentalisation to start afresh as French citizens who had earned the right to be treated with dignity.

Alas, departmentalisation proved a disappointment. Drawing on a vast body of archival sources, Childers demonstrates that even if the territories’ current economic inequality may be relative (for example, in 2005 women’s life expectancy in Guadeloupe was the highest in the region, Central and South America included), French Antilleans still suffer from neglect and the central government’s laissez-faire approach. Her account reveals how various policies on wages, housing and employment serve to discriminate against people from the DOM-TOM (départements et territoires d’outre-mer), both at home and in mainland France. Metropolitans settling in the Antilles benefit from government subsidies, whereas Antilleans who migrate to the mainland suffer from racially motivated discriminatory practices.

One of Childers’ most fascinating focuses is on the premises of the debate over independence. It has been argued that opting to become French territories was a mistake that cost the people of French overseas territories dearly. But Childers maintains that the decision made in 1946, and the current demands being made of the French government by the territories’ inhabitants, show that Antilleans were precursors of what Cornel West has called “democratic awakening”. Despite centuries of slavery and violence, they gave France the opportunity to apply its humanist principles of philosophical, social and economic equality. They did so not out of blind faith but to advance a society that they were planning to be a full part of. History seems to have proven the enthusiasts of 1946 wrong, yet Antilleans are still, as Childers puts it, “leading the way in shaping new forms of global citizenship”.

This timely volume provides crucial historical background to one current debate in particular. In November 2016, the Stora Commission, comprising eight historians, presented its analysis on the riots of 1959 in Martinique and in 1967 in Guiana, and the conspiracy theory arising from the French government’s refusal to publish a report on a 1962 plane crash in Guadeloupe in which hundreds of passengers died. The Stora report concluded that “social misery” and public manifestations of distrust towards the state had led the French government to re-evaluate its policies towards these territories. In addition to its contribution to analysis of issues in the French Antilles, Childers’ book adds to scholarly work on the Caribbean more broadly, on France and on post-colonial legacies.

Olivette Otele is reader in history, Bath Spa University.

Seeking Imperialism’s Embrace: National Identity, Decolonization and Assimilation in the French Caribbean
By Kristen Stromberg Childers
Oxford University Press, 288pp, £47.99
ISBN 9780195382839
Published 20 October 2016

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