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  • Guest Editor’s IntroductionCaribbean Women Reconfigure National Identities
  • Felix Germain (bio)

At the turn of the 1800s, with a few hundred men, Louis Delgrès, a Martinican officer stationed in Guadeloupe, was protecting the island against impending British invasions. Delgrès and his crew had every reason to take this task seriously. Slavery had been abolished in the island, and the British who had seized Martinique, the sister island, still thrived from the plantation system. On March 25, 1802, however, the treaty of Amien ended the hostilities between France and England, giving Martinique back to the French. Delgrès’s mission seemed accomplished—liberty, equality, and fraternity would prevail in the French colonies. But the planters’ persistent lobbying changed the fate of both the enslaved population of Martinique and the freed black populations of Haiti and Guadeloupe. Napoléon, who married Joséphine de Beauharnais, the daughter of a Martinican planter who depended on slavery, decided against freedom in the French empire. The French became the unlikely foe, as Napoléon’s men sailed west to reestablish slavery in the old colonies.1

While the French earned a major defeat at the hands of Haitian revolutionaries, they easily crushed the Guadeloupean resistance. Today, this event is still vivid in Guadeloupean memory. It is vivid because Delgrès and his men fought one of the most heroic battles in the history of the Americas. For three consecutive days they battled the French to preserve freedom. Eventually, overpowered by numerically superior and better armed French soldiers, they lost. Yet their defeat gave Guadeloupe an everlasting victory. Indeed, Delgrès and his three hundred men never capitulated. Clinging to the ideals of the [End Page v] French Revolution, particularly to the notion that every individual is entitled to freedom, they committed mass suicide, thereby making death their gateway to freedom.

One figure, a woman, would emerge as the icon of this tragic episode. On May 23, 1802, French colonial forces arrested La Mulâtresse Solitude, a mixed-race and pregnant woman. Despite her condition, Solitude had opted to fight on Delgrès’s side, risking her own life and the life of her unborn child. For that reason she was jailed and, after giving birth, executed.2 Today, Guadeloupeans have erected a statue honoring Solitude. Dressed in traditional Guadeloupean attire and standing proudly with her hands on her waist, the statue is visibly pregnant. Interestingly enough, despite the heroine’s mixed-race background the statue possesses well-defined African features, hinting that the process of commemorating the woman’s heroic act is entangled with contemporary Guadeloupean politics and the construction of “national” identity. But La Mulâtresse Solitude is not the only woman of the late eighteenth century who has been immortalized by a beautiful statue.

In the mid-nineteenth century, a statue of Joséphine de Beauharnais was also erected in Martinique. The statue towers majestically over la savane, Fort-de-France’s beautiful city park. For decades, Joséphine’s statue embodied the connection—almost a love connection—between Martinique and France, the beloved motherland. But in 1991, after surging nationalist movements and a change in historical consciousness within the Martinican population, the statue stood in la savane decapitated, with red paint poured over her neck. On the pedestal one could read respe ba Matink/respe ba 22 me (“respect for Martinique/respect for May 22”), citing the date of a slave insurrection that actually ended slavery in Martinique prior the arrival of the official decree from France. While the Kreyol inscriptions referring to May 22 highlight the slaves’ agency in fighting and destroying the plantation slavery system, the decapitation of Josephine marks the outright rejection of those who supported slavery, including the islands’ French Creole population and the French state, which had not yet recognized transatlantic slavery as a crime against humanity. Simultaneously, Josephine’s beheading is a posthumous indictment, punishing the woman for her purported role in helping reestablish slavery in the French Caribbean. Indeed, according to popular belief, Joséphine, a “deviously manipulative seductress,” supposedly convinced Napoleon that maintaining slavery served the interest of the French empire.

Yet Natasha Barnes reminds us that Josephine may...


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