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  • Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean by Christopher M. Church
  • Sherry Johnson
Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean. By Christopher M. Church (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2017) 324 pp. $65.00

In the twenty-five years since Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida in 1992, historians, when confronted with questions that cannot be [End Page 504] answered satisfactorily by utilizing traditional categories of analysis, have turned to the effects of natural hazards to explain the outcome of historical processes. Unfortunately for Martinique and Guadeloupe, the years under study (the 1890s through the 1910s) had no shortage of natural and man-made catastrophes that Church could employ to address the intertwined issues of race, class, nationality, citizenship, and colonialism (he includes a mine collapse in France for comparison's sake). In 1890, the major cities on both islands were destroyed by fires exacerbated by drought, and the following year, Martinique took a direct hit from a devastating hurricane. Later in the decade, a worldwide economic crisis led to a decline in the price of sugar causing unemployment and rising prices, which, in turn, fueled resentment and political unrest throughout the region as cane workers took their rage out on private property. An earthquake struck Guadeloupe in 1897; continued incendiarism resulted in the destruction of Pointe-à-Petre, the largest city, in April 1899; a category-four hurricane struck in August 1899; and the eruption of Mt. Peleé on Martinique in May 1902 killed 30,000 residents and left the surrounding region uninhabitable for decades.

The islands' sequential calamities become the foils that allow Church to explore political and social attitudes regarding citizenship and colonialism in an era of Social Darwinism. Early in the book, Church asserts that the "extension of France in the tropics became the site of an intense struggle over French identity and nationality" (19). A later section establishes the debate about scientific racism, tropical exoticism, and the emergence of a "new race of Frenchmen" (38). It highlights the clash between metropolitan entrepreneurs who valued Martinique and Guadeloupe solely for their economic importance and assimilationists who viewed the islands as an opportunity for settlement and an inclusive society. French law dictated that all residents were citizens, but not all citizens were worthy of an equal amount of post-disaster assistance. Cosmopolitan and sophisticated Martinique was the favorite; rural, backward, and phenotypically darker Guadeloupe always received less consideration. Initially, after the fires and hurricane early in the 1890s, the metropolis displayed an outpouring of support, but as time progressed, sequential disasters, combined with the worldwide economic downturn, a crisis in the sugar harvest, and labor unrest, contributed to disaster fatigue. The result was a concomitant decline in enthusiasm to support "concitoyens" who lived in a "tropical environment that perpetually threatened French civilization" (97, 109).

This well-researched book moves beyond being simply an analysis of the issues surrounding race, citizenship, and colonialism by incorporating the theoretical and methodological models of disaster studies. Starting with a comprehensive knowledge of the secondary literature, Church consults primary sources from local archives in Martinique and Guadeloupe, as well as from the French National Library, the overseas colonial repository in Aixen-Provence, and the National Archives near Paris. He augments official documentation (from France and the United States, for example) with travelers' letters, contemporary diaries, [End Page 505] newspapers, advertisements, and literature, weaving these sources into a detailed and colorful narrative interspersed with biographies of the most important personalities. One of the most effective pieces of evidence, the beautiful color image that graces the book's cover, is an illustration of a white Marianne (the symbol of France), extending a helping hand to a mulatta Marianne (a symbol of the islands), fleeing the eruption of Mt. Peleé in 1902. Church also compiles and analyzes a variety of numerical data from the quantities of sugar produced and exported to ascertain which areas of Martinique sustained the greatest financial losses in the hurricane of 1891 and which regions of France were most generous in providing financial relief. His time-series analysis of the percentage of books that employed patriotic language shows spikes after the successive crises. Church demonstrates that by...


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pp. 504-506
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