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  • Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean by Christopher M. Church
  • Ernesto Bassi
Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean. By Christopher M. Church. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017. Pp. 308. $65.00 cloth; $35.00 paper.

The last decade of the nineteenth century and the opening years of the twentieth century were particularly devastating to the French Antilles. Far from being an isolated event (despite its extraordinary destructive force), the eruption of Martinique’s Mount Pelée in May 1902 was, as Christopher Church shows, one among several natural disasters that wreaked havoc on the French Antilles during the middle decades of France’s Third Republic. In addition to the volcanic eruption that completely wiped out Saint-Pierre’s population, Martinique and Guadeloupe endured destructive natural fires (1890), at least two damaging hurricanes (1891 and 1899), and an earthquake (1897) that, put together, killed hundreds; incinerated, blew away, or smashed thousands of homes and [End Page 491] commercial properties; and left thousands of residents “without food, water, shelter, or clothes (61).” In the eventful years from 1890 to 1902, the French Caribbean islands also suffered a disastrous episode of incendiarism (Guadeloupe, 1899) and a paralyzing general strike (Martinique, 1899). The human, physical, and economic costs of these natural (or “nature-induced,” as Church prefers) and “human-induced” disasters “were staggering (61).” Even though this book certainly shows (and even quantifies) the magnitude of these costs, Church’s focus is on analyzing how disasters impacted “citizenship rights and the French state’s relationship to those citizens” (4).

The disasters accelerated the already rapid decline of the islands’ sugar economy; therefore, they played a crucial role in turning Martinique and Guadeloupe from “valuable financial assets” to “a drain on the French economy.” In addition, the disasters (and the French government’s response to them) “exacerbated societal tensions” (3) and laid bare the liminal status of the French Caribbean in the French imagination and legal codes. As Church effectively puts it, the disasters made evident that Martinique and Guadeloupe were “more than colonies but not quite departments” (109) of France and that their inhabitants were full French citizens “in theory if not in practice” (6).

This exploration of the liminal status of Martinique and Guadeloupe and their inhabitants takes central place in Church’s analysis. Carefully following reactions to Caribbean disasters in metropolitan France, he identifies and analyses opposite reactions, which he characterizes as an “exclusionary ‘calculus of disaster’” and an “inclusive ‘language of citizenship’” (11). The reactions, in turn, resulted in interpretations of the French Antilles as both fully French (as in the total identification of workers in France with their fellow workers in Martinique in the aftermath of the strikes, which Church analyzes in Chapter 4) and as completely foreign (as in Chapter 5’s analysis of how the eruption of Martinique’s Mount Pelée in 1902 marked the Antilles as a place of danger completely different from metropolitan France). The recurrence of catastrophic events, thus, marked the Caribbean as “a volatile, exotic environment that perpetually threatened to annihilate those living there” (63).

Church’s analyses of reactions in France to the 1890 fires (Chapter 2) and the 1891 hurricane (Chapter 3) offer great examples of the author’s exhaustive and creative use of sources to illustrate the opposite reactions of inclusion and exclusion. Through a detailed analysis of the financial contributions of all French departments toward disaster relief in the aftermath of the 1890 fires, Church makes a compelling case for solidarity and compatriotism while also showing that donations fulfilled political and cultural roles associated with the Third Republic’s nationalistic campaign. Thus, the fact that Lorraine “had by far the largest donations per capita” is, Church convincingly argues, intricately connected with the department’s “need to prove Lorraine’s Frenchness after the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War” (83). In sharp contrast to the response to the 1890 fires, the 1891 hurricane resulted in an “economic calculus” that “constrained [End Page 492] relief efforts and undercut aid distributions” (112), thus, marking Antilleans, despite displays of compatriotism, as “second-class citizens” (146).

Church’s choice to connect Martinique and Guadeloupe with...


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pp. 491-493
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