West Indies and Martinique: Irish connections

26 February 2013

Described as “the island of flowers” Martinique is in the Lesser Antilles group of the Caribbean islands. Its political and administrative capital is Fort-de-France. Its famous daughter was Empress Joséphine, first wife of Napoléon Bonaparte. She was born Marie-Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, daughter of a wealthy white Creole family that owned a sugar plantation. Her maternal great- grandfather, Anthony Brown, was said to be Irish. V.S. Naipul in 1962 wrote Martinique is France. Arriving from Trinidad you feel you have crossed not the Caribbean, but the English Channel.

The West Indies comprises a chain of islands extending from the Florida peninsula to the coast of Venezuela, lying between the Caribbean and the Atlantic. They consist of three main island groups, the Greater and Lesser Antilles and the Bahamas, with Bermuda lying further north. Originally inhabited by Arawak and Carib Indians, the islands were visited by Columbus in 1492 and named by him in the belief that he had reached the coast of India.

When Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) prolific English writer, toured the Caribbean islands in 1859, he found the towns on the islands under French administration superior in design, architecture and port amenities to those governed from London. Amongst the French possessions, the town of St. Pierre on the island of Martinique was considered the finest of all and was known as the Little Paris of the Antilles or West Indies.

Patricio Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) Irish orientalist, philosopher and writer, who had recently abandoned journalism, was smitten with Martinique when he wrote … even the surrounding blue-black sea … “bewitches certain Celtic eyes”.

About St. Pierre, the island’s capital before its volcanic destruction by Monte Pelée in 1902, he wrote Imagine Old New Orleans, the dear quaint part of it, young and idealized as a master artist might idealize it ,- made all tropical, with narrower and brighter streets, all climbing up the side of a volcanic peak to a tropical forest, or descending in terraces of steps to the sea - fancy Creole courts filled with giant mangoes and columnar palms (a hundred feet in height sometimes); and everything painted in bright colours, and everybody in a costume of more than Oriental picturesqueness - and astonishment of half-breed beauty - and a grand tepid wind enveloping the city in one perpetual perfumed caress. Fancy all this and you may have a faint idea of the sweetest, queerest, darlingest little city in the Antilles: - I love it as if it were a human being. (Letter to Elizabeth Bisland, July 1887).

Irish connections

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Dublin-born poet and satirist, wrote “I cannot but highly esteem those gentlemen of Ireland who, with all the disadvantages of being exiles and strangers, have been able to distinguish themselves by their valour and conduct in so many parts of Europe, I think, above all other nations”.

The Irish military diaspora refers to the many people of either birth or extraction who have served in foreign military forces, regardless of rank, duration or success. ‘Irish’ named military units, of which there are many, took part in numerous conflicts throughout the world history. The first of its kind was in the Spanish Netherlands during the Eighty Years’ War between Spain and the Dutch (1568-1648). During subsequent centuries Irish adventurers, missionaries and soldiers played prominent roles in the Spanish, French, Dutch and Danish West Indies that are all documented and chronicled.

Whether as voluntary or involuntary immigrants, the Irish arrived in huge numbers most of whom settled in the English West Indies: Leeward Islands, Barbados and Jamaica. Both planters and indentured servants of Irish origin were involved from an early date in the mother colony of St. Christopher, colonised by England 1624-5, in uneasy partnership with the French. Religious tensions regularly boiled over as Catholics encountered a hostile pre-Commonwealth diaspora of Puritan planters and merchants. Between 1628 and 1633 the other Leeward Islands of Antigua, Nevis and Montserrat, were colonised from overcrowded St. Christopher. A report by missionaries in 1637 estimated a total of 3,000 Irish people in the Leeward Islands. By 1678 seven out of ten resident Montserrat white - l,869 men, women and children - were Irish.

The Caribbean region consists of the Caribbean Sea, its islands including the West Indies, and the surrounding coasts. On 16 January 1762, the 30,000 strong force of General Monckton, including the Inniskillings, landed without opposition on the French island of Martinique. The French had built several strong redouts and had positioned batteries that covered the approach road to the town of St. Pierre. Gradually the British defeated the various strong points and when they prepared to attack the town, the French sued for peace. The 27th Inniskilling Regiment of Foot was awarded Martinique as a Battle of Honour. The Iniskilling Regiment was previously the Royal Irish Regiment (1684-1922).

In Martinique, the names of Dillon, O’Mullane, O’Neill and Lynch are established on the island making Irish connections from past to present. Arthur Dillon was a military man who established the Dillon Rum Distillery near Fort-de-France, renowned for its quality, regularly winning prizes and awards at international exhibitions. Another sugar planter was John O’Mullane associated with a major political event in 1717 that marked the history of Martinique. His name is associated with a large historical property and many other places in the Diamant region of the island. The descendants of a Patrick O’Neill, who had given their loyalty to France, settled in Martinique where they lived for 200 years. The name is given to a bridge and a canal water course in Le Marin, south of the island.

William‘Willie’Lynch was a British slave owner of a small plantation in Barbados who was invited to give a speech in 1712 about his brutal methods of slave control. He delivered it on the banks of the James River in the colony of Virginia. The long text is available in the public domain. In Martinique he is labelled ‘ancestor of whites’ and the term ‘lynching’ is derived from the name. A sign for Lynch Point at Le Robert, including a primary school, provokes ongoing opposition.

Ita Marguet, February 2013

Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in this text. It follows a family visit to the island of Martinique, February 2013. Related titles are Irish in the Caribbean: Servants, Labourers, Landlords (August 2011) and Irish Clans O’Neill: French Military Records (October 2012) about Ireland and its historical connections.