'Proud to be colonised?': statue of French politician torn down in Martinique

Demands are growing on the Caribbean island to address the impact of its history of slavery

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A statue of the French politician Victor Schoelcher, who decreed the abolition of slavery in the West Indies in 1848, was decapitated and vandalised in Martinique on Friday night. The monument had been erected in 1998 to mark 150 years since the end of slavery on the Caribbean island. According to Le Figaro, the city hall in Martinique does not plan to replace it.

Tagged on the plinth was the question: "Proud to be colonised?". On another side were tagged red, green and black stripes—the colours of the flag of the National Front for the Liberation of Martinique, a political group advocating for the independence of Martinique from France. Below the stripes were the letters "JM", referring to a rum brand owned by the French group Bernard Hayot, whose distillery in Martinique was ransacked last month, partly in protest against a colonial-era image on its drink’s label.

The incident coincides with tensions in Martinique over an ongoing judicial enquiry in France, which was opened 13 years ago, into a highly toxic insecticide, chlordécone, that was used on banana plantations in the West Indies from 1972-1993. Around 90% of Martinique’s adult population could have been contaminated, according to France’s public health body. Several thousand people demonstrated in Martinique in February as the enquiry may rule that the poisonings fall outside a statute of limitations.

Discontent about Schoelcher’s statues is not new. Two other statues were pulled down from their plinths in Martinique on 22 May last year, the date that celebrates the abolition of slavery on the island. Young people declared that: “Schoelcher is not our saviour”. French President Emmanuel Macron condemned the acts that “dirtied” Schoelcher’s memory. A bust of Schoelcher was also removed in Guadeloupe last July.

The political scientist Françoise Vergès tells The Art Newspaper: “Schoelcher was neither a slave trader nor a slave owner and was behind the decree making the abolition of slavery in the French colonies final and definitive. [But he] represents a past that offered absolutely no repair for the crimes, damages and wounds of the slaves and that facilitated and justified post-slavery colonisation.” To her mind, the tearing down of the Schoelcher statues is an attack by young Martinicans on the “false promises of equality in a world structured by racism, inequalities and injustices”.

The abolition decree compensated former slave owners but not the slaves. According to the historian Marcel Dorigny, quoted in France Info: “It is totally wrong to transform the abolitionist Schoelcher into the ‘father of indemnity’ in favour of the masters.”

The Martinique-born, Paris-based artist Sébastien Mehal says: “It’s a very complex part of history. For me, the presence of Schoelcher’s statues is unproblematic. However, I would be open towards creating other statues in honour of Black figures who have played a role in Martinique’s history.”

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