Arriving on Martinique I was expecting it to be French – very French – and indeed it carries all the hallmarks of its status as an overseas department of France. There are four arrondissements and the island has decent roads, many of them dual carriageways. It has blocks of flats. It has endless commercial parks filled with French supermarkets and building-supply stores. It has innumerable main dealerships for Renault and Citroen – and is quite distinct from any of the other islands where we have visited on our cruise. No shacks or shanty towns – but also, far less picturesque “typically Caribbean” simplicity.
To me, the bonus was discovering Chateau Dubuc, way out on the eastern peninsula known as Presqu’ile de la Caravelle. It is in ruins, and never was a castle – more a manor house situated on a superb elevated site with magnificent sea-views.
The Dubuc family apparently came over from Normandy in the late 17th Century and established tobacco, sugar and (unusually) coffee plantations. A scion of the family then moved to Caravelle and in 1721 decided to build himself a fine plantation house, using granite and blocks of coral limestone. What I admire is his vision – this wasn’t just a home, it was a complete economic unit in one place, where he and his family, with no doubt numerous slaves, could grow their own sugar cane, process it, make it into brown sugar (like muscavado) and distil it into rum. For good measure the mountain-growing coffee beans could be collected, processed on the same site, and all the produce would then be barrelled and trundled down a hauling way to the harbour where ships would be gathering to take the produce back to France for sale.
The family were obviously hit hard when earthquakes damaged the building in 1726, just as the main plantation house had been finished, and again in the 1750s when there were earthquakes and hurricanes in successive years. But the Dubuc family were no quitters and they carried on until 1794 when the British came along, sacked the place, and the Dubucs gave up and went home to France. It then deteriorated over the centuries, allegedly a haunt of pirates and smugglers, until the 2.5 hectare site was taken over by the French Department of Works, and sympathetically restored. Well, made safe at any rate. Because what is nice is that there has been very little attempt to restore – more, to repair, to explain the significance and use of buildings, and to preserve a fascinating piece of history. You can see where the sugar cane was fed under giant rollers. The 12 stone pillars supporting the roof to the mill are all that remains of the external structure – now looking rather like an industrial Stonehenge – but a scale replica of the grinding machine has been constructed in situ. You can see where the cane juice ran through channels to be collected in huge vats where it was boiled, refined, and made into molasses. A separate process produced the refined sugar, and anther area converted it into rum after being distilled.
All in all a fascinating insight into 18th Century colonial life.