Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2021
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On the trail of Napoleon’s Josephine in Martinique

The French Caribbean island of Martinique is known for many things: exquisite black-sand beaches, delicious Creole cuisine and smooth A.O.C. rum. But Martinique also has a much older, more majestic claim to fame.

It was here that a young girl was once told “you will be greater than a queen” by a local fortune teller.

What’s so special about that? Well, that girl was none other than Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie (1763-1814), better known by the name given to her by her second husband, many years later in Paris: Josephine.

That husband was, of course, Napoleon, and their love story would be one of the greatest in history. But before she was Empress, Josephine grew up in the tropical beauty of Martinique, an upbringing that formed her character. Her contemporaries often described her as a “true Creole,” (a French term for a European raised in the Caribbean) — vivacious, elegant and sensual — and it was said that Napoleon first fell in love with her languorous walk.

Martinique, like Josephine, is a delightful blend of the tropics and France. A voluptuous island of beaches, rolling mountains, and flourishing fields of pineapple, banana and sugar cane. Martinique also boasts boulangeries and routes nationales (part of France’s highway system) filled with the latest Renaults and Citroëns. Like Josephine’s, the local accent has a pleasing Creole cadence and la métropole (Paris) is spoken of as if it were next door (which, with direct flights daily, it almost is). Everywhere are reminders of the local girl who became an Empress.

I began my search for Josephine — or Rose, as her family called her — in the village of Trois-Îlets, today one of Martinique’s prettiest villages. The main street is now called rue de l’Impératrice Joséphine since she was baptised in the town’s terracotta-coloured church and was born nearby at her family’s sugar plantation, today the Musée de la Pagerie.

The plantation is an evocative ruin surrounded by a lush tropical valley. A small stone building that was once the kitchen is a museum devoted to Josephine. Visitors can see her childhood bed, a lock of her pale chestnut hair, pictures and documents recounting her life: her first marriage to a revolutionary viscount who lost his head at the guillotine (a fate she barely escaped herself); her passionate affair at 31 with a rising 25-year-old general, Napoleon; their divorce when she could not give him an heir; and Napoleon’s last word on his deathbed: “Josephine.”

The museum attracts everyone from school groups to European royalty. “We get some remarkable visitors,” said Germaine Renciot, a guide at La Pagerie; “Josephine has descendants in many royal houses; the Queen of Sweden was here not long ago.”

But the Josephine story is not all romance. The museum also displays a document of emancipation signed by Napoleon for a slave in Josephine’s service, as well as rusted slave chains — sobering reminders of the underbelly of plantation culture. “Visitors are often surprised to learn about her slavery associations,” said Renciot. Josephine’s family owned over 200 slaves, and Napoleon re-instated slavery in Martinique in 1802 after it had been abolished by the Revolution. “People are proud to have an Empress from Martinique, but her history is complicated.”

This paradox is evident in her memorial in the capital, Fort-de-France, a 20-minute ferry ride across the azure bay from Trois-Îlets. Erected during the Second Empire when Josephine’s grandson, Napoleon III, ruled France, an elegant statue of the Empress presides over La Savane park. However, it is missing a key element: her head. It was clandestinely lopped off several years ago.

Most, however, view this symbolic decapitation with humour. Martinique’s history of pirates, slavery and sugar is considered just that, history, which visitors can learn about at several interesting museums around Trois-Îlets. La Maison de la Canne, an ancient rum distillery turned museum, explores Martiniquan history through its most vital industry: sugar cane.

Josephine’s family plantation also produced coffee and the Musée de Café et Cacao presents a fascinating hodgepodge of coffee paraphernalia (including a tiny neo-classical espresso cup with Josephine’s portrait) and history. Napoleon loved coffee, reportedly declaring “Le café fort me ressuscite” (strong coffee revives me).

Even more evocative of historic Martinique are the surviving plantations throughout the island. Many, like La Pagerie, are picturesque ruins, such as the marvellous 17th-century Habitation Céron, practically engulfed in jungle north of St. Pierre. Others have been put to new uses, such as Plantation Leyritz, now a hotel overlooking the Atlantic.

However, it is Habitation Clément near Le François, today one of Martinique’s celebrated rhumeries, which is most reminiscent of plantation life in Josephine’s day. It has the only fully restored planter’s house in Martinique and gives an idea of their elegant practicality: cool tile floors, louvered windows and shaded verandas of rich local wood. Wandering its airy spaces, it’s easy to imagine a life of languid comfort.

But the true majesty of Josephine’s Martinique was, and still is today, the land. From the beautifully landscaped plantations to the views from the highway, there are flowering trees, stately palms and fragrant eucalyptus everywhere. Josephine never forgot the exceptional natural beauty of her childhood home and, as Empress, she tried to recreate a bit of Martinique’s tropical splendour at Malmaison, her home near Paris.

She wrote to her mother in Martinique to send “trees and seeds of as many species as possible,” which Josephine’s gardener grew in her famous gardens and greenhouse; she even grew sugar cane so that her grandchildren could experience the tastes of her own childhood. Josephine had a serious sweet tooth, which is usually credited for her famously bad teeth!

Legend also claims that Josephine once swam in the Baignoire de Josephine (Josephine’s Bathtub), a dazzling stretch of shallow water off of the town of Le François. On the short boat ride out to the sandbar, I asked the captain, a friendly grandmother, “Did Josephine really come here?” With a wink and a laugh she replied, “Oh, I doubt it. But if she did, I am sure she loved it.” And, as I floated in the warm turquoise waters in the afternoon sun, I believed her completely.

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