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On Martinique: Exploring the Empress Josephine's childhood home, La Pagerie

June 4, 2015

A tropical getaway spent on the French Caribbean island of Martinique totally won the Island Runaways over. Did its allure lie in the variety of beaches, from Le Diamant with its rolling waves and gorgeous view of Diamond Rock, to placid Grande Anse in Les Anses d'Arlet? Or was it the rum or "rhum agricole" that Martinique is justifiably famous for? Sure, it was all those things and more, much more. But one delightful surprise this Antillean gem had in store was...the history. Due to the vagaries of fate and its identity as a French colony for many years, Martinique has several historical attractions well worth a visit. One of our very favorites? La Pagerie estate in Trois Ilets, the childhood home of the Empress Josephine. Yes, I mean that Josephine, the consort of Napoleon Bonaparte. Want to know more? 

 (The ruins of a factory on La Pagerie estate in Martinique. Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)

 

Josephine started life on the island back in 1763, when she was born to a Creole planter family. She was baptized Marie Josephe Tascher de La Pagerie. (It was Napoleon who later gave her the nickname "Josephine.") She grew up on the sugar plantation, where she had significantly more freedom than a child of her class and background might have had in Paris in that era. Later, she would recall how she got to run and play with utter freedom.

 (The entrance to La Pagerie, today a museum. Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)

 

Of course, not everyone on the estate enjoyed such freedom. The enslaved African men and women who cut and processed sugar cane were consigned to a life of hardship and toil. We were reminded of that during our visit, as we viewed a temporary exhibition about slavery. Josephine's biographer, Andrea Stuart, once commented that Josephine had contradictory attitudes towards the Afro-Caribbean people who worked her family's land. On one hand, like many planter families of the time, she saw nothing wrong with the idea of owning other human beings. On the other hand, Josephine could be quite compassionate toward individual slaves whom she cared for. It's hard to imagine that world today -- but certainly walking through the grounds and remains of the sugar factory spark the imagination.

 (The tropical grounds at La Pagerie, Trois Ilets, Martinique. Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)


Some people imagine that world of Creole white planters as being luxurious, pampered existences. But in fact, many accrued a great deal of debt, due to the ups and downs of agriculture and the market for their crops or product. In 1776 a hurricane slammed Martinique and destroyed the property's Great House or "Maison de maitre." Josephine's father, Joseph-Gaspard de Tascher de la Pagerie, could not afford to have it rebuilt, so the family lived on the upper floor of the sugar-drying house (purgerie). Today, most of La Pagerie's buildings are in ruin, although one, a former cookhouse, remains and has been converted into a small museum. Inside, we saw Josephine's childhood bed:

 (Josephine's chlid-sized bed. Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)

 

It was very moving to see this small bed, where she spent the night until in 1773 her family eventually sent her to convent school in Martinique's capital Fort-de-France (in other days called Fort Royal). You could just imagine a little girl in her nightgown climbing under the sheets.

 (A bust and pictures depicting Josephine. Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)

 

Inside the stone building we also saw pictures depicting Josephine in France, a sculptured bust of her, and also letters sent from Napoleon. He was passionately in love with her, although he eventually divorced her when she could not bear him children. It's hard to grasp that this little girl, born far away in the French Antilles, sailed all the way to France in the 18th century,, married a nobleman, had a daughter, was imprisoned during the French Revolution, eventually was released, attracted the attentions of a young Corsican general on the make -- Napoleon Bonaparte, and was crowned Empress. What an extraordinary life. And the trajectory started here, on a plantation in Martinique.

 (At the factory ruins, La Pagerie. Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)

 

Our only regret was that the guided tour was in French, so Zickie and our daughter could not understand. Perhaps in the future the museum will offer something in English. Nevertheless, walking through the property and viewing relics from her life was absolutely fascinating. Despite the fact that the Caribbean is celebrated for its gorgeous beaches, its diving, its rum, and its resorts, the history of these islands should not be missed. Even without the tour in English, these travelers were glad that we'd made to drive to La Pagerie, just outside the town of Trois Ilets, and discover where an empress got her start in life. Martinique held other historical attractions which we'll have to save for another post...

 

 

 

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