Nestled in the heart of the Caribbean Sea is the tiny island nation of Martinique. Known mostly as a prime tourist destination for European and North American travelers alike, Martinique also offers one of the greatest spectacles on planet Earth. The celebration of Carnival in Martinique is one of the most unique festivals of its kind anywhere in the world. Inspired by French, African, and Latin American cultures, Carnival in Martinique is a festival that has to be experienced to be fully understood.
Martinique’s history contributes a great deal to its current cultural attitudes and festivals. Located in the chain of Lesser Antilles Islands in the Caribbean, Martinique was first charted by Christopher Columbus in the late 15th century, but it was never colonized at the time by the Spanish. The French laid claim to the island in 1635 and with the exception of a few interruptions, have controlled the island since then. The island nation is predominantly occupied by the descendants of enslaved Africans who blended their culture and beliefs with those of the ruling French, as well as neighboring Caribbean cultures. Today’s culture in Martinique is regarded as being French Creole.
Carnival in Martinique is the preeminent expression of the island’s culture and occurs annually during the four days leading up to Ash Wednesday. The weeks leading up to Carnival in Martinique see the various communes of the nation spending countless hours constructing floats and designing costumes for the festival itself. Today’s Carnival in Martinique is celebrated throughout the streets of the capital city of Fort de France, but this was not always the case.
During the early years of French rule, Carnival was celebrated in the former capital city of Saint Pierre. Carnival was initially celebrated in the 17th century by French Catholics. Carnival in the Caribbean, and Martinique, picked up in the late 17th and early 18 centuries. The tradition was initially a festival only for the rich members of French colonies. Early incarnations of Carnival in Martinique were highlighted by extravagant balls for the rich in Saint Pierre while the other side of the island celebrated vides negres.
This separation of festivals in Martinique continued even after the abolition of slavery in 1848, but a disaster that occurred 54 years later would galvanize the nation’s Carnival celebrations. The capital city of Saint Pierre was destroyed by the eruption of the volcano at Mount Pelee in 1902, bringing Carnival to a halt on the island for two years. When Carnival was resumed in 1904 in the new capital of Fort de France, the two cultures brought their unique views together to eventual create the modern version of Carnival in Martinique.
During the lead up to the Carnival celebration in Martinique, each village constructs its own floats and elects a Queen, Junior Queen, and sometimes a Queen Mother to represent their area in Carnival parades. Villages across the island will begin preparations and celebrate with weekend parades as much as two months in advance. In 2012, Carnival will kick off with a bang on 18 February and conclude on 22 February. Each day of the festival has its own unique theme that is celebrated year in and year out.
Saturday and Sunday mark the true eruption of Carnival as bands, parties, and parades fill the streets of villages across Martinique. Much of the action is centered in the Carnival hub of Fort de France, but the capital city by no means has the market cornered on celebrations. Revelers partake in a number of activities including carrying around homemade puppets known as bwa bwa, while others playfully scare children with bodies covered in coal tar and sugar-cane syrup. A full day of celebration gives way to a night of soulful music and the beguine dance, a dance which originated on Martinique.
On Monday, Carnival transforms into a burlesque day full of weddings that have to be seen to be appreciated. Men and women challenge gender roles for weddings, with men dressing in drag and women dressing as bridegrooms. This day of celebratory weddings is strongly linked to religious beliefs as the end of Carnival marks the start of Lent. Lent is a period during which the inhabitants of Martinique practice abstinence and fasting. During this period weddings are not to be held, making Monday an important day of celebration during Carnival.
Tuesday is known as the day of the devil. All day long the inhabitants of Martinique celebrate by dressing all in red and wear devil masks in parades and celebrations across the island. This leads to the final day of Carnival, taking place in Martinique on Ash Wednesday.
On Ash Wednesday, the final day of Carnival in Martinique, the she devils and devils mourn the death of the King of Carnival. Known as Vaval, the Carnival King’s death and ceremonial burning brings the celebration of Carnival to an end. Thousands of mourners dress in black and white and parade to mourn the passing of Vaval. Later in the day there is a ceremonial burning at the stake for Vaval.
Carnival in Martinique is a truly unique celebration, even among its Caribbean neighbors. While many other nations conclude their Carnival celebrations on Tuesday, Martinique carries the celebration into Ash Wednesday using the motto “Rejoice Today, Repent Tomorrow.”