By: Julienne Grant
Happy New Year! I spent part of my holiday break cruising around the eastern part of the Caribbean. Starting in San Juan, we stopped at five ports of call—Sint Maarten/Saint Martin, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Dominica, Martinique, and Saint Thomas. I’m in the process of writing an article on the legal systems of these islands, so I won’t dive into that material so much here. What I will do, however, is share a little about one of the more unusual public libraries I have seen—the Schœlcher library in Martinique. (Keep in mind as you read this, that I’m currently living in a city with a public library that has sculptures of green owls perched on top of it.)
Martinique is a French overseas department and territory (département et territoire d’outre-mer) and has a population of somewhere around 386,000. Its capital, Fort-de-France, is a captivating seaside community that has a European vibe, with a Caribbean beat. Although the French flag flies here, and the euro is king, it is the sounds of Creole and reggae that flood the city streets.
On the rue de la Liberté, across the road from a decapitated statue of Empress Josephine (more on this below), sits Fort-de-France’s crown jewel, its public library. The building itself is an elaborate and exotic structure with a Byzantine-style cupola. Designed by French architect Pierre-Henri Picq in 1884, the building was first erected in Paris, and then dismantled and shipped for re-assembly in Martinique. That this glorious building still stands is a testimony to the genius of its designer, as the island is prone to earthquakes and hurricanes.
The library itself is named after French abolitionist Victor Schœlcher, who drafted the 1848 decree that abolished slavery in the French colonies. Schœlcher donated his own private library in 1883 to the General Council of Martinique for the purpose of creating a public library. One of the library’s mandates is to preserve heritage materials related to the island.
Being duly impressed with the exterior of the building, I decided to check out the interior space. Although my French is poor, the reference librarian on duty spoke wonderful English and was kind enough to provide an impromptu tour of the place.
Although the interior is showing signs of wear (including a few cracks resulting from earthquakes), it is still quite grand. The domed ceiling is exquisite, and there is a striking portrait of Victor Schœlcher hanging in the atrium. The collection is impressive and covers everything from literature to law, including the most current Dalloz French codes. (As an overseas region of France, French national law applies in Martinique, but can be modified to address situations specific to the island.) What really impressed me, however, was how busy the library was. This is not simply a relic from an earlier time; it’s a working and modern library that is being heavily used.
Finally, a word about the decapitated statue of Empress Josephine across the street. Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoleon I’s first wife, was born and raised in Martinique. Although she may be the island’s most famous citizen, she is also probably the most despised. Her family owned slaves, and she was purportedly instrumental in convincing Napoleon to reinstate slavery in the French colonies in 1802. The marble statue was mysteriously beheaded in 1991 and was later splattered with red paint around Josephine’s delicate neckline. The gory headless statue still stands, overlooking the lovely La Savane park. For an interesting read on the statue, see the Prologue (“Josephine Beheaded”) to Cultural Conundrums: Gender, Race, Nation, and the Making of Caribbean Cultural Politics (University of Michigan Press, 2006).