REVIEW: Peterson on Church, 'Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean'

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ed. note: reposted from H-Environment 
Christopher M. Church
Alyssa Peterson

Peterson on Church, 'Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean'

Christopher M. Church. Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean. France Overseas: Studies in Empire and Decolonization Series. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017. Illustrations, maps, tables. 324 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-9099-0

Reviewed by Alyssa Peterson (University of Texas, Austin) Published on H-Environment (October, 2020) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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Halfway into my master’s degree, I attended a lecture from a visiting PhD student who used GIS (geographic information system) software to pinpoint locations in France that donated to Guadeloupe after a natural disaster. His findings seemed promising, and it was interesting to see how GIS could be used to come up with unexpected observations. As I made my way through the first chapter of Christopher M. Church’s Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean, I realized I had serendipitously been asked to review the completed work of that same PhD student from years before. And his work did not disappoint.

Fitting his work squarely within the realm of disaster studies and French history, Church uses natural disasters and civil unrest at the end of the nineteenth century to explore the French Antilles’ place within contemporary French society and politics. He argues that these events elicited, first and foremost, discussions of the islands’ economic utility, which were often couched in terms of class (and thinly veiled racism). They also forced conversations on assimilation and citizenship, with a strong rhetoric of nationality and compatriotism surrounding debates of disasters and the expected response from the metropole. Unlike traditional French historiography, which sees the islands on the receiving end of metropolitan decisions, Church demonstrates how the islands influenced the republic’s understanding of identity, republicanism, and civic inclusivity. The Antilles were at once a strange location and a definition of “Frenchness.” Throughout the book, Church contends with this continual conceptual battle between a foreign environment and a familiar society.

The first chapter explores how metropolitan France understood the Antilles and how its mulatto middle class came to be seen as “civilized” as the French, despite their racial and environmental heritage. The islands’ histories of slavery were replicated within the economy, with wealthy white landowners and poor black laborers effectively mapping class divisions directly on top of racial ones. Over time, however, a burgeoning mulatto middle class emerged. This class represented the “best” of France’s civilizing mission: a population still French because of their mixed racial backgrounds but acclimated to the tropical environment.

Chapter 2 is the first of four case studies that looks at the metropole’s response to Antillean disasters. Church uses the 1890 fires that destroyed Fort-de-France, in Martinique, and Port-Louis, in Guadeloupe, to investigate how the metropole saw the Antilles fitting into the larger French Republic. He finds that contemporary reports stressed French camaraderie and the patriotic duty of those on the continent when helping their fellow French citizens in the West Indies. The chapter also touches on the political aspects of donation relief, secularization, and the public education system. He uses GIS to make an argument about Lorraine, the region that donated the most aid relief per capita, claiming they did so as a way to prove their allegiance to the French Republic. He compares the Antillean fires with a mainland coalmine collapse to demonstrate the similarities between responses to the “exotic” West Indies and lower-class French coal miners.

The third chapter takes an in-depth look at the devastating hurricane of August 18, 1891, one of Martinique’s deadliest until the twentieth century. Church uses this disaster to discuss the “calculus of human suffering and colonial belonging” the metropole undertook when estimating monetary relief for those affected (p. 119). With metropolitan bureaucrats untrusting of mulatto government officials, continental inspectors calculated themselves the minimum required aid needed to restart the local economy in a way that would let the islanders “help themselves.” In opposition to the stingy inspectors’ report, Martinique officials argued for relief similar to what official departments received, based on a shared French heritage and loyalty.

Chapter 4 examines arson activity in Guadeloupe and related arson and general strike in Martinique in 1900. Church argues that the strike caused the island administrations and metropolitan government to address both the islands’ more extensive financial situations and racial and class divisions. However, the strike took place within a broader labor movement in France, indicating a robust Antillean connection to the metropole. Political disagreements over the origination of the strike and the local administration’s response carried up to Paris’s ongoing debates. There they added to the central government’s existing argument over labor politics, pushing some representatives to physical blows. This chapter aims to contribute to the broader French historiography and argues that omitting the Antilles in French history leaves out essential parts of the narrative.

The fifth chapter focuses on the 1902 Mount Pelée eruption and its devastating effects on the island of Martinique. Not only did the eruption cement the idea of the tropics as a hostile place, but it also brought up again the question of the Antilles’ relationship with continental France. The disaster was understood as a national disaster, one affecting all Frenchmen, but the central government’s actions were the same colonial responses of previous catastrophes. The interest in law, order, and the economy overshadowed the humanitarian needs of the island’s population, and the bulk of relief aid went to elite, usually white, islanders who needed it least.

In the epilogue, Church continues the story of the Antilleans and disasters, but this time placing the West Indians in France during World War I. It was during their wartime service to the metropole that French Antilleans solidified their character as Frenchmen. French commanders treated Antillean soldiers as equals in ways that those from other colonies were not, and, despite racist experiences, they were able to demonstrate the loyalty and patriotism that all Antilleans had for their “mother country.” Fallen soldiers from Guadeloupe and Martinique were even included in the Pantheon in Paris, showing their complete integration into the French Republic and foreshadowing the French Antilles’ acceptance as full departments in 1946.

For a work that relies heavily on the environment as an initiator of action, this study is distinctly not an environmental history. That does not mean that Church does not do an excellent job explaining the background and frequency of hurricanes or demonstrating the devastation each had on Guadeloupe and Martinique. Instead, the environment is not one of the main focuses of the story. It is used mainly as a “plot device” to uncover the political and social tensions that existed just below colonial French society’s surface. In this way, his use of disasters is masterful, although I do wish he would have elaborated on how other aspects of the environment played a part in some situations. For instance, the fires’ description in chapter 4 includes a brief sentence on a severe drought that took place leading up to the strike: Did the drought make fires easier to start than usual? Are there other instances of drought and frequent fires that did not become the center of politics? Did this drought make the catastrophic fires seem more sinister than would be assumed in other years? Church mentions the connection between arson and slave resistance briefly as well, so it would be interesting to know if environmental knowledge of the best time to start fires or proper conditions were passed down or forgotten as generations passed. Paradise Destroyed focuses on politics and social connections, so it is understandable that he passed over some environmental nuances. However, these discussions of environmental knowledge could have supported the “acclimatization” of French Antilleans. There is also some frequent repetition within the book but not enough to turn the reader off from the rest of the prose.

The extensive archival work, including work in Guadeloupe, Martinique, and mainland France, contributes to the scholarly discussions of debates taking place on both the islands and France. Also, every chapter describes a disaster and its immediate aftermath and broader discussions of social, economic, and political policies in which the French Antilles played a role. Discussions on metropolitan donations also touch on racist tropes, French colonial fiscal policy, and education reforms. Exploring a short labor strike in Martinique reveals connections to political party disputes, labor unrest in France, and international relations. Historians of French, Caribbean, or labor history will find something in every chapter. Those in disaster studies and history will find an excellent example of using natural and human-made disasters to explore the social, economic, and political tensions that tend to sit just below society’s surface.

Citation: Alyssa Peterson. Review of Church, Christopher M., Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. October, 2020. URL:

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