History’s Lessons Live at Martinique’s La Savane des Esclaves

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This travel article by Brian Major appeared in Travel Pulse.

Several contemporary commentators assert that we live in a post-racial society. While that certainly is a worthy and necessary goal, it clearly has yet to be achieved. Recent events in Europe and the Middle East illustrate that issues surrounding ethnicity, race and culture continue to have an explosive ability to inflame human passions and action. Indeed, these have existed as human traits across time.

And yet often when we are able to reflect on the true nature of our shared experience, we approach acceptance, understanding and reverence for the common ties that should bind, and not divide humankind.

Today’s Caribbean travelers can find evidence of the racial reality of 18th and 19th century colonial culture in still-existing and magnificent great houses and plantations in countries from Barbados to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Exhibits frequently focus on the lifestyles, family histories and architectural achievements of the patrician planters and sparingly — if at all — document the slave-labor agricultural system that served as the economic foundation of these extremely profitable operations.

The same cannot be said for La Savane des Esclaves in the resort town of Trois Ilets on the Windward Antilles island of Martinique. The two hectare open-air museum, operated by proprietor Gilbert Larose, replicates a post-slavery native village and farm with traditional houses built of palisades wood with beaten earth floors and cane-leaf roofs. The lush and hilly grounds are filled with native trees and plants, and the grounds also feature a garden cultivated in a traditional manner without use of chemicals or pesticides.

The fruits and vegetables include yams, sweet potatoes, manioc, corn, pineapple, guava, and bananas. The garden also features many medicinal plants grown and used for hundreds of years by Caribbean natives to treat and cure a wide range of illnesses, injuries and medical maladies. Savane exhibits and demonstrations also document traditional construction techniques used to build the huts, along with processes including the manufacture of agricultural products including cacao sticks, cassava with manioc flour and sugarcane juice.

Unlike many traditional Caribbean plantation exhibits, La Savane also offers a frank and brutally accurate documentation of slavery in Martinique. Through paintings, sculptures and historical drawings and photographs, the incredible cruelty and violence of the slave-based agricultural economy is depicted, from Africans’ horrific capture and transport across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean, the callous sale of slave families on the auction blocks and the slaves’ existence, defined by bondage, back-breaking labor and the ever-present threat and reality of punishment, torture and rape.

The exhibits also document the often-untold story of slave resistance and include chilling scenes of frenzied slave insurrections and revolts. Despite popular contemporary knowledge, there were many slave revolts in the European colonies and in the nascent United States. Indeed, colonial masters lived in constant fear of slave cabals and plots against their draconian authority.

Slave-holders frequently enacted laws and codes to prevent their captive labor force from gathering and communicating in significant numbers. The 2011 book American Uprising by Harvard University historian Daniel Rasmussen chronicles a slave revolt in New Orleans in 1811, considered the largest ever in the United States. The book describes how many slaves in that revolt were inspired by Toussaint L’Ouverture’s successful revolt against French authority in Haiti.

While it exists as a tableau of incredible suffering and violence, the La Savane is a surprisingly uplifting place that also chronicles the Caribbean slave population’s transition to free people following slavery’s end in Martinique. In retrospect, that harsh reality of slavery led to resistance among the enslaved and a desire among free men like Victor Schoelcher, the French abolitionist writer whose efforts led to slavery’s abolition in Martinique in 1848, to end the odious practice.

Even as I felt the profound impact of viewing depictions of slavery’s worst horrors, I was able to reflect on how far Martinique’s former slaves – like the once-enslaved population of my own nation – had come in the centuries since. As I walked around the site this past week with Steve Bennett, a Martinique tourism official who like myself is descended from Caribbean ancestors (Steve was born in St. Croix while I have family members hailing from Antigua, Barbados and St. Kitts), we joked how on hot afternoons at the site visitors would feel at least one aspect of the “real slave experience.”

Moreover visitors will find LaRose to be a generous and welcoming host with an infectious smile and a warm manner as he personally hosts tours of the site. His dedication and hard work have allowed hundreds of international visitors to enjoy the lessons taught at La Savane and has transformed the museum into one of Martinique’s best-known cultural attractions.

A Martinique native, Larose had always been interested in his grandparents’ lifestyle, culture, customs and traditions. In 2000, using assistance from family and friends, he established Yesteryear Village Lontan on the site as a means of displaying and teaching traditional agricultural techniques and practices. Using locally sourced materials to build traditional buildings, and adding evocative wooden sculptures by professional artists, LaRose by 2004 had established La Savane as a living museum to “testify, teach and preserve the heritage of Martinique.”

La Savane is open daily from 9 a.m. to 12 noon and from 2 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Guided tours are available and conducted in French, with a written version available in several languages including English. Cocoa-making workshops are held on Tuesdays and Thursdays and can be combined with Savane tours. Rates are seven euros per adult and three euros for children ages three to 12.

For the original report go to http://www.travelpulse.com/news/destinations/historys-lessons-live-at-martiniques-la-savane-des-esclaves.html

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