You will often read on the web that Fort-de-France became the capital of Martinique in 1902 when Saint-Pierre was destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Pelee.
The story is a bit more complex!
When Belain d’Esnambuc colonised Martinique in 1635, he built a first fort close to what became the town of Saint-Pierre. The settlers first settled in the North-Caribbean coast. Fort-Royal, which became Fort-de-France in the nineteenth century, was founded a few decades later, in 1669, by the Marquis de Baas.
Adrien Dessalles in his Histoire générale des Antilles relates that « the citadel of the Fort-Royal completed, the government undertook to build the city of that name; On the 10th of July, 1673, Du Ruau-Palu, general agent of the company, issued an ordinance, by which he permitted everyone to choose the ground he deemed most convenient in the new enclosure, nevertheless following the alignments marked in a particular plan … «
The site benefits from a bay that is a good shelter for boats in cyclonic times and the location is much more conducive than Saint-Pierre to the military defence of the island. In 1692, Blénac, Governor General of the island, decided to make Fort-Royal, his administrative residence. Fort-Royal officially became the administrative capital of the island.
But the choice is not unanimous, as evidenced in 1700 by a memoir concerning the establishment of a city at Fort-Royal. It is stated that « His Majesty’s intention is to put an end to the annoyances […] over the preference to be given, or to the town of Fort Royal, or that of Fort St Pierre, To make a fortified city« . In order to do this, the arguments in favour of one or another city is stated: on the one hand, Saint-Pierre is « far more considerably established than the town of Fort-Royal« . At the same time it cannot be placed in as great security as to be so convenient to commerce as that of the Fort Royal. « In fact, the new inhabitants do not jostle at Fort-Royal. Marshland is less attractive than Saint-Pierre for settlers and feared to die of fever.
Also, on the economic plane no doubt, Saint-Pierre, the one called « Little Paris of the Antilles », predominated over Fort-de-France until 1902. The city of 26,000 inhabitants on the eve of the ‘Eruption is not only a primary place of colonial commerce, but also a major cultural space. The fact remains that, in a strictly administrative point of view, and considering that the capital is the place where the government sits, it is Fort-de-France, formerly Fort-Royal, which for several centuries is the capital city of the Martinique.
(All in French)
DE LA BOULAYE, Mémoire contenant l’avis du sieur de La Boulaye au sujet de l’établissement d’une ville au Fort-Royal, 5 avril 1700.
DESSALES Adrien, Histoire générale des Antilles, 1847, p. 176.
SAINTON Jean-Pierre (ed.), Histoire et civilisation de la Caraïbe (Guadeloupe, Martinique, Petites Antilles)…, Paris, Karthala, 2012, vol.2, p. 294.
Iconography : Plus de détails pour les iconographies sur manioc.org
Fort-de-France, Martinique (Formely Fort Royal), [avant 1890],
LE CAMUS C., Vue de Saint-Pierre et de la Montagne Pelée avant l’éruption du 8 mai 1902.