The Military Hospital of Fort-de-France #1/3 The Laborious Construction

Tanlistwa, carte postale en noir et blanc montrant le portail de l'ancien Hôpital militaire de Fort-de-France avec un petit cabanon de gardien sur la droite

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A few months ago, I worked on putting online a database of information contained in notarial deeds from the 18th century in Martinique.  As I worked on the database, I was able to identify some surprising or singular data, which were likely to present unknown aspects of history and which, in my opinion, deserved at least one blog post.  Among the acts, the one about the property of the Fort-Royal hospital (now Fort-de-France) particularly surprised me, as there are 82 enslaved people working in the structure; as many as on a small sugar house! I was intrigued and curious to know what women and men reduced to the status of slaves did in such an establishment. So I propose an article in two parts, three episodes: today, I talk to you about the military hospital of Fort-de-France, its project at the end of the 17th century and its laborious construction in the 18th century. In the next part, I will talk in detail about the men and women, enslaved, who served the patients at the end of the 18th century.

The Fort-Royal Hospital, a former military hospital

Tanlistwa carte postale, Martinique. Hôpital militaire de Fort-de-France ,1915
Carte postale, Martinique. Hôpital militaire de Fort-de-France [1915]

When I read the title of the act « annotation of the property of the hospital of the town of Fort de La République« , I first thought that it could be the civilian hospital that first opened in 1793, but a few verifications allowed me to see that it was in fact the former military hospital, apparently also known as Hôpital Saint-Louis and during the revolutionary period as the Hôpital de Beauséjour.

Tanlistwa, Plan IGN, parce Aimé césaire, ancien hopital militaire de Fort-de-France
In the red frame, the Aimé Césaire Park, former military hospital of Fort-de-France

The former military hospital corresponds to the current cultural space of Aimé-Césaire Park. It is located in Place José Marti in Fort-de-France, on a plot of land of about 3 hectares. Since 1979, part of the buildings have been listed as Historic Monuments.
It is referred to as the former military hospital, because the establishment run by religious was intended to accommodate sick or wounded soldiers of the king’s troops, but sailors, including merchant ships, workers, and the poor of the area were also welcomed by the structure in the eighteenth century.

Late 17th – early 18th century: the pressing need for a hospital at Fort-Royal

The military hospital was a necessity as early as the end of the 17th century to cover the needs of caring for the sick at Fort-Royal. In November 1678, Governor Blénac already projected that the donation by Sieur Villamont of his property upon his death would make it possible to build « a hospital which would have been considerable and convenient for this district, his home being only five hundred steps away, on the banks of a river » [un hôpital qui aurait été considérable, et commode, pour ce quartier, son habitation n’en étant qu’à cinq cents pas, sur le bord d’une rivière].

However, it took several years before the establishment was built and its management entrusted to the Brothers of Charity. Thus, twenty years later, on May 4, 1699, the governor of d’Amblimont wrote to the Minister of the Colonies:

« I believe there is nothing more urgent Monseigneur than to have the hospital of Fort Royal made for the conservation of the King’s subjects, as much for the garrison here which is the most considerable of the islands as for the crews of the ships and the poor inhabitants who have nothing to live on ».
[je ne crois rien de plus pressé Monseigneur que de faire faire l’hôpital du fort Royal pour la conservation des sujets du Roi, tant pour la garnison d’ici qui est la plus considérable des iles que pour les équipages des vaisseaux et les pauvres habitants qui n’ont pas de quoi subsister »]

In 1703, Governor Machault de Belemont was at the same point:

« It is always time Monseigneur to represent to you the necessity of having a hospital here, illnesses are frequent, I speak from experience, one of the Capuchins who came from France died and I have five of my servants who are sick, and it has often happened that while transporting the sick to the village of St Pierre, he died on the way. A charitable person made a donation of eighteen thousand pounds, which by the use the Brothers of Charity have made of it has doubled, so that there is nothing to stop this hospital from being built in the near future« .
[il est toujours temps Monseigneur de vous représenter la nécessité qu’il y a d’avoir ici un hôpital, les maladies y sont fréquentes, j’en parle par expérience, un des capucins qui est passé de France est mort et j’ai cinq de mes domestiques malades, et il est souvent arrivé qu’en transportant les malades au bourg St Pierre, il en est mort en chemin. Une personne charitable a fait un don de dix-huit mille livres, qui par l’emploi que les frères de la Charité en ont fait a doublé, en sorte que rien n’empêche que cet hôpital ne se bâtisse incessamment]

The need is such that he insisted again in a letter the following month:

« the death of my chaplain and one of my servants and the large number of others who are ill always brings to mind the need for a hospital here by the deplorable state of a poor sailor or soldier who is transported in a canoe to the village of St. Pierre, exposed to the sun or rain for several hours, and who often dies on the way » .
[la mort de mon aumônier et d’un de mes domestiques et le grand nombre des autres qui sont malades me remet toujours devant les yeux le besoin qu’on aurait ici d’un hôpital par l’état déplorable où se trouve un pauvre matelot ou soldat que l’on transporte dans un canot au bourg St Pierre, exposé au soleil ou à la pluie pendant plusieurs heures, et qui souvent meurt en chemin]

It was only in 1708 that the situation was finally unblocked, notably to partially resolve the distribution of the financial cost of the construction and maintenance of the hospital (the representatives of the king and the Brothers of Charity seeking to share the cost of the investment as much as possible with the other institution). A letter from Intendant Arnoul de Vaucresson mentions that the engineer Binois de Reteuil then drew up a plan of the hospital which he estimated at 53,037 livres.

tanlistwa, Binois de Reteuil, Nicolas, ingénieur en chef,"Plan de l'hôpital à faire au fort Royal de la Martinique.", 15 juin 1708, map
Par Binois de Reteuil, Nicolas, ingénieur en chef, »Plan de l’hôpital à faire au fort Royal de la Martinique. », 15 juin 1708.

1709-1722 : the laborious construction of the hospital on the outskirts of the city

The military hospital was therefore built from 1709, according to the plan drawn up by the engineer Binois, on a plot of land on the outskirts of the town. But construction was delayed; the engineer had fallen ill and was dividing his time between the island of Grenada and Martinique. In 1711, the masonry was finished, nevertheless, a letter from Intendant Arnoul de Vaucresson tells that:

« the framework of the hospital of Fort Royal would be in place if the workman with whom the contract was made, and who is the only one able to do this work, had not been continually occupied in Fort Royal with the works that the General had done there ».
[la charpente de l’hôpital du fort Royal serait en place si l’ouvrier avec qui on a passé le marché, et qui est le seul propre à faire cet ouvrage n’avait été continuellement occupé dans le fort royal aux ouvrages qu’y fait faire M. Le général]

The building was still not in a state to receive its first patients.

In parallel to the lack of skilled workers to carry out the work, the lack of financial means also had to be addressed. In 1715, like his predecessors, Governor Duquesne-Guitton wrote the following in 1715:

« what I think is most useful and most urgently needed here is to complete the hospital; I will get work done on it so soon that there will be some money. The sick we have to carry from here to St. Pierre often die on the way, but they must be sent there because we have no medicine here. »
[ce que je crois le plus utile et plus pressé à faire ici est d’achever l’hôpital ; j’y ferai travailler si tôt qu’il y aura quelque argent. Les malades qu’on est obligé de transporter d’ici à Saint Pierre meurent souvent en chemin, cependant il faut les y envoyer car nous n’avons aucuns remèdes ici.]

Finally, in July 1722, it was no longer necessary to send the sick from Fort-Royal to the hospital in Saint-Pierre. The marine council could now write:

« the religious of Charity being established in the Windward Islands to take care of the hospitals, the superior was warned to send religious to serve the hospital at Fort Royal, which was completed ».
[les religieux de la Charité étant établis aux îles du vent pour avoir soin des hôpitaux, on a averti le supérieur d’envoyer des religieux pour desservir l’hôpital du Fort Royal qui est achevé]

1722-1763 : The Fort-Royal Hospital in its first years of existence

In 1722, work was sufficiently advanced to allow the first patients to be received. Thus, even before the religious of Charity were officially welcomed to take over the administration of the hospital, there were already about forty sick soldiers in February.

In October 1722, a long letter from Intendant Besnard took note of the situation; it was realized that much work was still necessary and that the hospital lacked the equipment to take care of the sick. At the beginning of June 1723, when the Brothers of Charity took possession of the premises, there were only 16 beds to accommodate the sick; in 1726, despite progress, the capacity was still only 40 beds.

tanlistwa, Houel, Vincent, ingénieur, Plan de l'hospital [hôpital] du Fort Royal de la Martinique.19 novembre 1725, map
Par Houel, Vincent, ingénieur, Plan de l’hospital [hôpital] du Fort Royal de la Martinique. 19 novembre 1725

The plan drawn up in November 1725 by the engineer Houël allows to see in red the completed parts, in yellow the projected parts which thus remained to be built or achieved. The chapel, the sacristy and the bell tower were built, next to the religious’s rooms, then a hall, stairs for the first floor, and finally the « refectory serving as a kitchen until the building is finished » [réfectoire servant de cuisine jusqu’à ce que le bâtiment soit finit]. The infirmary to receive the largest number of patients, the apothecary, the nurse’s room, the wardrobe (a laundry room), the kitchen, the small offices and the laboratory remained to be completed.

It was also necessary to deal with natural hazards, a thunderbolt in July 1722 which damaged the roof, a flood in August 1723 which threatened the land and the infrastructures, and it was also necessary to think about developments such as a land concession to establish a savannah and a menagerie for the hospital in 1751.

The inventory of the hospital of Fort-Royal in 1763 and the case of the Brothers of Charity

In 1763, Governor Fénelon was not particularly satisfied with the Brothers of Charity; to say the least! To give you an idea of the mood, in a letter dated September 25, 1763, Fénélon, particularly reminiscent of that day, wrote to the king that the Brothers of Charity were « sordidly interested monks and by no means human and charitable Religious », « greedy and insolent monks », He is of the opinion that « they should be thrown out, sent back to France » and goes on to say that « the Brothers of Charity will give me every possible malediction, but I don’t care, it’s time that they bear the brunt of the impunity in which they lived in these colonies », « I confess that they are odious to me ».
[« des moines sordidement intéressés et nullement des Religieux humains et charitables », « des moines avides et insolents », « qu’on les mette dehors, qu’on les renvoie en France »,« les frères de la Charité me donneront toutes les malédictions possibles, mais je m’en moque, il est temps qu’ils portent la peine de l’impunité dans laquelle ils ont vécu dans ces colonies »« j’avoue qu’ils me sont odieux ».]

Let us be clear, this type of reproach is present with varying degrees of vigour and expressed more or less explicitly throughout the time they have been in the West Indies. But what is interesting in 1763 is that the dispute was pushed so far, that the Brothers of Charity were temporarily removed from the administration of the hospital, and that inventories of all the effects were drawn up for the occasion! So we have an idea of what was in the hospital and the environment in which the slaves lived.

Among the archives, the general invoice of goods… dated June 7, 1763 shows the needs for the filling of mattresses and pillows, blankets, sheets and other bed linen, shirts, caps and the necessary to dress the sick, tablecloths and towels and all the kitchen utensils (dishes, salt shaker, pots…). …), objects for serving food (bowl, pint cup, bottle, bottle, cutlery, some earthenware dishes …), but also objects for the daily life of the patients (« urinals » or bleeding paddles, convenience basin …), cloths to drape the dead …
The estimated state of the effects brought to the hospital of Fort Royal by the Brothers of Charity gives an idea of the furniture (cupboards, sofas, chairs, beds…) but also the small furniture and objects (codex, scales, measures…), the alcohol (wine, tafia) and the contents of the chapel.
The state of the quantities of drugs … consumed before the inventory gives an idea of the products used (cinchona, liquorice, salt, emetic tartar, myrrh and aloe tincture …).
The report giving details of the furniture, effects and medicines ceded to the king by the religious of Charity of Fort Royal when they gave up the administration of the hospital in this town on 26 September 1763 completes the previous knowledge. For me, it is particularly useful to know the « drugs and medicines »: Canada balm, liquid styrax, amber thrush, vesicatory plaster, Cyprus vitriol, gum arabic, lemon balm water, saturated salt, wormwood salt, sedative salt of Homberg (boric acid), sweet almond oil, opium, turpentine, cinnamon water, whale white, camphor, rhubarb… I don’t know half of what I’ve just listed and this is only a small sample! Dozens and dozens of products are scattered over several pages. If a specialist in the history of health or medicine passes by, I think there is something to write about!
Finally, an overview of the expenditures of the Fort-Royal Hospital Authority from July 10 to November 1, 1763″… highlights what the hospital needed to function, but which was not produced on site. At the time of the king’s control, there was food bought outside (meat, poultry, eggs, vegetables and bread) or taken from the king’s stores (rice, wine, flour, salt beef), the canoe for transporting wood and the wood itself. A line of expenditure was also dedicated to the « Rents of Negro Nursing Slaves », so I imagine that the slaves of the Brothers of Charity in charge of care had been kept on site, as nursing slaves are not so common; but as they did not belong to the king, a sum covering the rent of the slaves had to be paid to their owners for their provision.

The hospital of Fort-Royal after the earthquake of February 16, 1771

In February 1772, a kind of agreement was signed: it was the contract concluded with Brother Juste Vialard, procurator-syndic of the Religious of Charity, concerning the hospitals of Martinique. It was the renewal of the agreements established between the Brothers of Charity and the colonial administration for the management of the hospital. The document and some letters written for this occasion make it possible to know that the hospital was severely damaged during the earthquake of 1771; several passages of the contract are thus devoted to the taking charge of the work indispensable for the reconstruction. A letter from the minister to the governor also tells us that following the earthquake, the monks handed over the hospital buildings, gardens and courtyards to the king, to take care of the day-to-day running of the hospital.

For those interested readers reading French, you should know that a letter from Brother Philippe Trumeau, Superior of the Order of Charity, to the religious of his order at Fort-Royal compares, point by point, the 1772 contract, valid for nine years, with the previous one, which allows us to see the continuity and the new adjustments made in the management of the hospital.

Above all, the 1772 contract is important because it allows us to better understand the daily life of the hospital’s slaves, but I’ll tell you about that in the next episode.

Read more :

Archives nationales outre-mer, Correspondance série C8A
There are a large number of correspondences referring to the Fort-Royal Hospital in the archive search engine. I only refer here to those quoted in the post.

Archives nationales outre-mer, Cartes et plans du Dépôt des fortifications et des colonies

Data Base « Esclavage en Martinique » of Manioc



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