1766, a Year of Risks For Martinique #1/3 The Fort-Royal Fire in May

tanlistwa, gravure, vue de Fort-Royal, XVIIIe siècle

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Are there times in your lives when you have one difficulty after another? You know, those days when you think you’d be better off staying in bed, or those moments that feel like the law of series, the kind of period that makes us look forward to the end of the cycle for the start of another one under better auspices. If I had lived in 1766 in Fort-Royal (now Fort-de-France) in Martinique, I would probably have been in a hurry to get to 1767: part of the city burnt down in May, a hurricane in August, a tidal wave and an earthquake in September. A year full of risks! I am reporting to you what the archives tell us about the events of 1766, a black year for the town and its inhabitants, but also for the whole island.

Today, for the first of three episodes, I am interested in the fire that broke out during the night of 19 to 20 May in the town of Fort-Royal, leaving an entire neighbourhood in ashes.

The fire on the night of 19-20 May in Fort Royal

During the night of 19 to 20 May, at the stroke of midnight, fire broke out in the town of Fort-Royal, sweeping away 54 houses and a king’s warehouse located near the seaside in the space of a few hours. Governor D’Ennery and Intendant Peinier reported on the disaster.
« As soon as it was noticed, M. d’Ennery, who was at Fort Royal, went immediately to the site of the fire with all the troops, but the violence of the fire and the rapidity with which the flames spread to the houses, all of which are made of wood, meant that, with all the risks and goodwill possible, it was only possible to stop its progress by cutting down a few houses on a side street in order to prevent the fire from spreading. »

About 80 ruined families are to be rehoused « being without furniture or house » and the economic activity is also heavily affected. « As they were located in the most convenient and commercial district of the city, because it is closer to the sea and the docks, the loss of goods, both from Europe and the country, which were burned, is considerable. The fire also put a stop to the difficult urban development of the city. This misfortune is all the greater for this unfortunate city, as it was beginning to emerge from its misery, and it had lent itself with great zeal to its embellishment, by building the quays and paving its streets.
If Fort-Royal was the administrative and military capital of Martinique, the town of Saint-Pierre was preferred for trade and commerce; the colonial administration thus had all the trouble in the world to develop the town, even though its bay offered much better shelter for ships.

However, the human toll is low compared to the tragedy: « there are five or six soldiers injured, but none dangerously ».

  • In order to deal with the most pressing problems, the governor and the intendant promulgated an ordinance the following day, 21 May 1766, « providing for various measures to help the victims of the fire at Fort Royal and to facilitate the reconstruction of the destroyed district« . What were these measures?To recover the amount provided by the city tax and distribute it to help the victims (tax from which the victims will be exempted). (article 1 to 3)
  • To provide temporary free accommodation in the king’s barracks, flour and beef to support those who cannot do without this relief. (article 4)
  • Organise a collection in all parishes to raise funds (Article 5 to 8)
    The collection to raise funds took place, but not always without difficulty; according to a letter of 11 September, Father Faget, the apostolic prefect of the Jacobins, caused difficulties and seems to have used this occasion to settle quarrels of power.
  • To encourage the reconstruction of buildings by exempting them from taxation for 1 to 3 years (article 9)
  • Order a freeze on rents for one year and give priority to disaster victims for rentals (Articles 10 and 11)
  • Encourage the return of goods taken or stolen during the fire (Article 12)

Faced with the urgent need to intervene, the ordinance was issued in the absence of any authorization from the Minister of the Colonies and the King. Thus, a letter of 13 June 1766 and another of 11 September, informing of the measures taken, requested a posteriori the validation of the ordinance issued a few weeks earlier. In the course of June, the governor noted in these letters that he hoped the ordinance would have an effect within 10 to 18 months. But that was without counting on the next events, because, as we will see in the next episode, during the night of 13 to 14 August 1766, Martinique was hit by a major hurricane.

Read the three episodes of the series


Archives nationales outre-mer


BNF, « Veue du Fort royal de la Martinique », Éditeur : [s.n.][s.n.], Date d’édition : 17..
« Graphic montage » made with canva.com

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