« From Imperatrice Josephine to Enslaved Emilie: memorial practices at the Domaine de La Pagerie, Martinique, 1944-2022.) »
Jessica Pierre-Louis, Bonn, March 2023.
Please do not quote, cite, or reproduce without the author’s permission. Many thanks.
(slide 1: Title)
Where am I speaking from?
I am a historian, my academic expertise turns around « free people of color » in the 17th and 18th centuries, the construction of racism in Martinique… things I will not talk about today.
Today, in fact, I am before you, more in the context of my activities as an independent researcher. I work on a daily basis on my own account. I do research engineering for institutions. This led me to redo the museography of the Domaine de la Pagerie in 2020 and thus to question myself about what is said on this cultural site.
The Domaine de La Pagerie and the competition of memories
(slide 2 : Some chronological references)
The Domaine de La Pagerie is a former sugar house, located in Trois-Îlets, Martinique, one of the witnesses of the island’s colonial and slavery history.
In 1944, Dr. Robert Rose-Rosette, a Martinican, bought this house to make it a heritage site.
In 1984, 40 years later, he sold the La Pagerie estate to the Conseil général1 a public body that managed it via an association until 2015.
Then, in 2015, the site passed into the hands of the Territorial Collectivity of Martinique due to the island’s statutory and institutional changes.
This place has among others historical remains, a museum space, gardens. The site also has the particularity of being the place where Josephine de Beauharnais2, lived as a child, that is to say, the one who was Napoleon’s wife and the Empress of the French.
It is Josephine who makes the theme of « competing memories » particularly interesting, because she mobilizes and crystallizes them. She is celebrated by some for her glorious and prestigious title. She is reviled by others for her alleged role in Napoleon’s re-establishment of slavery in France in 1802, for what she symbolizes of colonialism and slavery.
For today’s presentation, I therefore worked to better understand the practices and competitions of memory since 1944, because the museum is not or not much visited by the local Martinican population; it is sometimes even radically contested.
In 1986, there was a bombe3. This destroyed part of the collections. In 2018, the bust of Josephine located in the gardens was beheaded and painted over4. The statue located in Fort-de-France on the Savane suffered the same fate in 1991, before being completely destroyed in 2020.
The domain of La Pagerie was until recently considered « Josephine’s museum » – and it probably still is, although I hope that this will gradually change – a museum to her glory, even though men and women were reduced to the status of slaves and exploited on this site, such as Émilie, who was executed in 1806 for having tried to poison her mistress, Josephine’s mother.
I will, focus on what the Domaine de La Pagerie gave to see and hear during Dr. Rose-Rosette’s time; then I will present how the Domaine de la Pagerie team has attempted to remedy some of the issues with the new museography in 2020.
1944-1984: the domain of La Pagerie in the time of Dr. Rose-Rosette
Acquiring the domain of La Pagerie : a project to contribute to the prestige of Martinique
(slide 3 : A tourist development project)
Dr. Rose-Rosette was a Martinican, a scholar, a freemason and a veterinarian by training. To understand what he did in La Pagerie, we must keep in mind that he thought that tourism was a key to the economic development of the island in the face of the decline of the sugar cane industry. When he was mayor of the commune (from 1953 to 1971), he proposed developments in this direction.
In 1944, he acquired the former sugar house with the ambition of using the birthplace of the first empress of the French to contribute to the fame of Martinique, making it an attractive place for tourists.5
In retrospect, he wrote in a notebook (undated), his program:
« to clear the zones of constructions and to raise the traces and the rests of it; then to locate the characteristic points to relive at best the techniques, the occupations and the behaviors of the people, finally to restore exactly or in their verisimilitude the appreciable, usable and financially affordable vestiges« 6
Museography, visitors and visiting discourse
(slide 4 : The domain of La Pagerie in Martinique)
On the site, in 1944, the plants in the gardens and the remains of the factory were on display. In 1954, the collections were added to the museum in a room of the house that has since disappeared. From the 1960s, the collections were housed in the old kitchen, which was restored. In 1970, visitors could also discover the reconstitution of the mill and the manioc (undated!)… There is even mention of the wish – never realized – to build a few « workers’ huts »7.
(slide 5 : Some pieces of the collection)
There is an inventory of the collections dating from 19858. It shows that Dr. Rose-Rosette had purchased a variety of pieces over the years, both in terms of media and themes, and that he had also received pieces or copies of pieces as donations, and sometimes deposits.
First observation: the disproportion! If Dr. Rose-Rosette remains in the logic of his initial project and thus acquires everything that concerns the history of the site; the donations, on the other hand, are much more widely made around the figure of Josephine.
Moreover, even if he is interested in everything, there is more opportunity to find elements relating to Josephine and her family than to any other person who lived on the site. With the possible exception of the freed nurse’s pension, the collections relating to slavery are not specific to the enslaved people of La Pagerie.
To find out who sees these collections, I relied on the visitors’ books9, , which are otherwise interesting, because they also show where the visitors’ interest lies, what marks them.
Many of the visitors who sign the visitors’ book belong to the social, economic or political elite of the island as well as internationally, or to the friendly circle of the Dr.
Most of the signatures, which are accompanied by a note, praise the exceptional setting, the hosts and the pleasure of being immersed in the memory of Josephine’s history and place of life! Visitors rarely mention anything else, even if a few comments hint at the diversity of the themes addressed during Dr Rose-Rosette’s visits10
Even rarer are those who question colonial and slave history; this visitor who explicitly asks « but should we wish for another Napoleon? « 11 (September 1968), contrasts with this other visitor, whose comment, more representative of the whole, retained from his visit the evocation of « such a beautiful past « 12 (February 1967).
(Slide 6 : 1982 visit speech)
There was no text accompanying the collections; this situation lasted until the new museography was completed in 2020. However, the Dr. and his wife Simone provided the welcome and the tour of the site. One of the speeches made by Dr was published in 1982, following a study trip of the « Souvenir napoléonien aux Antilles » (a French learned society of history)13. I propose to take a look at the content of this speech.
It is entitled « Josephine’s Pagerie, Yesterday and Today. »
It is broken down into 4 parts:
- Site and environment of the Pagerie
- Josephine’s amoral childhood
- Influence of La Pagerie on Josephine’s character
- La Pagerie since Joséphine
Contrary to what the titles might suggest, Dr. Rose-Rosette evokes the enslaved people several times and gives them a passage where he describes: the » cases » (based on 2 inventories), talk about the nudity of the enslaved people, their value, their object rank, their place of living, their work… He even names them individually for some.
However, the narrative structure, from my perspective, is awkward. We are faced with a miserabilistic description of submissive enslaved people, whose cultural elements are not valued, when it is not a question of simply sending them back to animality. At the same time, there is a captivating image of Josephine, presented as « sensitive » and playing on the cliché of the indolence and natural kindness of the young Creole.
(Slide 7: 1982 Visitor Quote)
One of the participants in the Napoleonic remembrance trip wrote a letter to Dr. Rose-Rosette thanking him.14 Here is an excerpt that seems to me to be interesting for the question of competing memories.
« We were in admiration of the extent of your culture, your knowledge, your erudition, the height of your views and the indulgent detachment from the hateful years (to use a moderate term) of the history of slavery to which you made discreet allusions, without ever showing the slightest bitterness. (…)
Alsatian of old stock proud to be the compatriot of Victor Schœlcher » (May 1982) »
This is the most explicit reference to slavery that a visitor has left about his visit to the Domaine de La Pagerie in what I have been able to consult for this period. Slavery is evoked and condemned; however, we can see a problem reappear that also transpires in Dr. Rose-Rosette’s speech: the enslaved people are not thought of as actors in this history, in their history. It is the figure of Schœlcher who is heroized for his role in abolition.
If I emphasize this point quickly, it is because beyond the setting of La Pagerie, in Martinique, the statues of Schœlcher in the public space have also been destroyed, as has that of Joséphine, raising the issue of Schoelcherism, which is another way of understanding the dynamics of competing memories.
Returning to the domain, what can be seen is that Dr. Rose-Rosette had a very embracing conception of the history of the domain. The visit showed a collection and a discourse centered on Joséphine, but evoking the colonists more broadly, including also the enslaved people, the productions and agricultural techniques of the domain… However, it is the impression of a silencing of the memory of the enslaved people that has persisted!
A comment from 1960 illustrates very well the problem of development at the domain of La Pagerie: « without Joséphine de Beauharnais, we would not have known La Pagerie » (June 1960)15.
Joséphine was the historical figure that allowed Dr. Rose-Rosette to :
– generate elite interest in the La Pagerie domain,
– to mobilize donations of artifacts for the museum,
– to try to create an attractive tourist offer (for visitors coming from outside the island),
In short, to implement its economic development model based on tourism!
In doing so, the imbalance has been accentuated between the remembrance and commemoration of the empress to the detriment of the rest of the men and women who also lived on the plantation, especially the enslaved people.
Moreover, it seems to me that the transition to the public institution in 1984 resulted in a lack of reflection on the dynamics underway. What may have been « a means to » for Dr. Rose-Rosette became an « end in itself » after 1984, contributing to the increasing invisibilization of the violence of colonial and slavery history, to the invisibilization of the history of the enslaved people, to evoke only the nurse for having, according to the legend, predicted to the child that she « would be more than Queen ».
As historian Dominique Rogers points out, « Martinique struggles to reflect the history of the slave trade and slavery in its heritage sites and museums, and the Domaine de la Pagerie was no exception to the rule. « 16.
However, since 2020, things have been changing. So I will now briefly explain on what has been done over the past 2 years with the site team.
2020: rethinking the museography and mediation of the Domaine de La Pagerie.
In late 2018, I was contacted by the director of the Domaine de la Pagerie to conduct a study on the enslaved people and servile habitat of the plantation to accompany an archaeological excavation project.
The health crisis of 2020 turned the initial program upside down; nevertheless, the crisis was an opportunity for reflection during the period of closure. To summarize in short way: a cleaning of the stones was planned on the walls of the old kitchen which housed the main part of the museum’s collections and as it was necessary to dismantle the collection, it was the opportunity to… reassemble it in a different way!
The director then asked me if I could accompany, with a scenographer, the team of the domain in a project of new museography including the results of my study…
It was an unplanned project, and as a result, the timing and budget were particularly tight (which explains many of the choices in terms of museography).
(Slide 8 : Before the new museography)
With the team, we identified two fundamental elements that needed to change: the itinerary and the discourse.
Over time, the collections had been accumulated in a jumble, giving more the impression of a storage room than a museum; it was therefore necessary to rethink the spaces, select the artworks, and think about the content that would enlighten the collections presented.
The space was divided into 4 parts
- the plantation (what it is, the key elements of its history at the Domaine de La Pagerie) and the project of Dr Rose-Rosette (to understand the existence of this site today)
- the settlers, including Joséphine
- the part on the industrial elements since it is constitutive of the existence and the exploitation of the houses
- the old kitchen and the enslaved people
I will return to two specific elements of this work, because they are for me answers to the competing memories.
(slide 9 on Joséphine)
In the section on Josephine, we chose to focus on her life at La Pagerie (i.e. her childhood rather than her life as empress). But, above all, I suggested that we include the headless bust, in its current state, in the tour, and a text that gives elements of understanding around what Josephine and the re-establishment of slavery can mean for the Martiniqueans in our history. It is at the same time to say here is where we are on the scientific level, here is why it is debated. And I think that integrating the bust was recognizing this problem and saying something important about our society.
(slide 10 on slaves)
In the old kitchen area, we decided to return to the original function of the place, and to make it the space dedicated to the enslaved people. One of the elements that was important to me was to display the names: those of Julien dit Dacou, Noël le raffineur, Dody the nurse, Fanchine, Thérèse… This was done on the basis of the inventory of the house in 1815. Here again, it was something that seemed important to me, because it contributes to put forward their humanity, to speak of men, women, children and not of a shapeless mass that would be reduced to its servitude.
If for Josephine, it was mainly a question of selecting pieces of art; for the enslaved people, the problem was the opposite (no portrait, no beds, no hair strands…), what we know about them is through archives.
We also had no visibility on what could be done or not in terms of mediation after the new museography. So the choice was to put « all » the information we could get from the study.
It is too much text in terms of museography process, but it allowed to put at the disposal of the visitors, data on the different major themes that concerned the enslaved people and to allow each one to read about their specific interests.
Outside the kitchen, there is their name; inside, a wide range of information on social organization, geographical origin, colorism, violence, resistance, inheritance…
Following this new museography, some mediation actions could be set up. In particular, we thought about how to show the story of Emilie and her trial, since the interrogations are preserved. The choice was made to give her story not to be seen, but to be heard! It is a way to diversify the type of content and to give it an emotion as well (that as a historian, I am not able to produce). So there has been a setting in voice of the trial realized by a theater company, now retransmitted by a sound shower device in the kitchen.
Other projects are underway. For example, at the moment, an artist’s residency is being held with the aim of creating faces for these enslaved people, which could be integrated into the museography, and thus fill, in another way, the collection deficit concerning them.
The new museography seems to be rather well received by visitors with more varied profiles than in Dr. Rose-Rosette’s time; I am therefore hopeful that we have succeeded in providing a historical narrative that accounts for the colonialist and slave-owning history in its various dimensions. And that perhaps we have succeeded in creating a space for dialogue about this history.
However, some visitors emphasize that they preferred the old museography or that this new museography has « a bias », as if this was not also the case with the previous one! While these negative returns are rare, they are a way of reminding me that competition for memory is and always will be an important challenge on this site.
Thus, both because of what it represents from a historical point of view (this site is a former sugar factory), and because of what it represents in terms of power dynamics (this site belongs to a public authority institution), the Domaine de la Pagerie is, in my opinion, an important space for discussing and reflecting on the memorial policies that are being carried out, and for acting on the consideration of the plural memories of our societies.
1 An elected, deliberative territorial assemblyante
2 Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie
3 Archives territoriales de Martinique, fonds Robert Rose-Rosette, presse,France-Antilles, 28 mars 1986, 14J50.
4 Presse, France-Antilles, mardi 20 février 2018.
5 Archives territoriales de Martinique, fonds Robert Rose-Rosette, presse, Le sportif, 29 juillet 1944, 14J50 1-2.
6 Domaine de La Pagerie, fonds Dr Robert Rose-Rosette, cahier de notes, s.d.
7 Archives territoriales de Martinique, fonds Robert Rose-Rosette, presse, Le sportif, 29 juillet 1944, 14J50 1-2.
8 Domaine de La Pagerie, fonds Dr Robert Rose-Rosette, Inventaire, 16 décembre 1985, 1-1.20.
9 Archives territoriales de Martinique, fonds Robert Rose-Rosette, Livres d’or : 14J85/1 1948-1967, 14J85/2 1967-1978, 14J85/3 1978 — 1995.
10 Archives territoriales de Martinique, fonds Robert Rose-Rosette, Livres d’or : 14J85/1 1948-1967
11 Archives territoriales de Martinique, fonds Robert Rose-Rosette, Livres d’or : 14J85/2 1967-1978
12 Archives territoriales de Martinique, fonds Robert Rose-Rosette, Livres d’or : 14J85/1 1948-1967
13 Domaine de La Pagerie, fonds Dr Robert Rose-Rosette, Doc 1.9.10 — revue — Souvenir Napoléonien, n° 324, 45e année, juillet 1982.
14 Domaine de La Pagerie, fonds Dr Robert Rose-Rosette, Doc 1.5.6 — courrier du 11 mai 1982
15 Archives territoriales de Martinique, fonds Robert Rose-Rosette, Livres d’or : 14J85/1 1948-1967
16 Article in process of publication