One of the facts of life on small islands is poverty.
Even if that island is a stone's throw from a given mainland, there is
still the extra cost of bringing things over across the water, and population
pressure leads to land hunger. If the island is at some remove from
a major land mass the situation is exacerbated. If you know people
who have spent time in the Caribbean, for example, or the South Seas, compare
some prices next time you talk with them. You'll be shocked.
I spent a few weeks on one of the Windward Islands once. Beautiful
place, but everything except coconuts had to be imported and cost twice
as much as back home in the States. And unemployment was high as
well. Even the major employer, an oil refinery, provided only a few
hundred jobs. Amidst the glorious scenery there was a lot of grumbling
The island I visited was an American possession, not too far from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and only an hour or so by air from Florida. Now, at the end of the 20th century, the communications are in place, and one could get a good telephone connection without difficulty. But a car or a washing machine has to be special ordered, and shipping has to be arranged. Delivery still takes several months.
Among the Windward Islands on the eastern edge of the Caribbean the American possessions are relatively well off, benefitting from their proximity to their possessor. It is not easy for a distant great power, concerned as it is with the needs of a large metropolitan population and the demands of power politics, to keep the needs of some distant speck of rock in its bureaucratic mind.
The Windward Islands have been controlled, for better or worse, by foreign great powers for almost 500 years. Only a few have lately become independent. Spain used to be a major player, but was kicked out of the region in 1898. Denmark had an outpost, but was bought out early in the 20th century. At the moment the chain is carved up between the USA, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and France.
The possessing powers have tried different schemes in their attempts to administrate their possessions. The British employ a hodgepodge of schemes: retaining some colonies and spinning off some independent nations associated into their Commonwealth. The Dutch call their islands "autonomous regions." The French have taken the tack that their overseas territories are "departments," which are like our states but without the slightest pretensions to any sort of independent initiative whatsoever. When you disembark from your plane or boat on the island of Martinique, for example, you are setting
foot on France itself, just as when you submit your bags to the customs inspectors at the port of Marseille or Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.
he French have thus fulfilled and surpassed the old British boast: the sun never sets on the soil of France!
Columbus happened on the island of Martinique during his fourth voyage to the New World in 1502. News of the dire fate of the natives of Hispaniola and Cuba under the regime of Columbus and his associates had reached the natives of the eastern islands, and besides, the Caribs were not "nice" like the Arawak. There was also an aggressive, poisonous snake, the fer-de-lance.
The final decision was not to bother with the lesser Antilles. Cuba was developed as a major staging area for the assault on the American mainland. Puerto Rico and Hispaniola were settled. But the eastern out-islands were ignored.
This of course left them open for other maritime nations. The rulers of the great nations of Europe watched in dismay as the Spanish government began to receive immense returns on their American investments. In a deal brokered by the pope, title to the New World had been divided between Spain and Portugal. In the mid-16th century both of those crowns had passed by dynastic inheritance to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V,.so that virtually half the world was subject to one man.
The big problem of Charles' reign was the birth of Protestantism. By the end of the 17th century religious war was raging across Europe, and the revenues of the New World were pouring into the military sector. The wars were prosecuted for more than a century, and at the end all the money was gone and everyone was exhausted.
The arch-antagonists of the Spanish were the English, the French, and the Dutch. All of these nations wanted to break up the Spanish-Portuguese monopoly of the New World, and the Iberians being truly stretched to their limits, there were plenty of places one could set up shop. Possession of the Lesser Antilles became strategic, for from those islands one could conveniently pick at the yearly Spanish treasure fleet on its way home with the gold and silver that would fund another year of war. By the early 17th century all three nations had stations in the Windward Islands. The French set up in Martinique and Guadeloupe in 1635.
They decided they would grow sugar, utilizing the then innovative and lucrative method of chattel slavery, the subjects being purchased in Africa for trinkets, tools, and alcohol. Slavery was profitable enough that it lasted three centuries. A famous daughter of the Martiniquan planter culture was Josephine, first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Martinique is right in the middle of the hurricane zone, and has been hit many times. It has spent a lot of time and money rebuilding and catching up. There is also an active volcano, Mt. Pelee, which erupted in 1902, killing about 30,000 people. Despite the private fortunes made on the island in the past, the bottom line for France has been, and continues to be a net
The original Carib inhabitants did not use money, and you will find essentially no artifacts to collect. The first French settlers brought some of their own money with them, but in no time the French coins were replaced by the universal New World currency, that of the Spanish.
Bullion was always slipping through Spanish fingers. The Caribbean was infested with enemies and pirates, all picking at the treasure. Prices were high in the Caribbean then as they are now, and the big Spanish dollars, which could feed gruel to a family for months back in Europe, were the workhorse of commerce in the West Indies. If change was needed the dollars were hacked up into pieces.
The French colonies always cost more to maintain than they earned, so there was always a trade deficit. In the age of bullion that meant that more specie was leaving than entering the island, which in turn meant that there was always a coin shortage. In the 18th century the authorities tried to remedy the situation by essentially mutilating the coins in the hope that they'd be unacceptable off the island. They punched a heart-shaped hole in Spanish coins and decreed a full face value for the lighter coins. The scheme worked a little for a short time, but the heart coins tended to become bullion and disappear anyway, with the result that they are pretty rare today.
For a long time I had a general paranoia about West Indian cut-and-countermark coins. There was a time back 20-25 years ago when a number of counterfeits were noisily exposed in the numismatic press, and there are so few around, a mere handful of specimens of any given item, how can you tell? And once I had one of those fancy little "mocos" from Dominica, which was a high-grade beauty, suspiciously cheap. But over the decades I've seen so few cut-and-counterstamps pieces, and the prices have been, relatively speaking, so reasonable, that I have become a bit more relaxed about the situation. I can't be authoritative regarding the authenticity of any of these coins, but there are people who claim knowledge, and who can perhaps be persuaded to give an opinion.
During the British occupation of 1793-1801 cut thirds and quarters of Spanish dollars were prepared with fancy, crenellated edges. I've seen these things offerred several times over the years.
During the Napoleonic period a few gold coins were ocuntermarked. I can't tell you anything about the availability of these rare items, but the under-coins easily obtainable, so a bit of caution is in order.
A number of private countermarks are attributed to Martinique, primarily on the basis of where they were found. Some tokens were also made. All are rare.
The French struck coins for their American holdings in fits and starts from 1670 through the end of the 18th century. Most of the various issues were intended to circulate in all of the French settlements. All the coins were minors, meant to supplement and not replace the dominating Spanish gold and silver. The only truly common 18th century French colonial coin is the so
called stampee with the crowned "C" struck on an otherwise blank planchet, which can be had in high grade for a few dollars. The others typically come in very low grade, and range from scarce to very rare.
19th century French colonial coinage, all in bronze, is available for collecting. Corrosion spots are not uncommon on these, but nice specimens do exist. Grades above XF are rare.
Coins were struck especially for the Windward Islands, of which Martinique is one, in 1731 and 1732. A small batch of the 1731 12 sols found its way into the market a few years back, and prices for average specimens fell. In 1897 a pair of "coins" were produced. The qualifying quotation marks allude to their ambiguous status. Examination of the reverse legend tells us
that an equivalent value is on deposit at the Treasury, and that the pieces are "bon pour" their value. They are telling us that they are tokens, not coins. But never mind, they are the collectible Martiniquan items. Struck in an unfortunate copper-nickel alloy, they are often found with microscopic pitting from corrosion. They were also heavily circulated for a number of
decades, and high grade specimens are correspondingly rare. The coins were reissued in 1922, and for this later date the average grade is a little higher, but only a little. I've never seen the essaies and piedforts of this issue.
During World War II Martinique went with the Vichy government. After the war a plebiscite was held to determine the future status of the island, and in 1946 it was incorporated into the French nation as an overseas department. When you go to the exchange at Fort de France you will change your money into metropolitan French francs, just like in Paris. But everything will cost more.