Martinique is one of the overseas departments of France, fully a part of the country in the way that Hawaii is one of the United States. Originally populated by Carib people, from 1635 it was colonized by the French. Its immigrant population increased quickly, going from 700 in 1637 to 5000 by 1658, and was quite mixed, including :
- French and European soldiers, sailors, plantation owners, administrators, etc.
- Brazilian Jewish refugees
- Some 60,000 African slaves
Documentation of some of this population has been the same as elsewhere in France, with parish registers recording baptisms, marriages and burials and, from 1792, civil registers recording births, marriages and deaths. These are not yet available online, yet we hope that they will be so soon on the website of the Archives nationales d'outre-mer (ANOM). There was another, rather unique documentation.
In April, 1848, the evil institution of slavery was finally abolished in the French Empire. Thousands of people suddenly became full citizens. For many, there was no record, and the French bureaucrat cannot abide an unrecorded individual. Thus, a new type of registration, the actes d'individualité, was created in Martinique. Interestingly, this clerical novelty was initiated some two weeks before the violent uprising of the oppressed that forced the governor of the island to abolish slavery on the 22nd of May, before the pokey boat from France with the decree of abolition empire-wide arrived. It finally got there in June.
By which time the noting of what would eventually become about 51,000 actes d'individualtés was well under way. In each commune, the newly freed went to the town hall, or Mairie, to announce their existence and claim citizenship. If they did not have surnames, they chose one. If they did not know what to choose, the clerk gave one. There is much written about the at times preposterous names assigned and querying as to whether these were intentional and malicious on the part of the clerks, or an indication of their low intelligence.
In any case, The actes d'individualité have a fairly standard format, giving the name and age of the individual, the place of birth, names of parents, and registration number from the slaves register if they had been registered on it. The Archives Départementales de la Martinique have filmed and indexed all of these records and they are available to search and view on the lovely, if quirky, website of La Banque Numérique des Patrimoines Martiniquais (The Digital Bank of Martinique Heritage), established by the Conseil général de la Martinique. For those tracing the genealogy of descendants of slaves of Martinique, this is an excellent resource.
©2010 Anne Morddel