In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The French Lesser Antilles

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Reference Works

Atlantic History The French Lesser Antilles
Vincent Cousseau, Marie Hardy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0284


The Lesser Antilles are distinct from the Greater Antilles according to two geographical criteria: their proximity to Europe and their smaller area. These two characteristics made the Lesser Antilles relatively easier to settle, leading to French colonization of the small islands in the early 17th century, before the colonization of the Greater Antilles, including Saint-Domingue (which became Haiti in 1804). Though marked by a common colonial past based on a slave plantation economy, historiography has separated the Lesser and Greater Antilles, with the big colony of Santo Domingo/Haiti often (generally rightly) treated differently. The French Antilles are also often treated separately, as opposed to the Spanish- or English-speaking Caribbean. Unsurprisingly, from the 18th century on, mostly French-speaking historians were interested in the history of the French Lesser Antilles. The 20th century saw an increase in varied and renewed approaches. In the 1960s Jacques Petitjean-Roget questioned whether the paradigm of the plantation system was universal, arguing it existed only in Martinique and Guadeloupe, leading to renewed interest in the region, culminating in Eric Williams’s denunciation of the absence of works studying the common history of the Antilles. His thesis impacted many later studies, with varied themes and approaches connected with European and North American historiographical trends. Saint-Martin, Saint-Barthelemy, and the smaller islands were part of the French Lesser Antilles until their autonomy in 2007. Today, the French Lesser Antilles are now composed of Martinique and Guadeloupe and their dependencies, including the “archipel des Saintes” and the islands of Marie-Galante and Désirade.

General Overviews

University research on the history of the Lesser Antilles was established in the 1970s by pioneering researchers such as Jacques Adélaïde-Merlande and Lucien-René Abénon. Adélaïde-Merlande popularized Caribbean history first by writing middle school history textbooks, followed by the publication of Adélaïde-Merlande, et al. 1980 and Adélaïde-Merlande 1994, and other works. The founding of the University Center of the West Indies and Guyana, in 1968, made it necessary to provide working tools for a new and growing student audience. In 1984 Abénon defended a thesis on Guadeloupe from 1671 to 1759, published a few years later as Abénon 1987 and filling a gap in the history of the Antilles under the Ancien Régime. A few decades later, his former pupil followed his work with Sainton 2004. Concomitantly, Pluchon 1982, Chauleau 1993, Watts 1987, Nicolas 1996, and Butel 2002 have also contributed to the diffusion of Caribbean History.

  • Abénon, Lucien-René. La Guadeloupe de 1671 à 1759: Etude politique, économique et sociale. 2 vols. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1987.

    This book, stemming from a doctoral thesis, is a precise picture of Guadeloupe’s society from the sugar revolution to the first English Occupation during the Seven Years’ War.

  • Adélaïde-Merlande, Jacques, ed. Histoire des communes, Antilles-Guyane. 6 vols. Geneva, Switzerland: G. Naef, 1993.

    Large documentation work on the history of the municipalities of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Guyana, coauthored by the first historians of the University of the West Indies and Guyana, then emerging. Listed in alphabetical order, the communes are detailed and explained in the form of a historical monograph.

  • Adélaïde-Merlande, Jacques. Histoire générale des Antilles et des Guyanes: Des Précolombiens à nos jours. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1994.

    General history of the Antilles, including Guiana, focusing on French colonization, especially the political and social aspects.

  • Adélaïde-Merlande, Jacques, Jean-Luc Bonniol, and Roland Suvelor, eds. Historial Antillais. 6 vols. Fort-de-France, Martinique: Dajani, 1980.

    A six-volume encyclopedia that is almost completely comprehensive. Though it is the first collective university synthesis on the French Lesser Antilles, written when the social and cultural history of the West Indies was still in its early stages, it is still very useful. Contains a rich iconography.

  • Badillo, Jalil Sued, P. C. Emmer, Franklin W. Knight, K. O. Laurence, Bridget Brereton, and B. W. Higman, eds. General History of the Caribbean. 6 vols. London and Oxford: UNESCO, 1997–2011.

    This encyclopedic synthesis places the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean environment in two specific chapters: Louis Allaire’s “Agricultural Societies in the Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles,” devoted to archaeology; and A. Pérotin-Dumon’s “French, English and Dutch in the Lesser Antilles: From Privateering to Planting, c. 1550–c. 1650,” on the contentious beginnings of colonization.

  • Butel, Paul. Histoire des Antilles françaises, XVIIe–XXe siècles. Paris: Perrin, 2002.

    Focuses on the geopolitical, economic, and commercial aspects of the Antilles in four chronological parts. Butel is one of the best specialists on transatlantic trade.

  • Chauleau, Liliane. Dans les îles du vent: La Martinique (XVIIe–XIXe siècles). Paris: L’Harmattan, 1993.

    Even without any critical apparatus (no notes or bibliography), this general study on Martinique from its origins to 1971 provides a continuous and fairly reliable historical account.

  • Nicolas, Armand. Histoire de la Martinique. 3 vols. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1996.

    Although lacking a critical apparatus (no notes or bibliography), this general synthesis on Martinique from the origins to 1971 offers a continuous and fairly reliable historical account.

  • Pluchon, Pierre, ed. Histoire des Antilles et de la Guyane. Toulouse, France: Privat, 1982.

    The first modern study in French, dealing with social and cultural issues alongside political, military, economic, and commercial aspects.

  • Sainton, Jean Pierre, ed. Histoire et civilisation de la Caraïbe (Guadeloupe, Martinique, Petites Antilles). Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2004.

    First of two volumes (Vol. 2 published in 2012 by Karthala). In spite of its title, only deals with the Lesser French West Indies, with one volume on the 17th century and another on the 18th. Studies a wide variety of subjects, with analyses that are often politically engaged and militant.

  • Watts, David. The West Indies: Patterns of Development, Culture and Environment Change since 1492. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    This English geographer includes passages dealing with the environmental impact of colonization and the spread of the sugar, coffee, and indigo industries.

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