The background: A crisis in the agricultural sector
From the 1960s, Martinique experienced a crisis in the agricultural sector. The competition that cane sugar knew against beet sugar had faded during the two wars with national needs. Demand for cane sugar fell after World War II, and sugar factories closed one after the other.
While Martinique had 12 sugar factories in 1962, it has only 2 in 1974. Over the same period, the number of rum factories goes from 62 to 20. As a direct consequence of these closures, the number of unemployed is constantly increasing. The cane in crisis is torn off in favor of the banana.
In a precarious climate, agricultural workers work in more than precarious conditions. They have no rule, no hourly working time. Hygiene and safety are obsolete. The workers are exposed daily to toxic products and pesticides. All this in return for a pittance that barely allows them to provide for their families. Usually women worked with their husbands and sometimes even their children came to help them.
The historical fact: when the strike turns into a tragedy
From January 17, 1974, Martinique was paralyzed by strikes. In vain, the workers demanded wage increases which are refused to them by the bosses of the plantations. Note that the context is all the more complex as Martinique lives in a still colonial system reminiscent of the period of slavery.
The bosses are generally Békés (White descendants of French colonists) while the workers are generally the descendants of slaves and “coulis”, the Indians who came to work on the island at the end of slavery between 1853 and 1885.
The workers who received 25 francs for a day's work demand an increase to reach the sum of 35.46 francs per day. The parons refused until February 13, 1974 when they proposed the sum of 32 francs. This employers' proposal is refused by the workers who decide to continue their strike until the requested amount is obtained. They then decide to mobilize by going from house to house to explain the need to hold on.
Faced with the refusal to resume the work of the workers and the tensions which reigned in the plantations, the bosses then called on the police to maintain order. Faced with stone throws from the workers, they replied with tear gas. The situation is tense and leads to the tragedy of February 14, 1974. Faced with numerous outbreaks of protest, the prefect decides that the workers' protest must be put to an end.
In the middle of the morning, the gendarmes were sent to the Habitation Chalvet in Basse-Pointe. They do not hesitate to use their weapons and fire in the direction of the demonstrators. Many workers are injured. One of them dies on the grounds of the protest. This is Ilmany “Rénor” Sérier (on the left in the photo), aged 55. The gendarmes are then treated as murderers.
Two days after February 16, while Rénier Ilmany must be buried, the body of Georges Marie-Louise (on the right in the photo), a young 19-year-old mason worker, is found lying on a beach not far from the Chalvet plantation. Witnesses say that the young mason was one of the demonstrators opposed to the police two days earlier.
During Ilmany's funeral, revenge and anti-colonialist slogans are chanted by the angry crowd and come up against Prefect Orsetti, who is called an “assassin”. The circumstances of Marie-Louise's death have never been clarified.
The context of the agricultural economic crisis in Martinique led to this tragedy which is still present in all memories, in particular thanks to Kolo Barst's song "févriyé 74".
A few days after these two deaths, the unions met the bosses and signed an end-of-conflict protocol. Several farm workers and separatist activists were however arrested until the end of 1974. Some then benefited from an amnesty, in order not to rekindle tensions in a still tense context.