January 1839: Martinique shaken!

In 1839, Martinique was a French colony, the population was estimated at 117,000 inhabitants with 41,000 free men and 76,000 slaves.

Sugarcane harvestThe island's economy is essentially devoted to the cultivation of sugar cane, where nearly 32,000 slaves work in the various plantations of the island. It is also the crop which occupies the most place with nearly 21,000 hectares of the 38,000 hectares cultivated on the island. In addition to sugar cane, the island has coffee, cotton and fruit plantations (fruit cultivation).

Despite this, the island's trade balance remains in deficit with nearly 21 million francs in imports against 16 million in exports.

Geological reminder

Tectonic plates of the Lesser AntillesMartinique, like all the islands of the Lesser Antilles, is located in a subduction zone, ie an oceanic tectonic plate slides and dives under another plate before sinking into the mantle. Thus for the Lesser Antilles, the South American plate sinks under the Caribbean plate. This friction of the plates with respect to each other causes them to store tensions in the rocks which, sooner or later, eventually relax and cause earthquakes.

Earthquakes, more or less strong, are sometimes felt by the population of the islands. The power of the earthquake depends on its depth in the subsoil and also on the place where the epicenter is located in relation to the island, the strongest point of the earthquake.

January 11, 1839 remains one of the darkest days on the island of Martinique, which will experience an extremely violent earthquake.

And the earth shook: January 11, 1839

On January 11, 1839, Martinique barely woke up. It was 5:55 am when the earth began to shake violently and this for more than 30 seconds. According to the data, this earthquake was located 50 km from the east coast of Martinique and about 100 km deep. Its magnitude was between 7 and 7.5 on the Ritcher scale. In view of the data, there is no doubt about the energetic power of this earthquake. The shock was felt across the island. The material and human catastrophes are colossal.

The town of Fort Royal is nothing more than a field of ruins. According to a report at the time, “the streets, courtyards, gardens have disappeared under the simultaneous collapse of buildings. Of the 800 houses in the city, 400 litter the ground, 200 are partially collapsed, and what remains standing constantly threatens new misfortunes: barely 50 to 60 can be inhabited without danger. But none were spared, the masonry houses crashing into their wooden neighbors. As for public establishments, the Hôtel du Gouvernement, that of Bellevue, the hospital, the church, the Colonial Council, the Royal Court, the gendarmerie barracks, that of the artillery, the general store, the two prisons, all shared the common fate.

In a report sent to the King of France Louis-Philippe I, the Governor of Martinique, Alphonse Louis Théodore, Count of Moges describes the catastrophic situation of the island after the earthquake: “Fort-Royal then capital of government of Martinique and the surrounding communes are reduced to a heap of ruins. The hospital collapsed on the sick. The number of people killed or injured is increased to five hundred." It calls on the population to carry out the work necessary for clearing the tracks and cleaning up public spaces.

Two days after the earthquake, the number of victims rose to 261 dead and 250 injured in Fort Royal. In Saint-Pierre, the damage is less numerous. All the masonry houses have suffered more or less and there are 5 victims and several houses destroyed. The town of Case-Pilote was as mercilessly mistreated as Fort-Royal and there were several wounded. In the rural communes, material damage is numerous, according to the governors: “the stone establishments, the ovens, the factories, the mills are almost all destroyed.”

The situation leads the Governor, Mr. de Moges to borrow from Guadeloupe and the British Isles surrounding Martinique. The first loan of 800,000 francs will be used to finance first aid, the second to repair military buildings and the hospital where soldiers and sailors were treated.

He also asked the metropolis for exceptional credits to finance the many repairs that the island should undertake as well as basic needs (food, clothing, construction materials).

In mainland France, operations or demonstrations are organized to raise funds for the hard-hit island. For example, in Strasbourg, a support concert raised the sum of 3,500 francs.

Note that the tremors had been felt in Saint Lucia and damaged the walls of several houses, also in Barbados, the earthquake was strongly felt. The earthquake was felt as far as Surinam, more than 950 km from Martinique.


Martinique just before the abolition of slavery was hit hard by an earthquake very little reported in historical books. The fact remains that this event deeply marked the island which at the time did not explain this phenomenon. Several aftershocks were felt between January 11 and 20, 1839.

Alexandre Moreau de Jonnès, a senior official who partly made a career in the West Indies and corresponding to the Academy of Sciences, believed that the earthquake was the result of particular climatic conditions (north-westerly wind and vapors in the atmosphere), all caused by terrestrial electricity. It was much later that Alexandre Wegener put forward the hypothesis of plate tectonics.

If at the time this earthquake surprised the population, today the risk remains major and anyone living on the island must be prepared to know how to act in the event of an earthquake.