History of the French Caribbean Woman from Martinique, the "poto mitan"

Every year on March 8th, the whole world celebrates women with the International Women's Day. Martinique was once called "Matinino or Madinina" by the Arawaks, which means "the island of women". They defined it as an island populated exclusively by women warriors. AZ Martinique makes you discover through a file the history of the Martinican woman, from the Arawak woman to the contemporary Creole woman, who became a pillar of the Martinican family.

Women in Martinique during the pre-Columbian period

The Arawak woman

Arawak woman with a bird and arrow bowThe Arawaks are Amerindians from the Amazon who lived in the Caribbean archipelago from the 4th century BC to the 15th century AD. The name "Arawak" does not designate a people strictly speaking but a linguistic family to which are attached many Amerindian populations of Amazonia of which the Kali'na and the Carib. According to the pottery found, they lived mainly from agriculture, in particular the cassava which was the basis of all the Amerindians of the Caribbean, fishing and gathering.

A society of fishermen

In Martinique, they lived near watercourses (sea or river) generally on the Atlantic coast of the island, the entire northeast coast, from the Caravelle peninsula to the mouth of the Capot River which descends from Morne Rouge, that is to say on the foothills of Mount Pelée. From there, they settled on the low heights overlooking the beach. They did not like the calm waters of the Caribbean but appreciated the fertility of the volcanic soil.

This choice of location was because the Arawaks were above all, fishermen. They would even be the inventors of the fish farming that they practiced with the help of the tides (low tide: capture and breeding, high tide: removal if necessary). Their villages were so numerous that Martinique was considered the capital of the Arawaks of the Antilles. The Arawaks were also hunters but small animals (agoutis, iguanas, turtles, manatees).

Arawak women in the middle of harvestingWomen generally took care of household chores, pottery and agricultural work. They made terracotta containers which were used daily when they were grossly made. Ceremonial pottery was finely crafted and sometimes decorated. Many vestiges of this period have been found and are currently on display at the Museum of Archeology and Prehistory in Fort de France.

The importance of pottery

Pottery was not just an art, it was also an expression of beliefs. They did it by decorating their pottery. In reality, Arawak pottery was a true religious art. The decorations were made either by incision, or by painting them or even by adding small modeled figurines called adornos. Besides pottery, women took care of the work of the earth which was rudimentary at the time. They were content to clear the woods and practice slash-and-burn cultivation. The tools of the time were far from sophisticated and were only simple sharp wooden sticks called coas which they used to dig the ground.

The food

Arawak woman preparing cassavaRegarding cooking or preparing food, it was also a task for women. The staple food was cassava. The tuber was peeled using stone tools or shells, the roots were then grated on a board bristling with stones or on a flat piece of coral.

The cassava juice was then extracted and from there the flour obtained was sieved and cooked on large circular ceramic trays called platinum. This flour gave a kind of pancake: the cassava. Cassava juice, once fermented, gave an alcohol of 3 to 5° which was called ouicou.

Ouicou was consumed in large quantities during religious ceremonies celebrated by shamans. The Arawaks also harvested fruits, berries, vegetables, wild plants and wood. They had various uses:

  • food,
  • body paint and protection against insect bites for achiote (red natural dye)
  • fire-making (wood, twigs, dry grass)
  • medical care for plants with healing properties.

Cotton work

Arawak woman weaving cottonCotton was also harvested in large quantities by the Arawak women. They made wire out of it using spindles made of terracotta and fitted at the end of a wooden rod. These threads, once braided, were transformed into ropes. Cotton was therefore an essential raw material for the manufacture of fabric, fishing nets, hammocks and ropes.

Habitat and way of life

They lived either in wooden huts called "bohios" by family or in a common way in carbets (house). The grouped huts formed a village. A village consisted of around 1,000 inhabitants with around 50 family huts. The largest had more than 5,000 inhabitants.

The bohios were built with the help of wooden or reed poles, and covered with thatch. They are arranged in a circle around a central square. These huts were sometimes built on stilts, no doubt to avoid humidity or perhaps to protect themselves from snakes, the trigonocephalus.

The carbet was an oval-shaped communal house where several people lived with their cotton hammocks. It was located in the center of the village and could measure 20 meters long and 8 meters wide. The two types of dwellings required the same materials namely wood, foliage, and reeds. A low door looked like an entrance. The canoes which were used for many inter-island trips, for trade or for fishing were made by men, more or less young.

Organization of the society

The Arawak society was different from the Carib society because it was considered peaceful while the Caribs were warriors. It was very organized and matriarchal, organized around the mother. Filiation was transmitted by women. As for power, it was not exclusively male because women could gain access to it, but it was primarily male. The chiefs in power were called the caciques and there were women caciques. Power then passed to the elder son of an older sister.

Polygamy was practiced and the first wife had power over all other wives. The religious festivals were very numerous since the Arawaks were animists. According to them, animals have souls. They honored their gods for their fertile power. During religious ceremonies, they danced and brought offerings to their gods. They came into contact with them through the Zemis, which were small idols of different shapes. Each family had its Zemi.

The Arawak populations lived naked. The women wore a cotton thong once married (see photo above), and the men sometimes did too. It was reported (by Pierre Martyr d'Anghiera) that Christopher Columbus during his second trip to the Caribbean would have met Arawaks in Santo Domingo who would have told him about an island further east, populated exclusively by women and they called Matinino, a name he translates in his diary as isla de las mujeres, “the island of women”.

However, the island was not populated exclusively by women according to his description in his diary.