A long road divides the banana groves. The banana trees in long rows, with irrigation canals running along ever few rows, the bunches of bananas dangling from the tree in blue plastic bags are a common sight in Martinique. Martinique has two main crops: sugar cane and bananas. These crops have been harvested in Martinique for centuries now, harking back to the days when slavery was legal and all of the land was owned by the békés—the white, farming families.
This road seems so small, so insignificant, so easily passed by. The taxicos do not venture down this road but speed on to the next stop. Even most Martinicans do not know about this road or the quartier to which it leads. It’s hard to imagine that anything exists between this banana orchard and the Atlantic Ocean.
And yet, just beyond the banana trees, is Cap Est—home to the békés. There are thirty or so béké families in Martinique now, but they have intermarried so much that they are all related in some form to one another. In fact, they have intermarried so much that a béké can no longer marry another béké because they are too closely related. A lot of people on this island are related in some form to the béké. Even the Black families who the béké would never recognize as one of their own often have some béké lineage: their grandmothers or great-grandmothers were the mistresses of the béké.
After slavery, the békés managed to retain their power when they were given compensation by the French government for having lost their slaves. Today, they have managed to retain their power on the island through industry. They own most of the land on the island, all of the ports, many of the big companies. Because they own everything, the prices Martinique tend to be very high—much higher than in mainland France. Even my salary acknowledges this: the assistants in Martinique receive about 30% more than the assistants in France, even those in Paris.
Drive down this narrow road, and rows of pristine houses with perfectly mowed lawns appear. Some are blocked off behind walls or behind tall plants that shelter its inhabitants. The béké are very private people: they do not flaunt their wealth, but shelter themselves behind walls. Now, as the country has been desegregated, non-whites can live in Cap Est, but many choose not to. In many ways, living in Cap Est is like living in a different country. The kids attend a private school in Fort-de-France instead of the local public school, the parents never socialize with people outside of their community, except to say a polite “Bonjour.” Because of this, living in Cap Est often means forsaking a friendship with your neighbors, playmates for your children, a ride home when your car broke down—any sense of community—for non-whites. This is why Cap Est has remained largely the home of the békés, although a few “mulatres” have moved into the quartier in an effort to integrate themselves into the béké community.
It’s easy to see why the békés chose Cap Est as their home. It’s secluded and right on the Atlantic Ocean. Sylvie says that the road is the dividing line: the békés live on the side of the road closer to the ocean and everyone else lives on the other side. The view from this side of the road is beautiful. The water is turquoise in the shallower areas and navy blue where it deepens.
And, although the coast in French is public property—there is no such thing as a private beach in France—the proximity to the beach means that many of them have built their houses up to the coast, with private docks for their motorboats. Bordered by the nicest hotel in Martinique, with prices over a thousand bucks per night, they and the hotel have made every effort to keep their beach private from the local “riff-raff.” This includes building a fence to keep people out, that later got torn down by police, guards that patrol the area around the hotel, and, their latest effort—a sign that warns the public to stay off “private property.”
This did not stop Sylvie and me, however, and we ventured down to the beach, which was empty since it’s the off-season for travel in Martinique. Sylvie says that even if the sign does say that trespassers will be arrested, it’s more of a scare tactic than anything. The beaches are public after all, so the only way the hotel can keep out the locals is to keep them from trying to go to the beach. Luckily for them, the abundance of beaches in the area means that nobody is really in the mood to fight over the beach.