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Rereading Blank Spaces in the Colonial Caribbean


A Map of the island of Martinique has many details on the west side and few on the east.

L’Isle de la Martinique. This early map of the French colony of Martinique, published in Paris, is thought to date to 1656. Source: Digital Commonwealth

Maps such as the one above—a depiction of the French Caribbean colony of Martinique, published by Parisian engraver Pierre Mariette in the mid-seventeenth century—served both practical and ideological purposes. In addition to conveying basic information about the size, location, and features of a given territory, maps helped project sovereignty over distant lands. As a document created “avec privilege du Roy”—with the permission of the King (Louis XIV)—Mariette’s map provided a visual representation of French colonial progress during the Sun King’s reign. French names assigned to topographical features such as rivers and mountains convey French claims to the island, while settlements and churches, represented by small buildings and crosses, attest to the installation of civil and religious authority in the colony. Even the tiny anchors off the island’s west coast, which indicate bays suitable for sheltering sailing ships, illustrate Martinique’s role in a French economic system that was increasingly transatlantic in nature.

Yet Mariette’s map also inadvertently testifies to the limits of European sovereignty in the early colonial Caribbean and sheds light on indigenous responses to colonization. The right-hand side of the map, which depicts the eastern half of Martinique, is considerably less detailed than the left. Few rivers or bays bear French names, and much of the eastern interior is left blank. Rather than indicating an absence of topographical features, this blankness reveals a lack of knowledge. A notation on the map suggests why: a line down the center of Martinique divides the island into the “demeure des Francois,” or dwelling-place of the French, and the “demeure des sauvages,” or dwelling-place of the “savages.”

In this detail, the contrast between the west and east is even more obvious.

Detail from L’isle de la Martinique.The left side of the map shows mountains, rivers, places to anchor boats, and the residences of Jesuit missionary and the colony’s governor, Du Parquet. In contrast, the right-hand side of the map, labelled “Cabesterre ou demeure des sauvages” has much less detail and shows no sign of European settlement. Source: Digital Commonwealth

The “savages” to whom the map alludes were once known as “Caribs,” but are properly referred to as the Kalinago people. Today, their 3,700-acre Kalinago Territory on the eastern side of Dominica, the island immediately north of Martinique, is the only formally recognized indigenous territory in the Caribbean. Yet as this seventeenth-century map suggests, Kalinagos successfully held dominion over large terrains in the colonial era, actively limiting European settlement of the Caribbean for centuries after the arrival of Columbus.

Mariette’s map of Martinique is unusual because it openly acknowledges a division of space between Europeans and Kalinagos. The map of Guadeloupe below, also published by Mariette in the mid-seventeenth century, helped inscribe French sovereignty over the island by erasing any trace of indigenous presence. Instead, a notation on the eastern half of the island states that the area is “fort peu habitée des Francois:” very little inhabited by the French.

This map of the island of Guadeloupe also has many details on the westward portion and few on the eastern.

Isle de la Guadeloupe. This early map of the French colony of Guadeloupe is also believed to date from 1656. Source: Digital Commonwealth

Although both maps provide different explanations for French settlement patterns in the seventeenth-century Lesser Antilles—one an indigenous presence, the other a French absence—certain commonalities are clear. In both instances, the eastern half of the island is relatively unmarked, indicating Europeans’ limited knowledge of the terrain and inability to lay claim to it by bestowing new names on existing features. Reading the Guadeloupe map alongside a map of Martinique acknowledging the “demeure des sauvages,” we can begin to ask why the eastern half of Guadeloupe was “very little inhabited by the French.” Might this paucity of French settlers speak to the presence of other people? Taken together, the maps invite us to consider how Kalinago settlement practices evolved in the early colonial era. By consolidating their settlements in specific areas, the Kalinagos could work together to prevent further European incursion.

That the eastern coasts of both islands remained free from Europeans is also significant. Europeans referred to the eastern coasts of the Lesser Antilles as “windward” because of their location directly in the path of prevailing winds; as the absence of harbors on both maps’ eastern coasts indicates, the islands’ windward sides were ill-suited to European sailing ships. This difficulty provided Kalinago seafarers with a strategic advantage. They had long relied on paddle-driven dugout canoes rather than windpowered sailing ships to navigate the islands. By establishing themselves in areas that Europeans found inaccessible, Kalinagos succeeded in maintaining inter-island patterns of communication, trade, and alliance that predated European arrival in the region. Although both maps illustrate the significant changes European colonization wrought, they also betray traces of indigenous persistence. The map of Martinique notes that the ‘Carbet,’ or Kalinago village, on the east coast of the island, is the “lieu ou les Caraibes font leurs assemblées:” the place where the ‘Caribs’ make their assemblies. Slightly further south, the “Carbet du Capitaine Pilote” indicates that at least one indigenous leader, or Captain, was known to the French. Kalinagos like Pilote continued to make their homes on the Lesser Antilles’ windward sides throughout the colonial era and, in the case of Dominica, up to the present day.

This close look at the map of Martinique shows a coastline labelled with French names.

Detail from L’Isle de la Martinique. This detail indicates Kalinago settlement on the eastern half of the island through drawings of small houses. Source: Digital Commonwealth

Other documents generated for Europeans’ use also shed light on the roles and experiences of indigenous peoples in the colonial Caribbean. Historians have made excellent use of government and missionary correspondence detailing relations with the Kalinago, but even records that don’t pertain directly to indigenous peoples, such as these maps, reveal day-to-day realities of the colonial encounter. Catholic parish registers include the baptisms of “Caraibe” babies whose mothers brought them to French churches, indicating that some Kalinagos converted to Catholicism or assigned value to having their children christened as Catholics. Nominative censuses list “sauvages” living in the households of French colonists, opening a window on little-studied daily interactions between Kalinagos, settlers, and enslaved Africans in the islands. The censuses also invite questions about the legal status of these Kalinagos: did they live in French households as servants or slaves? Even documents as simple as trade inventories demonstrate the importance of Kalinago people in shaping life in the colonial Caribbean, as both the items and routes along which the items were ferried relied on indigenous knowledge and labor.

The idea that European absence may point to indigenous persistence is not new to historians of colonial North America. Yet in much scholarship on the Caribbean, the latter half of the seventeenth century continues to mark a historical and historiographic moment in which indigenous people largely disappear from view. The islands having been divided between the English, French, Dutch, and Spanish, the story instead becomes about sugar and slaves, with historians using available deeds, inventories, and trade records to trace the rise and eventual triumph of plantation production. But a closer reading of surviving documents—even those Europeans created—suggests that lesser-known contests between European and indigenous peoples continued to shape the economic and political landscape of the region long after the “frontier era” of settlement had passed. As historians ask new questions of familiar documents, we also have an opportunity to revisit existing histories and ask how our narratives change when we look closely at seemingly blank spaces.

Tessa Murphy is Assistant Professor of North American History, 1500-1800, at Syracuse University. Her current book project, tentatively titled The Creole Archipelago: Race and Colonization in the Southern Caribbean, c. 1660-1797, examines how communities first forged outside the sphere of colonial rule challenged existing understandings of legitimate trade, political participation, and racial belonging in the British and French empires. 

For another Process piece on mapping, click here.