The Empress' childhood home
"Contrary to all our wishes, God has chosen to give me a daughter. My joy has been no less great, since I look upon her as one who redoubles my affection for your brother and for you. Why should we not have a more favourable view of our own sex? I know some who combine so many good qualities that it would seem impossible to find them all in any other person" wrote Rose Claire des Vergers de Sannois to her brother-in-law upon the birth of her daughter Rose, who would become Josephine.
The birth of a daughter may have been disappointing to the Pageries, but her meteoric rise would not. She was born into comfort, if not the heights she'd aquire, as evidenced by the vestiges of her childhood. One such example is her bed. Found today at the Musée de la Pagerie (the museum on the site of the former plantation), the tropical-motif finnials and elegant fringe canopy testify to the balmy nights the future empress spent during her budding youth in Martinique, nights suffused with the ever-present perfume of sugar and the one-sided luxury it afforded.
According to Josephine, it was a happy time for her : “I ran, I jumped, I danced, from morning to night; no one restrained the wild movements of my childhood.” The tropical garden, bordered by a typical Martinican hardwood forest, was a magical playground for the young girl.
The sugarmill of the Musée de la Pagerie
Today, all that remains of the nexus of the Pagerie wealth are the ruins of the sugarmill. Joseph-Gaspard de Tascher de La Pagerie, Josephine's father and a former Versailles courtier, ran a sprawling sugarcane plantation and the harvest would be brought here. Sugarcane was a profitable crop, and the Pageries benefitted from the enslaved labor of their workforce, but they weren't as cash-rich as one would think. Their fortunes worsened in 1766, when a powerful hurricane razed the estate house. Josephine's family moved into the sugarmill, expanding the structure and adding a veranda. According to The Rose of Martinique: A Life of Napoleon's Josephine by Andrea Stuart, the future empress (affectionally nicknamed Yeyette) would become nostalgic for the rolling slopes and brilliant greenery of the Habitation de La Pagerie in her later life.
From the age of three, this is the place she called home.
Josephine did not keep memoirs, so much of her life in Martinique was recorded through rumor. One of the most enigmatic is the story of the prophecy . Stuart's book tells of a magicwoman of Martinique named Euphémie David, who predicted that the young girl would have two husbands—the first would be an unhappy marriage, bringing her to Europe, the second would be to a “dark man of little fortune" who would reach heavenly heights. Josephine, in turn, would become “greater than a queen,” yet grow to "regret frequently the easy, pleasant life of Martinique."
Another tells of the Baignoire de Joséphine (Josephine's Bathtub), a shallow sandbar on the Atlantic coast, sandwiched between ilet Thierry et ilet Oscar. It's said that young Josephine basked here in the kaleidscope of blue sky, white sand and aquamarine waters, splashing like a mermaid in loose cotton shifts, so different from the sumptuous fashions of faraway Paris.
Whether the rumors have any basis in fact, they are true—the girl from small colonial nobility would become empress, greater even than a queen, and grow nostalgic for her island home.
Headless statue of Josephine
In 1803, shortly before Napoleon crowned her Empress, Josephine wrote to her mother: “Bonaparte is very attached to Martinique and is counting on the support of planters of that colony; he will use all means possible to preserve their position.” By position, Josephine likely meant their status atop the hierarchy of Martinique as slave-owners—it's rumored that Josephine used her influence with Napoleon to restablish slavery in the Caribbean in the early 1800s.
Whether or not she campaigned for it, Josephine and her family certainly benefitted from the institution of slavery. Through her childhood, the crack of the whip and other brutalities committed against the enslaved peoples were as familiar as the scent of refining sugar and bougainvillea. Her association with the white planter class has caused a fair amount of negative feelings about the colonist-turned-empress.
The strongest testimony is her statue in La Savane park in Fort-de-France. Erected in 1859, the likeness stands tall and weedy, missing one crucial element: her head. In 1991, Josephine's effigy was decapitated, and later splattered with blood-red paint, echoing the horrors of the Reign of Terror that she lived through.
The elegant-yet-eerie statue, reigning over the placid oasis of the park, underscores the empress' mixed legacy, and is yet another fascinating spot to visit in Martinique.