June 26th, 2020

Green Shields

The "Creolisation of Plants" in the Colonial Plantations of Guadeloupe and Martinique Between the 15th and the 19th Century

Text © dach&zephir

Since their origins, Guadeloupe and Martinique have been home to rich and varied flora and heterogeneous landscapes which benefit from the islands' diverse climate. Throughout history, so-called native species were joined by other varieties which arrived thanks to various carriers from neighbouring tropical zones. The migrations of birds, the ocean currents and the circulation of the karayib - the Amerindian peoples native of the Caribbean region - were some of the first forms of such vectors, which one could qualify as fortuitous and natural. But the 15th century inaugurated new modes of circulation and distribution, radically transforming this paradigm.

The discovery of Guadeloupe (1493) and Martinique (1502) by Italian navigator Christopher Columbus was the beginning of a different relationship with life, space and flora. The French colonised the islands in 1635, and the karayib - then known as a people of warriors - were exterminated by means of epidemics, alcohol and guns. Shortly after, the first deported Africans - the initial slaves of the French colonies - landed to serve a new economy based on the exploitation of the soil.

Caraïbes and Europeans according to P. du Tertre (1929), image courtesy Manioc

Slaves going to work, by PJ. Benoit & Paul Lauters (1839), image courtesy Manioc
Profiting from almost constant sunshine, the lands favoured the cultivation of sugar cane. Introduced in Guadeloupe and Martinique in the 17th century and inseparable from slavery, sugar cane became the symbol of the Plantation. It was, therefore, thanks to the Antilles that France acquired the monopoly of sugar production - which was known then as white gold - in the "West", experiencing great economic prosperity. Confronted with growing demand, its need for labourers became pressing. Thus began a frantic trade of black men who were to be governed according to the Code Noir (1685), a text - inspired by the slavery practices of the Spaniards in the Americas - consisting of sixty articles that regulated the life, death and purchase of slaves.

When slavery started to rage, Guadeloupe and Martinique expressed a specific relationship with nature which was inherited from the first peoples. Although scattered, some of the traces of that bond had resisted the violence of the first colonisers and allowed the captives - that were brought in from Africa and the Americas - to build different relations with the environment and plants. Fortuitous or imposed, these encounters naturally generated "reactions" that we could associate to the concept of creolisation advocated and popularised by the Martinican philosopher Édouard Glissant.
According to Glissant, the notion of creolisation defines an "original anthropological construction, linked to the establishment of a complex society based on a precise historical framework and generates locally a new, original reality, without any precedent of which it would be a pure reduplication or extension. This construction is, therefore, connected to a place (the Plantation) and an economic model based on human trade and slavery."

By direct consequence, this new reality produced another form of creolisation - a precise process of "everyday invention" that saw the active participation of certain plants and seeds. The result was an (original) set of traditions that embodied a specific way of life inspired by the local setting (the Plantation) and the outside world (Africa and America). Plants have thus played a significant role in the resilience of enslaved communities. Within the restrictive context of the colonial period, their potential - which was at the same time technical, scenic, symbolic and mystical - enabled oppressed people to build parallel worlds. Acting as authentic green shields, they allowed these communities to reinvent rituals and objects, helping them endure atrocity and regain some dignity.

This piece is the first chapter of a 2-part article written by French duo dach&zephir about Éloj Kréyol*, their ongoing research around the notion of creolisation and the post-colonial landscape of the Antilles islands. Read the second part here

Published in 2019, the book Éloj Kréyol: Meanderings in the Field of Decolonial Design (Sophie Krier et al, Field Essays, Onomatopee 55.3, 2019) offers an insight into their investigation

Green shields, digital collage © dach&zephir


Édouard Glissant, Traité du Tout-Monde (Poétique IV), Gallimard, 1997
Alain Ménil, La créolisation, un nouveau paradigme pour penser l’identité ?, Rue Descartes, 2009
Dimitri Zephir, Les mailles fertiles d’un créole, Thesis at ENSAD Paris, 2014

About the authors
Graduates of the National School of Decorative Arts of Paris, Dimitri Zephir and Florian Dach founded dach&zephir in 2016. Mixing fervour and poetry, their projects echo the thinking of Martinican poet Édouard Glissant and celebrate the urgent and necessary diversity of the world. dachzephir.com / @dach.zephir / @eloj.kreyol


Plant Fever is a project curated by d-o-t-s and produced by the Belgian museum CID Grand-Hornu. Visual identity by Matthieu Visentin. Exhibition scenography by Benoît Deneufbourg