Békés: A Matter of Inheritance


Sitting in the shadow of an elegant carbet, feeling the trade wind, Roger de Jaham, age 60, lets his Creole accent lilt, talking about the blow that he recently suffered: “For the first time in my life, a man whom I greeted told me: ‘I don’t shake the hand of a béké.”  The man swallowed humiliation and withdrew his hand.

It’s not that he is totally in denial, knowing well the heavy debt of history between 3,000 békés and 400,000 other Martinicans.  One of his ancestors arrived in the island in 1635, as a captain of the militia.  He enriched himself on the misery of slaves.  Another, Octave, was even tried for the abuse he inflicted on his servants.  Their descendant has recently discovered the transcript of the trial in the archives.  “We didn’t talk about slavery at home.  For us, it was a burden.”

But, today, it’s as if nothing had changed.  Exploiter, starver, racist, endogamist: Roger de Jaham doesn’t understand the opprobrium that his community in the Antilles currently suffers, and he howls at “a blasted conspiracy.”  “We are scapegoats,” he says.  “The strikers, the media, and even the President of the Republic have targeted the békés.”  Beside him, his brother Claude, 65, wants to believe that this is only a passing moment of foul temper: “I think it will subside but only into pain and resentment.  It will leave scars.”

In Cap-Est, the location of residence favored by the Creole whites of Martinique, beautiful villas overlook the turquoise water, their high walls protecting their owners from the curious and jealous.  From the cul-de-sacs traveled by no one, except those who have business being there, all the way up to this spur, the area is called “Békéland” by the islanders.  Here, during the general strike, they hid themselves, even more than usually.  Police patrols have been reinforced.

Much has been said about the békés in recent weeks.  Good or bad, the community doesn’t like that.  It is by nature discreet, secretive even, aware that its good fortune arouses jealousy.  It is a mode of survival, to guarantee that the community will last.  “We mustn’t appear arrogant or ostentatious,” sums up Claude de Jaham.  “We must stay in our place as we have for the last three hundred fifty years.”

The Jahams are among the few who are willing to talk.  It’s difficult in this atmosphere of siege to obtain intimate confessions.  “Now the situation is burning hot.  I prefer not to express myself and would rather wait until it cools down,” said a resident before abruptly hanging up the phone.

In Guadeloupe, the tension has been even more palpable.  The crowd applauded when a speaker reminded them of the revolutionary guillotine that had beheaded many settlers from 1793 on.  In the marina of Pointe-à-Pitre, moored opposite the islet where the békés of Grande-Terre live, the Pursuit, a 36-foot boat with 4 berths, has remained for a month, with fresh water and food on board, ready to weigh anchor.  The boat belongs to a Creole white who prefers to remain anonymous.  His family has found refuge in Metropolitan France, having fled the “revolution” of Elie Domota, the spokesman of Liyannaj Kont Pwofitasyon (LKP, Collective against Exploitation). Ten times a day, the head of the family, home alone, bugged a friend: “Do you think I should tell Geneviève to stay in France?”

This caste has seen other “revolutions,” however.  Since the beginning of the colonization, the wealthy families of the Antilles have known slave revolts, jacqueries of agricultural workers, factory strikes, and blockades of commercial centers.  Each time, they weathered the storms, through negotiations or the “moun bleus,” gendarmes and police.  There were deaths and wage increases.  Then everything was back in order — theirs again.

The Hayots, the Despointes, the Lorets, the Barbotteaus, the Vivies, the Reynals, the Lucys, and the Aubérys have reigned over the economy of the islands for years.  These descendants of adventurers, younger brothers, impoverished families, and even judicial exiles ended up forming an aristocracy that has continued to our days as an anachronism.  They were paid to free their slaves in 1848 and have survived the agricultural crises thanks in part to subsidies from the French government.  They have been able to bounce back after each mutation of the Antillean society and, with consummate skills, to put themselves where the money was, where the grants from the State, which has always judged them as its best intermediary, went.  Slavery has disappeared, but they have remained the masters, from fathers to sons.

“The békés were considered an inescapable social fact, as obvious as the fact that there are the rich and the poor,” says André Lucrèce, a sociologist and writer.  “It was a taboo, in the strong sense,” the Lévy-Straussian sense, “of the term,” says writer Suzanne Dracius.   This mixed-race woman, who has lived in Metropolitan France for a long time, had dared to condemn, in the early 1980s, the mores and omnipotence of this group in her novels and interviews.  The bold woman remembers the air of condescension mixed with admiration, a grunt of paternalism so to speak, with which her observations, minus their significance, were ultimately received.

The social movement has removed the inhibitions of the rest of the population.  In the prefecture of Martinique, a demonstrator, affected by fatigue and a little alcohol, hurled invectives against the negotiators of the management side: “You, dirty békés!  You have exploited us for three hundred fifty years — enough is enough!  We are no longer your slaves.  Give us what you owe us!”  In the marches in Pointe-à-Pitre and Fort-de-France, the chants in Creole have been the same.  “Guadeloupe (or Martinique) is ours, Guadeloupe (or Martinique) isn’t theirs.  A band of thieves and profiteers. We will show them the door.”  “Them here means the békés, of course, those who have everything,” translates a Martinican woman on strike.  The striking worker then explodes in anger against that coterie, whom she holds responsible for the “high cost of living.”  But the worker prefers not to give her name: she works at the meat department of a brand-name company owned by one of the people she criticizes.

So many bravadoes are to prove that the times are changing, perhaps, in Martinique and Guadeloupe.  “This is the end of a reign, the challenge to the béké stranglehold,” says André Lucrèce.  Behind the traditional demands on prices and wages, the power of that community is directly and specifically contested.  The denunciation, even hurled in the anonymity of a crowd, is a novelty.  “Before, we only talked about them among our family,” one protester admits.

The Creole whites now have to justify themselves in public.  They don’t like that.  The habitués of the backrooms, who finance the local political life and carefully attend to their protectors in Paris, are now exposed.  They atavistically recoil from the exposure.

Bernard Hayot, the greatest fortune of the French Antilles, has never given any interview to the media.  Attacked from all sides during the strike, he was content to have his corporate headquarters send out dry communiqués.  “Noisemakers do no good, the good make no noise” is his rehearsed reply to all who press him to talk.

His silence is considered contemptuous though Hayot seems rather embarrassed.  “People point the finger at the caste of békés all the more so because of its absence from the debate,” Yvon says ruefully.  But, this 50-year-old Martinican resident of Guadeloupe, too, prefers to keep his name out of print, for fear of reprisals.  “You would put me in a catastrophic situation,” he says.  If they are under attack, that is because the descendants of the settlers have lost their power.  Their economic monopoly is now undermined by the arrival of metropolitan investors and the emergence of a large Black, mixed-race, Indian, and Chinese bourgeois class in the 1990s.

They are no longer the principal landowners, though they nevertheless retain a significant share of land in Martinique (20% of banana producers, white for the most part, account for 80% of the Martinican banana production).  In Guadeloupe, large estates were dismantled after the great sugarcane strikes in the 1970s, with the independence movement in the background.  But they have greatly profited from the recent real estate speculation, reselling lands in the tourist areas of the coasts and the periphery of big cities, pocketing tidy sums thanks to increased property values.

The békés control a large portion of import-export, especially of cars and most foods, and a non-negligible share of big retailers. The Bernard Hayot group, with its revenue of 1.8 billion euros and 6,000 employees throughout the Caribbean region and even in Metropolitan France, owns car dealerships and big-box stores and markets multiple international brands.  As for the Despointes, they own the main food production factories.

That was enough for the population to hold them responsible for a cost of living on average 30-40% higher than in Metropolitan France.  “We are told that high prices are due to transport costs.  But why are the juices manufactured here, cane sugar, and even bananas more expensive here than in the mainland?” complains a housewife, showing a receipt.

The actual weight of the Creole whites in the Antillean economy is a matter of debate.  “Eight families monopolize wealth,” says Michel Monrose, president of the 5 February 2009 Collective, which animates the social movement in Martinique.  Their detractors say the békés fully control over 80% of businesses.  “It’s at most 10%,” Roger de Jaham says in response.  “They provide 30% of the GNP,” Patrick Lecurieux-Durival, president of the Martinican Medef, says in contrast.

In Guadeloupe, a former executive of the employers’ organization puts it in perspective thus: “We shouldn’t exaggerate the importance of békés.  They keep only the leftovers.”  The time when this coterie owned financial institutions, as well as the companies to which they lent money, is over.  Much of Jarry, a 300-hectare industrial zone where the island’s port authority, the Sara oil terminal, and the World Trade Center (the business center of Pointe-à-Pitre) are located belongs to the “French.”  50% of the added value produced in Guadeloupe is due to metropolitan businesses.  The hotel industry remains béké but under major international groups’ brands.

Serge Letchimy, Deputy Mayor (Progressive Martinican Party) of Fort-de-France, refused to get into the quarrels over numbers, rejecting a shopkeeper’s idea of debates.  Such debates obscure the fundamental point in his view: the true power of békés.  “This group works in a network.  Its mode of domination follows complex rules, inscrutable to a layman,” he explains.  “It is no longer based on a piece of land (a slave plantation) where the economic system was clear.  In the urban economy, the model is more sophisticated, and the mechanisms of ‘exploitation’ more complicated.”  “Not all békés really know each other but they still recognize each other,” Roger de Jaham admits.  They attend the same churches, dock their boats in the same docks, and rarely open their homes to those who are not members of the clan.

Blacks and mixed-race Antilleans criticize békés for their isolated way of life, for regarding themselves as Creoles apart from the rest of the Antilleans.  There is also this unpleasant habit of saying “Negroes” often in conversations, without meaning any harm, of course.  “The béké is seen as rich and reactionary, a person who refuses to mix with others,” says André Lucrèce.  Roger de Jaham calls it a cliché: “We are five brothers and sisters.  Our parents left us nothing, not even a car.  I would love to be an heir and owner of 500 hectares of land, as they say every béké is.”  He emphasizes that the community includes those of modest means, such as minor civil servants and fishermen.  In Cap-Est, along with imposing villas, more modest houses attest to this diversity.

The common codes remain, immutable.  Yvon, the béké in Guadeloupe, recalls the recommendations of his “Da,” the Black maid who took care of his house: “Mr. Yvon, it’s not your place to associate with Negroes.”  “The béké boy who ‘messed around’ with a black woman was ostracized by others,” recalls Roger de Jaham.  That’s a rule that still persists among some families.  Family trees have endlessly intersected since the beginning of the colonization.  You are always someone’s cousin.  Mothers have a nightmare when their daughters begin to flirt, dreading consanguinity.

Les Derniers Maîtres de la Martinique

All this was known but hushed up.  Then Alain Huygues-Despointes abruptly broke the taboo.  The old businessman, in a documentary broadcast by Canal+, openly displayed his disgust at race mixing.  The patriarch declared his desire to “preserve the race.”  The film was screened for the crowd in Pointe-à-Pitre and Fort-de-France.  It was another spur to revolt.  “He said out loud what others only think to themselves,” swore a Martinican protester.  Roger de Jaham saw years of efforts to “rehabilitate the béké” and reconcile his community with the rest of the population all go to ruin.  On the television stage in 1998, he said that slavery was “a crime against humanity” even before a law made it so. This confession, made for the first time by a descendent of settlers, had the effect of a thunderbolt.

But now, says this pioneer, behind the demands of protesters oozes the wound of slavery, which has never been properly treated.  In his view, sons are today paying for the crimes of their fathers, carrying their legacy.  “In 1848, 65,000 Martinican slaves were freed without them exacting any compensation.  Then we put a lid on the caldron.  Knives are finally coming out one hundred sixty years later.”

A participant in the general strike, Georges Mauvois, who is also a professor of history, says that animosity arises rather because of the békés’ refusal to integrate themselves into the multiracial society of the Antilles. “If they persist in keeping to themselves, they are committing suicide,” he believes.  Behind the walls of Cap-Est, however, his theory goes against three and a half centuries of habit.

The original article “Békés: Une affaire d’héritage” appeared in Le Monde on 1 March 2009.   Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi (@yoshiefuruhashi | yoshie.furuhashi [at] gmail.com).