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Martinique (Territorial Collectivity, France) "snake flag"

Last modified: 2023-02-18 by rob raeside
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Martinique "snake flag" of Martinique, two versions - Images by Pierre Gay, 13 March 1996, and Luc Baronian, 25 April 2005, rspectively

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Martinique "snake flag" of Martinique

The "snake flag" is a banner of the arms of Martinique, made of a blue field quartered by a white cross and with a white, L-shaped snake in each canton.
The snake flag was the flag of the former French colony of Martinique and Saint Lucia. The L-shaped snakes recall the "L" of Lucia, because Martinique was administrated from St. Lucia before the British seized that island. However, this flag never flew on St. Lucia.

The snake flag is locally considered as a "blazon" and not available locally. It is mainly, erroneously used as a courtesy ensign by yachtmen, who should hoist the Tricolore civil ensign instead.
The snake is the Martinique lancehead - Bothrops lanceolatus (Bonnaterre, 1790) - a venomous species endemic to the island, very common in sugarcane and banana plantations. Since the ensign is a banner of arms, the particular design of the snake is not specified. The snake has a triangular head (as its French name, trigonocéphale, derived from ancient Greek, says it) and a forked tongue. In the drawing shown beside the original text of the historical Edict translated below, the artist misinterpreted the snake name and represented it with a triangular tongue instead of head. According to that drawing, the relation between the snake shape and the "L" of (St.) Lucia seems very dubious. Most "blazons" seen on stickers and postcards, however, show the "standard" snake, as drawn above by Pierre Gay (left). A L-shaped snake is shown in the the Guide Michelin Guadeloupe - Martinique - Petites Antilles and on the CIA Factbook, as drawn above by Luc Baronian (right).
[Léon Nyssen. Le drapeau de la Martinique, Vexillacta [vxl], No. 9, September 2000]

In November 2001, only one copy of the snake flag could be seen on the island, hoisted near the Eruption Museum in Saint-Pierre, along with the flags of France, the European Union, Canada and the USA.

Pascal Vagnat, Roy Stilling, Olivier Touzeau and Ivan Sache, 20 November 2001

Local perception of the flag

Often presented as "the local flag" or even "the flag of Martinique", the "snake flag" is not unanimuously accepted on the island. In January 2007, Claudette Duhamel, Secretary of the independentisy party MODEMAS sent an open letter (text) to all the candidates to the French presidential election. The letter states that the snake flag, prescribed by the French colonial authorities and used by the ships involved into slavery, is used now on "all the houses" of the descenders of the European colonists ("békés") and, as a coat of arms, on public buildings and shoulder patches of the Gendarmerie. Accordingly, the MODEMAS asks all the candidates to promise to remove all the snake symbols from Martinique if elected.
The wording of the letter is, indeed, very outrageous, comparing the snake to the Nazi Hakenkreuz and using strong words like "social apartheid" and "racist cast". However, the letter expresses the resentment of the slaves' descendants against the French Republic and the economical control of the island by a few béacute; families, which was the main cause of the riots that broke out in Martinique and Guadeloupe in spring 2009.

Ivan Sache, 16 May 2009

Historical background of the flag

The "snake flag" was adopted as an ensign in 1766, being nothing but a variant of the civil ensign used by French vessels. According to an Edict issued by by Colbert in 1689, confirming a previous Edict issued in 1661, merchant vessels should hoist a blue ensign with a white cross. Such ensigns were also used in the French ports. When a civil ensign was used in a colony, a distinctive emblem was added in each of the four blue quarters (for instance, the fleur-de-lis for the ensign of Nouvelle-France, the current flag of Quebec).
[Léon Nyssen. Le drapeau de la Martinique, Vexillacta [vxl], No. 9, September 2000]

The Edict prescribing the Martinique and St. Lucia ensign is included in the Code de la Martinique (new edition by Durand Molaro, Saint-Pierre, 1807, Vol. 2, p. 487, available at at the Schoelcher Library in Fort-de-France).

No. 359. - Edict of Messrs. the General and the Intendant, which requires any captain or owner of vessel, ship, schooner and boat of Martinique and St. Lucia to hoist a distinctive ensign [and which] set the ensign of these two Colonies. From 4 August 1766.
Since all places of the Kingdom and the Colony of St. Domingue have each of them a specific and distinctive ensign, so that one can identify from a distance to which harbour or country belongs the vessel that would like to enter any harbour or port of the French Colonies or approach the coast, We found necessary to prescribe an ensign for the Colonies of Martinique and St. Lucia, which shall be described below. [...]

Article 1. Any owner of vessel, ship, schooner and boat, depending on the Government of Martinique and St. Lucia, shall equip its vessel with a blue ensign with a white cross that shall quarter the ensign; in each quarter, and in the middle of it, a white snake will be featured, so that there will be four white snakes in the ensign, which shall be recognized as the ensign of Martinique and St. Lucia.

Article 2. When a captain or owner enters a port or harbour, or reach the coasts of this Government, of any other French Colony, or of the Kingdom of France, he shall order to hoist the ensign described above, so that it will be recognized as a vessel from Martinique and St. Lucia, and he shall hoist it the same way the captains of the other ports of the Kingdom hoist their ensign.

Article 3. Any owner of a vessel who, within the assigned time of three months after the release of the present Edict, will not have equipped himself with the ensign described above, shall be fined 300 pounds, to be allocated to the repairing of the Port of Fort-Royal [Fort-de-France].

Article 4. Any captain or owner who will not conform to the present Edict and will not hoist the distinctive ensign of the two Colonies when he approaches the coasts shall be fined 100 pounds, to be allocated as described above.

Ivan Sache, 28 September 2000