It’s four in the afternoon on a warm Thursday. Really warm. Normally, I’d be sitting at my desk in New York City, but this week, I’m on the French Caribbean island of Martinique, famed for its turquoise waters, its warm, white sand and its fine rum. I’m saving these delights for later: right now, I am visiting La Savane des Esclaves—The Savannah of the Slaves—the first, and only, slave education and memorial site on the island.
If you’re wondering why the name of such a site sounds so pleasant, it’s no accident. After passing through the hut-like ticket entrance, you feel like you’re entering a space more akin to a yoga retreat than a historical memorial. That’s because founder “Ti” Gilbert Larose, 56, wanted a place that told the truth about the island’s slave history—to make sure natives never forgot his ancestors’ dark history, as he puts it. But he wanted to do so in a way that celebrated Martinicans, too. So Larose did what he felt that the French government wasn’t doing enough of, and created a “learning center,” which could double as a mini-botanical garden.
The grounds are unique to Martinique, a luscious island first occupied by Carib peoples. But like most Caribbean islands, explorers from other countries found it useful to have as their own. A Frenchman named Pierre Bélain claimed Martinique in 1635, only for France itself to take over colonization in 1654. It was around this time, when a group of Dutch settlers also living there realized sugar cane could become a profitable crop on the island, that the French brought more than 217,000 slaves to the island from Africa to start and keep up the plantations.
This open-air museum aims to convey this history, with a focus on the slaves’ living quarters. It contains a replica slave village, featuring huts and living quarters that appear frozen in time. In and around the huts are cooking quarters and props to show how the enslaved Martinican people survived before emancipation in 1848. An oasis of various plants, fruit trees, and brightly colored flowers that are indigenous to the island envelop them. Along one path is a line of sculptures commissioned by local artists. It’s a stark contrast to the predictable slavery education centers in the U.S..
Truth be told, La Savane des Esclaves is as personal as it gets, and if you’re an American, I doubt you’ll ever see a place like it at home. After finding open land on the coastal village of Trois-ilets, which sits on the southwest part of the island facing St. Lucia, Larose began constructing the place from the soil up in 2004. He did not use a crew, but planted the garden and built a fully functionally outdoor museum with his bare hands, using his son as first mate.
Larose, who has by now hopped off his four-wheeler to give us a private tour of the place, tells us the land used to be one of the many sugar plantations on the island. The irony of creating a historical slave memorial on the remnants of a place where the white colonists owned Africans is not lost on Larose. When asked through a translator how much of his own money he spent to get the place started, he gives a youth-like laugh and sarcastic retort: “I stole it.”
All of the huts are small and made completely from local wood. Two have a small, sheet-like cloth inside to show what colonial “masters” forced these human beings to sleep on. Inside, I noticed tools of torture used on the slaves, including a metal head-piece designed to chain a person up like a dog. Along the path guiding you through the grounds, a display with pictures detailing the meaning of each place silently narrate the tour.
Then, the learning experience became less heavy, as Larose intended it to. On the very top of the hill that the site is perched on is an Athens-style “stage” for educational reenactments. Nearby are huts specific to the ones that the island’s indigenous people, known as the Carib and the Amerindians, lived in.
It is here overlooking his passion-turned-business, that Larose tells me that people thought he was “crazy” when he announced his plans to build a place like this. He laughs. Only two people visited after all of his hard work was complete. Now, he’s a local hero with tourists, locals, journalists, and students from around the world traveling to visit. Two days before my visit, Larose won the “Label Qualité Tourisme” or “Qualité Tourisme™” trademark designation, the French government’s highest honor for tourism sites.
Still, he takes the praise with a grain of salt. Growing up, the joint French-Creole culture seen ever-present in the island’s language, architecture, and food somehow didn’t make it to his history books—only French history did. So, he did his own research and knew he had to make sure it was never forgotten. It took 15 years to get any real recognition from mainland France. Still, he says it’s worth putting in the work.
“You have to talk about it every day,” he says. “One time of year is not enough.”
The same can be said for MLK Day or Black History month in the U.S.. With the current rise of hate on our land, it’s clear many Americans could benefit from our own version of La Savane des Esclaves. Not just to see the replicas and learn the history—that can happen anywhere—but to witness the passion behind such a creation. To hear the person who created it tell you, while relaxing under fruit trees in the middle of a tropical island, that they rejected the white-washed version of their own history to tell the truth. It’s the passion that makes this place unique. Larose knows it, too. He says one woman came all the way from Alabama and, after her visit, told him he should create a place like this in the U.S.. To which he jokingly replied, “if you bring me, I’ll come with you.”
I ask him what he’d do if Trump wanted to pay a visit—a figure who appears to me to be the antithesis of Larose’s passions and aspirations.
“I would love to have him,” says Gilbert, “but I’d want to have a real conversation.”
La Savane des Esclaves would certainly be the place to do it. But for now, seeing people of all backgrounds visit and learn about slave history, and seeing local school kids learn their own history or help him to plant crops, fulfill Larose enough. In return, the La Savane des Esclaves will fulfill you.
On the way out, Gilbert stops me and grabs one of the kids’ books on slave history in Martinique he has written. It has a cartoon-version of himself on the cover.
“Here,” he says, offering it to me. “You asked questions.”