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Creole Economics

Creole Economics
Caribbean Cunning under the French Flag

Browne draws on a decade of ethnographic fieldwork and interview data from all socioeconomic sectors to question the common understanding of informal economies as culture-free, survival strategies of the poor.

November 2004
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291 pages | 6 x 9 | 19 halftones, 24 line drawings, 3 figures, 1 map |

What do the trickster Rabbit, slave descendants, off-the-books economies, and French citizens have to do with each other? Plenty, says Katherine Browne in her anthropological investigation of the informal economy in the Caribbean island of Martinique. She begins with a question: Why, after more than three hundred years as colonial subjects of France, did the residents of Martinique opt in 1946 to integrate fully with France, the very nation that had enslaved their ancestors? The author suggests that the choice to decline sovereignty reflects the same clear-headed opportunism that defines successful, crafty, and illicit entrepreneurs who work off the books in Martinique today.

Browne draws on a decade of ethnographic fieldwork and interview data from all socioeconomic sectors to question the common understanding of informal economies as culture-free, survival strategies of the poor. Anchoring her own insights to longer historical and literary views, the author shows how adaptations of cunning have been reinforced since the days of plantation slavery. These adaptations occur, not in spite of French economic and political control, but rather because of it. Powered by the "essential tensions" of maintaining French and Creole identities, the practice of creole economics provides both assertion of and refuge from the difficulties of being dark-skinned and French.

This powerful ethnographic study shows how local economic meanings and plural identities help explain work off the books. Like creole language and music, creole economics expresses an irreducibly complex blend of historical, contemporary, and cultural influences.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part One: Groundings
  • Chapter 1: Elements
  • Chapter 2: Social Histories: The Weight of France in Martinique
  • Part Two: Frameworks
  • Chapter 3: Cultural Economies: Relating Social Values to Economic Theory in Martinique
  • Chapter 4: Afro-Caribbean Identities: Postcolonial Tensions and Martinique's Creole Débrouillard
  • Part Three: Practices
  • Chapter 5: Adaptations of Cunning: The Changing Forms of Débrouillardism
  • Chapter 6: Opportunism by Class: The Profit and Status of Undeclared Work
  • Chapter 7: Women, Men, and Economic Practice: Different Routes to Autonomy and Status
  • Epilogue: Imagining the Future of Creole Economics
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • References Cited
  • Index

Katherine E. Browne is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Colorado State University and is the recipient of the American Anthropological Association’s 2018 Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service to Anthropology.


You come from a people without mother tongue, with neither private voice nor private domain; with no particular gods. The Antilles: fires without hearth . . . You are born from a defiant people, accustomed to grasping left handed nocturnal freedoms.

—Daniel Maximin, "Antillean Journey," 1998


My visits to Barbados, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and a number of other non-French islands in the Caribbean did not prepare me for the visual or cultural environment of Martinique. One arrives at the island's magnificent airport, an overbuilt but proud testament to Martinique's membership in the First World. But Martinique's shiny, spacious airport is just the first indication of the island's place under the French flag. Outside, polished Mercedes taxis and well-heeled drivers with more French ennui than English language skills send another message to first-time visitors: here, we are part of the modern world, we are French and not some chummy, low-cost paradise for tourists.


More information pours in as the drive from the airport into Fort-de-France follows clean highways in good repair with familiar French signage and roundabouts. The fifteen-minute taxi drive in Mercedes comfort whizzes passengers past two giant hypermarkets, a chic retail mall, and a number of big box retail centers selling furniture, electronics, and home and garden products. Their enormous parking lots remain clogged with cars every day except Sunday, when they are closed. As you enter the capital city, the main boulevard, Charles de Gaulle, is flanked by both older, colonial structures which serve as government offices, and by recent, architecturally dazzling buildings housing the Central Bank, the cultural arts performing center, and the new city hall. The eclectic Frenchness of the boulevard attests to the longstanding and continuing presence of a world power. Unlike other areas of the Caribbean, Martinique projects affluence and modernity.


The relative prosperity of Martinique has many strings attached, however, as we will see. The complexities of islanders' relationship to France have fed many contradictions: living with affluence amidst dependency, benefiting from political assimilation in spite of cultural humiliations, desiring European respectability, but without sacrificing creole forms of status. These and other contradictions complicate the picture of prosperity and tell an important story about how multiple identities and the local sense of difference feed the practice of creole economics.


In this book, I show how in the economic realm it is possible to scrape away a little of that proud French identity expressed so well in the airport and find a deeper connection to creole values through the practice I call "creole economics," a culturally influenced form of undeclared economic activity. Martinique is an overseas state of France (just as the Hawaiian islands today comprise an overseas state of the US). Most islanders appear to embrace wholeheartedly their Frenchness today. In fact, quite unlike the case in Hawaii, the people of Martinique campaigned vigorously to become full citizens of France. Many political scholars marvel at this fact, considering islanders' long history of enslavement and exploitation by the French. As might be more predictable, islanders from most other Caribbean areas exploited by the British and Dutch sought independence and freedom from the yoke of their former colonizers. The flurry of postwar decolonization movements in Africa and Asia was the rule in the Caribbean as well; Martinique, along with Guadeloupe and French Guiana, were among the exceptions.




Martinique is a tiny island, just 20 miles by 70 miles, a little smaller than Rhode Island. Only about 425,000 people live here, roughly the same population as the US city of Augusta, Georgia. It is not surprising that Martinique or the neighboring French department of Guadeloupe merit almost no attention in the world press. In fact, even social scientists long disregarded or denigrated research efforts in the smaller islands of the Caribbean since populations here are insignificant in number, are non-indigenous, and are a biological and cultural hodgepodge. But beginning in the 1990s, these same particularities of Caribbean societies invigorated a newly emerging scholarship concerned with border crossing, cultural fragmentation, ethnic dislocation, and plural identities.


The rapidly intensifying flows of people and goods, and the porous cultural boundaries that result, comprise a growing body of work known as "globalization" studies. But as the watershed for contemporary social science research, this concept is nothing new for the Caribbean. By the mid-sixteenth century, globalization was already becoming the life breath of Caribbean societies—conceived in colonial greed, sustained with transplanted African labor, and structured to serve transnational interests of colonizing nations. As colonial fortune seekers thrust dislocated Africans into plantation labor, the elements of invented societies constituted new mixes of many cultures. The collision of cultures only intensified with nineteenth-century abolition, which brought new immigrations of East Indians, Chinese, Syrians, Lebanese, and others to the area. Caribbean societies today reflect a broad mix of cultural influences and colonial legacies more diverse than either North America (strongly European and Protestant) or South America (strongly Hispanic and Catholic). Today, the plural identities of islanders and the mixed political and economic systems embedded in Caribbean societies present one of the most compelling sites anywhere for the study of the predicaments of modern, postcolonial life.


European domination in these islands for three or more centuries left profound cultural imprints on Afro-Caribbean majorities, from language to sports to religious belief. Yet nowhere is the embrace of European identity so intimate and so enduring as in the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. Compared to England, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and the US, France knows no peer in keeping so many of its colonized areas inside its current orbit of influence.


Martinique as France in the Caribbean


For nearly twenty generations, representing close to 400 years, Martiniquais have experienced virtually uninterrupted French control and influence. Many would expect that after such a long time—and for the last half-century as full French citizens— the people of this Caribbean island could be considered as French as any family from the continent itself. Fort-de-France has in fact been French longer than current standard bearers of French culture such as Nice or Avignon. To an outsider who is familiar with French institutions, life in Martinique may appear altogether French. In and around Fort-de-France, one quickly observes that the island's infrastructure is definitively French—the Poste, the telephones, the Prefecture (like our state capitol), the French Police and Gendarmes, the excellent roads and signature roundabouts. Inside homes and hotel rooms, network TV channels are direct feeds from metropolitan France. The system of local school instruction follows the same doctrine of universally paced instruction, and Air France flies nonstop shuttles to Paris (4,000 miles away) several times a day.


French culture also permeates people's everyday lives and identities: standard French is ubiquitous; the overwhelmingly Catholic population fills cathedrals every Sunday; clothing styles are fashionably French; confectionnaires, pâtisseries, and boulangeries dot island towns and offer familiar French candies, pastries, and breads. In the homes of even moderately affluent residents of Fort-de-France, dinner parties are organized around traditional French decorum, beginning with aperitifs and advancing in sequence through numerous courses to a conclusion of cheeses, desserts, coffee, and liqueurs. Perhaps the most telling indicator of the degree to which urban islanders regard France as a natural part of their lives is that fully one-third of Martinique's native-born population now live in metropolitan France, and nearly every island family, poor or well-to-do, has relatives who live there. The influences are profound, cross-class, and constantly reproduced.


The lure of assimilation in Martinique and Guadeloupe was fed by French political elites, who had long imagined the Caribbean colonies both as a source of wealth and as vital cultural symbols of France's greatness. For various reasons that I will explore in this book, the descendants of slaves in the French West Indies wished to remain loyal subjects of France. They rejected as folly the notion of independence and sought instead the rewards of assimilation to a great European nation. Ultimately, the kind of "benevolent" parental bond formalized in 1946 between France and her overseas Caribbean departments has led to vastly different outcomes in standards of living than those experienced by "independent" neighboring islanders. As full French citizens, the residents of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana hold equal representation in France's national Congress and benefit from the same rights to social security and welfare entitlements as any other French citizen.


The contemporary moment of prosperity has, however, come at a steep cost. For despite the choice of most islanders to assimilate to France and to seek the promise of a European identity that political integration seemed to offer, the Afro-Caribbean people of Martinique continue to suffer two important indignities: they are utterly dependent on French citizenship for the abundant subsidies and transfer payments supplied to Martinique to finance an artificially high standard of living; and in metropolitan France (the heart of French culture), where many Martiniquais live and many more visit regularly, islanders of color are frequently treated as second-class citizens.


The Tug of Plural Identities


The very notion of islanders' willingness to assimilate and depend on France sets up the story I will tell: if Martiniquais have long been assimilating to France, then one might expect that creole culture and language, here more than anywhere else in the Caribbean, would have nearly dissolved. Yet, my research reveals the enduring presence of much more than superficial and visible vestiges of creole expression, such as those found today in creole words, music, dance styles, and madras cloth. Instead, I have encountered deeply resilient creole belief systems and practices that transmit strong echoes of slave adaptations and that flourish invisibly, beneath the radar of the French state. For a people devoted to becoming fully French, what explains this continuing tug of creole identity?


In the will to assimilate its former colonies, France extended to Martinique and other overseas colonies an implicit promise of French identity and rights to the cherished founding principles of the Republic itself—liberté, égalité, fraternité. Yet many in Martinique today view the fulfillment of that promise as flawed, even failed. In the chapters that follow, I argue that the tension produced by the problematic realities of Martinique's assimilation to France has provoked the reproduction of creole-based habits of survival. Considering that incomplete assimilation to France occurs in the context of the overwhelming dominance of French institutions in local life, the Martiniquais people have reached into their own creole identities to find the self-respect that continues to elude them. In a kind of infinite circularity, full cultural assimilation of Martinique to France can never be realized since creole identities remain insoluble; and creole identities remain insoluble because Martiniquais people are, biologically and culturally, only partly French.


One dimension of the complexity in Martinique's relationship to France is thus the fact that local values and practices strain assumptions of their assimilation; at the same time, however, these local values and practices help relieve the strains in the relationship. In Martinique, there are local indicators of creole culture, such as courtship and marriage patterns, gender relations, beliefs about supernatural power, folklore, music, and food—all of which are widely recognized as phenomena originally tied to creole innovations during slavery. This study investigates an aspect of being Martiniquais, of being creole, that is not commonly considered to carry cultural values: economics.


The Idea of Creole Economics


"Creole economics" describes how people in at least one island of the Caribbean are driven to make undeclared money in ways that earn them social status as well as income. That is, despite French economic and legal institutions that structure Martinique's formal economy, deeply rooted creole values channel people into the island's informal economy, where they can work for themselves to enhance their income, their personal autonomy, and their social prestige. The practice of creole economics suggests, first, striking continuities in the slave-born longings to be one's own boss and second, adaptive values of cleverness, intelligence, and opportunism. This flourishing system of exchanging undeclared goods and services operates among people at varying class levels, among young Martiniquais as well as their grandparents, and among many men and some women.


The Débrouillard of Martinique


Today in Martinique, people who improve their economic situation by finding unauthorized ways to profit are likely to regard themselves as gifted and intelligent and call themselves débrouillards (pronounced day-broo-yards), a French term sharpened in the local setting to carry an illicit edge. A débrouillard in Martinique is not merely resourceful (the French meaning), but also someone who is economically cunning and successful in unorthodox ways. In Martinique, creole-style débrouillards are local models for economic success, and while their behavior may extend beyond what is legal, it does not often transgress what is considered moral, at least by most. There are certain segments in Martiniquais society that passionately object to débrouillardism as it is practiced locally. For people in these groups, creole-style débrouillardism is an indefensible attempt to claim that even God can wink at behavior that is morally wrong. Among many more of my informants, however, "true" débrouillards are seen to push the limits of French law, but not to violate the culturally prescribed limits of what is morally defensible. I explore these variations in perceptions of the boundaries of moral behavior and débrouillardism in the chapters that follow.


Theory and Practice: Locating Creole Identities in Postcolonial Studies


The notion of fragmented identities that obtains in Martinique and in the wider Caribbean has attracted a wave of scholarly notice in recent years. As one anthropologist noted, the Caribbean region has attained new status as a "master symbol" for the hybrid identities and cultural dislocations common to the postcolonial world today. What gave birth to the modern Caribbean, a cross-continental circulation of goods and people, now seems to characterize much of the world, as the flows of people, languages, commodities, and ideas swirl in new circles and with new intensities. The collective impact of these heterogeneous influences is transforming local societies into polycultural worlds where new sources of knowledge and desire compete for space and where the practice of culture is no longer bounded to a particular place. These transformations in turn act to complicate individual identities among people who, through such flows of information, goods, and people, have come to value more than one cultural set of practices. The bewildering pace of change in the world's societies has inspired increasing numbers of scholars to look to the literature and research of Caribbean peoples, which can help make sense of newly fragmenting cultures and identities.


In the energetic scholarship that is emerging to grapple with the problems of independence, modernity, and identity in postcolonial societies, the predicament of Martinique presents a special opportunity. Here, rather than choosing to become independent from the colonizing mother country, the colonized people became incorporated into their former colonizer's nation. Many scholars of development view France's "benevolent" approach as far preferable to the promotion of a harsh, neoliberal basis of government. Yet the welfare-oriented style of development carries its own colonial baggage: material and identity-based problems resulting from complete dependency on France.


In contrast to the home-based dependency experienced by Martiniquais, independent states such as Barbados, Jamaica, and Suriname have become dependent on foreign investments, tourism, and aid in ways that undermine their own political independence. Indeed, economic studies of postcolonial societies have focused almost exclusively on the struggles of formerly colonized, now independent states. However, when a former colony becomes politically integrated with its colonizer, national assumptions of sameness can mask the significance of cultural difference. I will show in this book that the practice and meaning of creole economics in Martinique offers a good example of how cultural difference is reproduced below the French radar of sameness.


Assimilation and "Difference"


The extent of assimilation and internalization of "French models of how to think and act" is reflected in Richard Price's anthropological diagnosis of the trend in Martinique toward a "folklorization of memory." Price documents a spate of new local museums, restored plantation houses, and a bulging roster of government-sanctioned cultural events all oriented to scripting contemporary narratives about Martinique's past. Curiously, these public narratives share a similarly sanitized perspective on local history that avoids details from the most profound memories of all—slavery. The local initiatives behind these efforts and their popular local reception might suggest that at least some Martiniquais have so internalized the perspectives of colonial whites that they are able and willing to bury the ugliness of bondage, rape, and torture in return for being loved by France, in return for being France.


But as Price points out, and as other anthropologists like Paul Gilroy and Chris Bongie also argue, internalizing European values is not the same thing as forgetting the past, nor is it the same thing as dissolving one's own history and identity into a European one. Despite the fact that Martinique has modernized drastically since departmentalization, exalting a "traditional" past as though it were frozen in time exaggerates the situation and falls prey to a grand narrative of loss.


Economic anthropologist Marshall Sahlins also warns against the facile assumption that "traditional" societies are "selling out" their cultural values as they scramble to participate in "modern" life. For the Alaskan indigenous peoples he studied, snowmobiles, cell phones, and other capitalist trappings are put to use in ways that help sustain local values such as subsistence practice. Other anthropologists, like Jonathan Friedman and Ulf Hannerz, argue similar points from different perspectives: globalization may create many appearances of a single world culture, but changing technologies, commodity flows, migrating populations, and newly imagined lives do not flatten the field of cultural differences; rather, they alter their shape and scope. Our task, then, is to engage with the reality of these abstract and concrete flows and their meanings in order to grasp how these influences reshape people's sense of difference and how these differences are lived and felt.


But how do colonized societies that have integrated into their colonizer nations fit into this task? In the context of exploring terms of differences, literary studies scholars Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin suggest a path that carries relevance for societies like Martinique. In the introduction to their thick reader on postcolonial studies, the editors call for greater attention to ways in which oppositional discourse and practice may be located within practices that appear to be "complicit with the imperial enterprise." To explore the predicament in which some postcolonial groups are required to express their difference by resorting to "opposition within complicity," these authors suggest focusing on settler colonies, such as Australia, Canada, and South Africa. In these societies, they argue, the "problem of complicity" is "more obvious" because the opportunities for oppositional discourse and practice are more limited.


Compared to the large land masses and populations comprising these British settler colonies, the French DOMs seem almost insignificant. Yet when it comes to exploring how opposition to dominant European values gets expressed in spite of the appearance of strong assimilation to these values, the French overseas departments are exquisitely positioned. As Price says of Martinique, "With expressive resources reduced by overwhelming external controls, Caribbean people have always asserted their individuality, and resistance, as best they could through verbal play, pilferage, satirical song, deception, and small acts of defiance."


Feeding this continued need to express one's individuality and sense of difference is a callaloo of structural and psychological contradictions that reminds Martiniquais that they are not autonomous and they are not fully French. Together, material dependency on France and psychological rejection as true French reproduce the tensions of assimilation and reinforce an irreducible "twoness" of identity. Without full legitimacy as French, Afro-Caribbean islanders find refuge in creole culture, including the practice of creole economics.


Fieldwork and Methods


Following two preliminary research visits, I conducted fieldwork interviews for this study beginning in 1990 and continuing over many visits to Martinique through summer 2001. My long-term fieldwork involved an uninterrupted research stay of twelve months followed by successive research visits in summers of 1996, 1998, and 1999, and a six-month research stay during spring and summer of 2001. These subsequent visits were prompted by various goals of investigation, but each included informal interviews and conversations with new as well as renewed contacts about the widespread practice of work "off the books." Considering that my research on this topic has spanned a period of eleven years, I can attest that the phenomenon I am calling "creole economics" is as vital today as it appeared to me during my initial investigation.


In addition to many dozens of informal interviews over the years, I conducted more than 300 formal interviews for this study in targeted residential areas of Fort-de-France. With the help of local officials from INSEE (the French government bureau that tracks economic and demographic trends), I located three socioeconomically distinct neighborhoods from which to draw my sample. The research included data for 200 households, 700 individuals, and more than 500 undeclared economic activities. In Chapter 6, as preface to my findings by socioeconomic class, I provide an ethnographic view of each of the three neighborhoods where I conducted the formal portion of my research.


All people I interviewed, excepting scholars, authors, and artists, are identified by pseudonyms. In fact, since one of the granting organizations for my research was the French government, I purposely decided not to collect names even at the point of interview. Instead, I coded all materials by household number and assigned each individual within a household a different number. Many people, especially those in lower- and moderate-income households, expressed no hesitation to name themselves when I explained my techniques for ensuring anonymity. Nevertheless, I have used no one's real name, and where necessary to ensure their anonymity, have altered details about their households. The illustrations included in this book are composites, drawn loosely from my photographs of local people and intended only to evoke images of the varying "looks" of Martiniquais.


Finally, I have included almost no discussion of the relationship of békés (the tiny, powerful minority of white Creoles who are descendants of slaveowners) to creole economics. I leave them out for the simple reason that, almost without exception, they were not willing to be interviewed for this research. Moreover, because my argument depends on historical perspectives from slavery, I do not consider the economic lives of other small minorities on the island. Afro-Creole people, the focus of my study, represent 90 percent of Martinique's population today.


Key Arguments of the Book


My overall goal is to present a case that creole culture shapes local economic practice. I want to show that creole culture and history matter to the way people work off the books in Martinique. Because most people, including scholars, do not associate economic behavior with cultural patterns, the creole contours of such behavior have gone largely unnoticed. Likewise, scholars of creolization and creole identities have only begun to mine the economic dimensions of these identities. This study investigates how people of Martinique generate undeclared income, how they explain why they do it, and how these values connect to cultural patterns that resonate across Caribbean societies.


To show how culture shapes economic behavior, I will distinguish the types of forces (non-economic and economic) that spur the practice of creole economics. For example, economic motivations to work off the books relate often to high taxes on labor, high levels of unemployment, and weak systems of law enforcement. Earning undeclared income also flows from Martinique's intensely "gaze-oriented" social environment, where personal "style" as reflected in one's public appearance and material possessions is the subject of constant scrutiny. Whether a person is unemployed or well employed, strong pressures to look successful prod many to earn income on the side in order to consume more and look better. But non-economic factors, like the cultural value of being a good débrouillard, also contribute to the practice of creole economics. Men especially strive to be seen as débrouillards in the local sense because it affirms their personal autonomy and intelligence and mitigates the stigma of being a person "of color."


A second, less ambitious but more practical, goal of this book is to offer anthropological insights about the meaning of a cultural informal economy to development planners. The patterns I found contradict many commonly held assumptions among economists and development planners about how informal economies work. In brief, I argue that no informal economic system can be fully understood as the product of high taxes or restrictive labor laws, nor are these economies universally dominated by poor people whose low-end products and services primarily serve other poor people. An argument for recognizing the cultural form of an informal economy—in this case, creole economics—calls into question generalized development strategies targeted at informal economic actors. The implications of culturally shaped informal economies are important since they suggest that development planners must understand the local context in order to devise effective intervention strategies.



“Persuasive and engagingly written, Creole Economics should be required reading in anthropology, economics, and Caribbean Studies courses.”
American Anthropologist

“In addition to being a beautifully written and deeply empathetic account, Browne’s book is visually striking…The result is a callaloo of careful scholarship and imagery that is both enjoyable to read and a significant contribution to economic anthropology and Caribbean studies.”
American Ethnologist

“She has produced a highly personal yet analytically rigorous account of a French Caribbean isle, and to her great credit, she presents complex intellectual terrain as a most enjoyable read.”
Journal of Economic History

“In this innovative work, Browne pierces the silence that has hidden the world of creole economics in the literature on the Antilles. The men's social world of creoleness has been much written about. But the ways that creoleness infuses everyday economic life, the ways that these practices that were built up in resistance (first to slavery, later to colonialism) actually operate, has never before been laid bare. A fine example of how anthropology still has something original to teach us.”
Richard Price, Dittman Professor of American Studies, Anthropology, and History at the College of William & Mary


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