Petite Martinique: A most unique and charming tiny island of seafaring souls

Last updated: Friday, April 2, 2010 9:37 AM

Petite Martinique - Photos: Brian Clement / Russ Tatham (Caribbean Landfalls)

While thousands of tourists explore the pristine islands of the Grenadines, most are unaware of the island of Petite Martinique. Even guests on the privately owned, exclusive resort island of Petite St. Vincent (PSV) know little about Petite Martinique (PM) and it’s only a stone’s throw south of PSV. Every charter guest and cruising sailor that ever anchored in the Tobago Cays has seen vendors in fast, sleek small outboard boats shuttling fresh bread, fish, lobsters and local crafts to tourists aboard anchored yachts. Chances are the little speed boat that delivered you fresh bread in the morning was built in PM and that lobster you had for dinner was most likely caught by a diver from Petite Martinique.

Petite Martinique:  History

Petite Martinique is a most unusual little island. Untouched by extravagant tourist hotels and facilities, it is unlike many other islands of a similar size in the Grenadines. At only 586 acres, the island is populated by 900 fiercely independent minded and very industrious people. Since its first inhabitant in the 1700s and through to today, the colonialists and elected governments have had little effect on the people. Petite Martinique belongs to the tri-island state of Grenada. Being so small, P.M. is the last in line for government funding and has been in the past almost ignored entirely.

A Frenchman was the first European to claim the island in the mid 1700s. Known as Mr. Pierre, he, along with his Mulatto wife and children from the neighboring island of Carriacou, established a plantation producing cotton, sugar, corn and peas. Cotton was the island’s main export at that time. Mr. Pierre ruled his slaves with human dignity allowing them time from maintaining his crops to indulge in their African rituals of which some are still embraced today.

In his later years, Mr. Pierre divided portions of the island in the form of estates and sold them to slave families that were emancipated by the French. Free coloreds in the neighboring islands such as Union had to wait until 1910 to acquire land for themselves under the force of the British Crown. Grenada and its dependencies changed ownership several times during in the 1700s.

Mr. Pierre’s liberal attitude toward his slaves is evidenced by the generations of interracial mix evident on the island today. Yet the British overlords were not so kind. The freed slaves and land owners of Petite Martinique were later degraded of political rights by The British Election Act of 1792 which disqualified French Catholics from political life in the colony. This was seen by the people of Petite Martinique as discriminatory against not only the French but the blacks and coloreds as well. Joachim Philip, a freed P.M. colored land owner, and several other French land owners in Grenada rebelled. Perhaps it was this Act by the British which alienated the mind set of the people of Petite Martinique. Today the people pay little attention to their governments comings, goings and political rhetoric. This autonomous streak is the glue that binds the small population of the island today. They are independent not dependent.

Petite Martinique: Fishing

Fishing is the main industry of P.M. followed by boat building and inter-island freight trading. Boats and the sea are in the blood of these people as it’s their livelihood.

After emancipation several Scottish and Irish sailors and shipwrights migrated to P.M. Their skills were carefully observed and learned by the locals. It was also observed that fishing, boat building and the cargo trade were far more lucrative than farming the limited land. Today this is still the culture of Petite Martinique.

Farming the sea for fish is a profitable business for the people of P.M. In 1930, Petite Martinique fishermen voyaged far from home to South America’s British Guyana banks and later the waters of Trinidad and Tobago. In the 1940s and ‘50s they sailed to the French island of Martinique to sell their catch. At that time the British colonial government still viewed any connection with the French Caribbean territories negatively. It wasn’t until 1960 when official trade was allowed by the British colonial government and trading with French Martinique became legal. Today 98% islands catch is packed in ice and sailed to Martinique then mainly distributed to restaurants.

Petite Martinique: Weddings

Weddings on Petite Martinique are quite an extraordinary ritual and often very extravagant as they are steeped in tradition. The customary wedding encompasses six cultural events. It all starts when flags (usually red) are raised at the homes of the groom, the bride and immediate relatives. At this time the prolific baking of cakes begins. The groom’s cakes are baked first. Women from the community get together and pitch in with great enthusiasm. “Hip hip, hip,” with a reprise of “hurrah!” is often heard throughout the village when the ladies of Petite Martinique are baking wedding cakes. With recipes handed down from generation to generation, the cakes are made according to tradition, some are still baked in locally made clay ovens. It is considered normal for twenty pounds of cake to be made for the wedding. In fact, the cakes are the big feature of the whole wedding process.

Starting early the morning of the wedding a ceremony of cake and flag dancing begins. The groom’s family and friends and the bride’s entourage assemble at their respective homes then both the groom and the bride, along with accompanying string band parade through the streets to a predetermined place where the dancing begins. Along the way the group sings and dances merrily led by a man carrying the flag. When both groups meet up, the two parties dance with each other. This event symbolizes the joining of the two families.

In Petite Martinique, a marriage is the unity of two families as well as the two getting married. Later, the group form a circle for the cake and flag dancing. The dancer with the groom’s flag makes every effort to keep his flag above the bride’s flag, This symbolizes the groom is head of the home. At the end of the dance the bride’s flag is placed under the groom’s flag on a single pole, again symbolizing the groom is head of the union and the two are one. Next the ladies go on stage. With much gyrating at the hips, each holding the respective bride and groom’s cakes excitement builds as the grooms dancer again tries to keep her cake above the bride’s cake while being challenged by the bride’s cake dancer.

When the dancing is over all go the wedding reception venues for more merriment and socializing. The actual church wedding takes place at three in the afternoon. Tradition dictates that both the groom and the bride must walk to the church no matter how far. The groom, now dressed for the wedding ceremony, along with his best man, family and friends parades to the church on foot accompanied by his string band. The bride’s father, bridesmaids and groomsmen will escort her by foot to the church as well. A traditional Catholic ceremony is preformed in much the same way as in the rest of the western word.

Petite Martinique: Boat Building / Boat Launching

Launching a new boat on Petite Martinique is another special affair. Even though the boat owner organizes the event, all on the island are present. The ceremony starts with the singing of hymns and is followed by the priest’s blessing. The owner’s wife performs a christening ritual at the bow. If the owner is of African decent the christening ritual is of that country’s origin. Once all the formal ceremonies are completed the “cutting down” proceeeds. The boat must be leaned over on her gunnels to enable her to be pulled on rolling logs into the sea. The first process is the piling of several sand bags amidships to bear up the boat. Support stanchions which held the vessel all through the building process are removed, keel supports are cut away inches from the keel. Several strong men lay into the side of the hull as the stanchion logs are removed, lowering the hull firmly on to the sand bags. While the men steady the boat the sand bags are cut open releasing the sand and lowering the boat safely on to the rolling logs positioned over long planks. Roving through the crowd and circling the boat, a band of shipwrights plays traditional songs on violins, bongo drums, guitars and other stringed instruments. As the cutting down process goes on, the owner’s wife along with helping friends and family members prepare the “Saraca”. Saraca is a mixture of roll rice (white rice), roll koo-koo (corn meal), stew peas, ground provisions and a variety of meat (goat, pork, beef and chicken). Local island goats, cows and pigs are raised for such special occasions. The animals are killed and prepared prior to the launch. Once the boat is on its side and in position to be pulled into the sea, the large pre-rigged lines strapped on each side of the hull are picked up by volunteers. The order to pull is given by the owner and with a “Heave! Ho!” the boat moves a few feet. The rolling logs are re-positioned and another heave ho order is given. The process of manually pulling the boat into the water takes about an hour. In the case of this launch of the M/V United, the manual pulling finished as the boat’s bow entered the water. A tow line was attached and a large ocean going tug, Midguard pulled the M/V United into the deep water. A loud cheer in unison roared across the water from the crowd of about a 300. The owner “Boogie” and his crew danced merrily on the deck and the Saraca and drinks were served to all. The tiny island of Petite Martinique celebrated with pride into the night as they have done before for over 300 years.

In the waters of the Grenadines you’ll see a lot of sleek little speed boats zooming around, jumping over the waves. Most of these colorful and lively runabouts are designed and built on Petite Martinique. Their designs are similar to the offshore racing boats that were first developed in Florida, often called “cigarette boats”. Since this style of speedboat is only found in the Grenadines I asked how the boat builders came upon this design. I was told that about 20 years ago a Trinidadian showed up at the fuel dock on the island with a fast Florida-styled cigarette boat. Impressed with its formidable speed and its ability to handle big water in stride, one of the island’s boat builders just had to have one. Manny Bethel studied the Trini cigarette boat. He kept its design lines in his head long after the boat left. He bought several sheets of plywood and started building. He ended up creating a little cigarette boat about 20 feet long designed for an outboard instead of the inboard. The little cigarette went like the clappers and several builders on the island started building and refining new designs. On my visit to the island I saw nine speed boats in the building process. Mark Dwight Ollivierre appeared to be the most prolific builder. Not only was he building three new boats but he was also rebuilding several older boats.

Petite Martinique is definitely a land where everyone is accustomed to seafaring ways. You can see it in the way they move, little children and old folk alike, nimbly jumping from boat to shore. It is a special island, that carries respect for the past yet embraces new ways. I would like to thank Brian Clement and Dwight Logan of Petite Martinique for their help in making this story possible.


SOURCE: Caribbean Landfalls



  • Official Name: Grenada
  • Dependencies: Carriacou & Petite Martinique
  • Area: 3 islands, 133 sq. miles total (344 km2 )
  • Population: 108,132 (UN, 2008.)
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  • Location: 12.07° North 61.40° West
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  • Life Expectancy: 67 years (men), 70 years (women) (UN)
  • GNI per capita: US $4,670 (World Bank, 2007)
  • Current Labour Force: 40% of population
  • Literacy rate: 94%
  • Airport: Maurice Bishop International Airport (MBIA)
  • Type of State: Constitutional monarchy
  • Head of State: (Queen Elizabeth II) Dr. Cecile La Grenade
  • Head of Government: Dr. The Right Hon. Keith Mitchell
  • Ruling Party: New National Party (NNP)
  • Political Structure: 15 Constituencies
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  • National Holiday: 7 February (1974, Independence Day)
  • Constitution: December 19, 1975

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