About the Book

Over a span of thirty years in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe endured natural catastrophes from all the elements—earth, wind, fire, and water—as well as a collapsing sugar industry, civil unrest, and political intrigue. These disasters thrust a long history of societal and economic inequities into the public sphere as officials and citizens weighed the importance of social welfare, exploitative economic practices, citizenship rights, racism, and governmental responsibility.

Paradise Destroyed explores the impact of natural and man-made disasters in the turn-of-the-century French Caribbean, examining the social, economic, and political implications of shared citizenship in times of civil unrest. French nationalists projected a fantasy of assimilation onto the Caribbean, where the predominately nonwhite population received full French citizenship and governmental representation. When disaster struck in the faraway French West Indies—whether the whirlwinds of a hurricane or a vast workers’ strike—France faced a tempest at home as politicians, journalists, and economists, along with the general population, debated the role of the French state, not only in the Antilles but in their own lives as well. Environmental disasters brought to the fore existing racial and social tensions and held to the fire France’s ideological convictions of assimilation and citizenship. Christopher M. Church shows how France’s “old colonies” laid claim to a definition of tropical French-ness amid the sociopolitical and cultural struggles of a fin de siècle France riddled with social unrest and political divisions.


“Trouble in paradise! In this engaging, innovative, and well-researched study, Christopher Church uses the history of disasters to explore interactions between environmental, colonial, and political history in the French West Indies. . . . Paradise Destroyed adds an important new dimension to the history of modern empire, showing how France’s ‘colonies of citizens’ could be both exotic and familiar, colonial and French at the same time.”

Tyler Stovall, Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of Transnational France: The Modern History of a Universal Nation

“With a timely focus on environmental disaster and its political ramifications, Christopher Church has given us a highly original and multidisciplinary view of an understudied period in Caribbean history.”

David Geggus, professor of history at the University of Florida and editor and translator of The Haitian Revolution: A Documentary History

“Christopher M. Church offers compelling short narratives of the various disasters that struck the colonies, and his analysis of the politics of relief is sophisticated and informative. . . . It is a book that will interest scholars in a wide range of fields, including French imperial studies and Caribbean history. It is also a welcome and significant contribution to the history of disasters.”

Matthew Mulcahy, professor of history at Loyola University at Maryland and author of Hubs of Empire: The Southeastern Lowcountry and British Caribbean

“Christopher Church offers a richly researched, well-told, and insightful account of the political, economic, and social impact of natural disaster in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth century French Antilles, profoundly deepening our understanding of these societies.”

Laurent Dubois, Marcello Lotti Professor of Romance Studies and History at Duke University and author of Haiti: The Aftershocks of History


“Christopher M. Church shows us that disasters do indeed reveal some significant facts about the risks and stresses of life in the French colonial Caribbean. . . . Church’s book is well-researched, highly detailed, and tightly argued using a wide range of primary sources, including some illuminating statistical data. It introduces new insight into the story of the French Caribbean by shifting the focus towards the human/nature interaction while also showing how environmental concerns were deeply intertwined with political economy, race, and colonial/metropolitan relationships. . . . The book makes a significant historiographical intervention at the intersection of French colonial studies and environmental studies and should become a model for future work in this area.” 

—Jeffrey H. Jackson, H-France Review

Paradise Destroyed is an important contribution to the field of French colonial history on multiple fronts. Its close examination of the place of the Antilles in the politics of the early Third Republic is an important corrective to a periodization in French colonial history too-often structured around the evolution from an “old” French empire to a “new” one. It offers a powerful example of the causal role of environmental factors in the politics of empire. It also serves as a model for moving beyond the binary logic of the “metropolitan/colonial” divide by situating the French Caribbean at the heart of a “dual process of ‘internal colonization’ and ‘national imagination’” that shaped the politics of the early Third Republic.  It is, finally, written with grace and verve. For these reasons and more, we are happy to award Paradise Destroyed the 2018 Alf Andrew Heggoy Prize.” 

2018 Alf Andrew Heggoy Book Prize, French Colonial Historical Society



Colonialism, Catastrophe, and National Integration

1. French Race, Tropical Space

The French Caribbean during the Third Republic

2. The Language of Citizenship

Compatriotism and the Great Antillean Fires of 1890

3. The Calculus of Disaster

Sugar and the Hurricane of 18 August 1891

4. The Political Summation

Incendiarism, Civil Unrest, and Legislative Catastrophe at the Turn of the Century

5. Marianne Decapitated

The 1902 Eruption of Mount Pelée


National Identity and Integration after the First World War

About the author

Dr. Christopher M. Church is an assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno who specializes in disasters, nationalism, and social movements in the 19th and 20th centuries. He employs new methods from data science and the digital humanities to answer age-old questions about the relationship between citizens, the public sphere, and the state.