The Headless Empress – Fort-de-France, Martinique - Atlas Obscura
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The Headless Empress

Fort-de-France, Martinique

On a small island in the Caribbean, a statue of Napoleon's first wife has been beheaded and covered in red paint. 

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Marie-Josèphe-Rose Tascher de La Pagerie was the first wife of Napoleon. After he proclaimed himself Emperor in 1804, she also  became the first Empress of the French. On the Caribbean island of Martinique, the French territory where Joséphine was born, a statue of the former empress stands, defaced.

Born in 1763, Joséphine was the eldest daughter of a French aristocrat who owned a sugarcane plantation in Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique. She lived on the island until she was 15, then moved to Paris in 1779. She caught the eye of a young army officer named Napoleon Bonaparte, and the two were married in 1796. The marriage was annulled in 1810, and Joséphine lived out the rest of her days at a private residence outside of Paris. After she died in 1814, Napoleon commissioned a statue of Joséphine. It was installed in La Savane Park in downtown Fort-de-France, Martinique in 1859.

But the statue was not well received. In 1991, a group of people “beheaded” the statue of Josephine in a symbolic execution, and splattered it with red paint. It begged the question; Why is Joséphine so hated?

The answer is because of the instrumental role she held in reinstating slavery in the French colonies. France had abolished slavery in 1789, but less than 10 years later when Napoleon and Joséphine took the throne the practice was reinstated. Some believe this was done for the benefit of her family’s plantation in Martinique, which was struggling to stay in business and relied on free labor done by enslaved people.

Today, the statue remains headless. Every year, new red paint is added to her statue, so that it never fades.