Martinique: The Unsinkable ‘Stone Frigate’

The feature image depicts a stamp issued in 1970 by the Republic of France with the Caribbean island of ‘MARTINIQUE’ clearly identified in the top left. The scene is one of tranquility – a fishing boat is pulled up on the shore of the Caribbean island, the nets are drying in a breeze and the palm trees sway gently. In the distance, an offshore island stands benign in the calm Caribbean Sea. However the scene belies a violent history and the offshore island is the location of a quite remarkable sequence of events.

The stamp itself was one of three promoting tourism, a series that had been extended since a first related publicity issue in 1961. The other two stamps in the 1970 issue included a 95c denominated stamp featuring Chancelade Abbey in the Dordogne region of France and a 1f denominated stamp featuring Gosier Island, Guadeloupe, a neighbouring island in the Caribbean. The featured 50c stamp is brightly coloured in slate green, bright blue and plum, and in the top right of the stamp are the words, ‘Rocher du Diamant’, Diamond Rock.

Photograph of Diamond Rock taken from Morne Larcher on the Martinique mainland
Photograph of Diamond Rock taken from Morne Larcher on the Martinique mainland

Martinique is an overseas department and an integral part of the French Republic, located in the Lesser Antilles of the West Indies. Diamond Rock lies just off the south west coast of the island and 3km directly south of the peninsular known as ‘Grand Anse du Diamant’. The basalt rock stands 175m high and is a remanent of volcanic activity. The rock gets its name from the reflections of light off the water that are cast on its sides which evoke images of the precious stone. 

Martinique’s position in the Caribbean Sea (directly north of Saint Lucia, northwest of Barbados and south of Dominica) made it a location of significant importance during the wars between European powers that dominated the 18th and 19th centuries and in particular, during the Napoleonic wars. Diamond Rock itself lies in the northern extremes of the St Lucia Straits and offers a strategic position overlooking the entrance to a large bay formerly known as Fort Royal and access to the Martinique capital, Fort de France.

In September 1803 Sir Samuel Hood, a British Naval Commodore, sailed to Diamond Rock aboard HMS Centaur with instructions to blockade the bays of Fort Royal and Saint Pierre. Recognising the strategic importance of the rock as a lookout for enemy shipping, the British ran lines between HMS Centaur and the shore, hoisting two 18-pounder cannons to the summit of the rock. Fortifications were hastily built on the rock and 120 men garrisoned under the command of Lieutenant James Wilkes Maurice. Hood officially commissioned the rock as HMS Diamond Rock, a ‘stone frigate’. A 24-pounder cannon was placed in a cave halfway up the side of the rock and a further two 24-pounders in batteries at the base, as well as a 24-pounder carronade covering the only landing place. Diamond Rock was a pretty barren and hostile environment and regular supplies were conveyed from supporting ships via pulleys and ropes. A small herd of goats as well as guinea helms and chickens were maintained on the rock, feeding off the sparse vegetation.

The elevation that Diamond Rock was able to provide, ensured that the garrison dominated the channel between the rock and the Martinique mainland for almost 18 months. Harassed French shipping that took a wider berth of the rock discovered that prevailing winds and currents made it almost impossible to enter the Fort Royal Bay and the security of Fort de France. French troops based on Martinique made numerous attempts to retake the rock with little success. Under the orders of Napoleon, Admiral Villeneuve embarked on a voyage to Martinique with a substantial French and Spanish fleet. A combined force of 16 ships under the French Captain Cosmao-Kerjulien blockaded and attacked the rock between 16 and 29 May 1805. On 31 May, the French were able to land troops forcing Lieutenant Maurice to move the garrison to the summit. With dwindling supplies and ammunition, Maurice surrendered to the superior forces on 3 June. The remaining garrison of 107 men were repatriated to Barbados by 6 June and Diamond Rock returned to its tranquil state. 

Painting by Auguste Mayer depicting the French fleet commanded by Captain Cosmao-Kerjulien attacking Diamond Rock, Martinique
French fleet under the command of Captain Cosmao-Kerjulien attacking Diamond Rock – painting by Auguste Mayer

Today, Diamond Rock is uninhabited and remains relatively inaccessible and inhospitable. It is believed to be home to a number of unique species that were once endemic to Martinique but now considered extinct including the Couresse Grass Snake. It is recognised as an important bird sanctuary for breeding population of Brown Boobies, Brown Noddies and Bridled Terns. Below water, the aquatic scape of sea fans and coral is popular with scuba divers and reported sightings have included cannon that the French toppled from the summit during the Napoleonic conflict.

To view postal issues of Martinique, please visit the M&S Philately HipStamp store.

Published by nigelmandsphilatelycom

Nigel Matthews has been a philatelist for more than 30 years. He has a particular interest in the postal history of the Caribbean including associated British Commonwealth countries (incl. Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Leeward Islands, Monserrat, St Lucia, St Vincent, Trinidad & Tobago, Turks & Caicos) as well as Cuba, Danish West Indies, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Martinique, Netherlands Antilles and Puerto Rico.

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