Why you should care
Because she fought — and died — for equality.
For France and many of its former overseas colonies, Joan of Arc is the ultimate national heroine — the young woman who stepped out of nowhere and, armed mostly with the white-hot fire of belief, led her people to victory and freedom. But Martinique has another heroine, who stepped out of the bayou armed with the white-hot fire of … well, fire: Lumina Sophie dite Surprise.
Lumina is remembered, when she is remembered, as one of the leaders of her island’s 1870 insurrection. Perhaps it’s harder for France to idealize her story, seeing as European colonists are the villains in it. Or maybe racism persists in French culture — as evidenced by protests when a mixed-race teenager was chosen earlier this year to portray Joan of Arc at an annual pageant.
“For me, she was like a Creole Joan of Arc,” says Suzanne Dracius, who authored a play about Lumina’s life after an account of the 1870 insurrection found its way to her from a bookseller’s stall by the Seine. “There are so many similarities between them: young women who left their serene little universes to put themselves in danger and fight. But there are differences: Lumina was pregnant. And Lumina read newspapers.” But when Dracius visited a history museum in Martinique, Lumina’s name was barely mentioned. Dracius’ 2005 play, Lumina Sophie dite Surprise, revitalized interest in her as a heroine. Now there are songs by local artists about Lumina, as well as a high-rise and a high school named after her.
Lumina organized a group of Pétroleuses — female insurrectionists who shared a name with the legendary fighting women of the Paris Commune just months earlier.
Nicknames were common in Martinique in the immediate aftermath of slavery, reflecting a racist tradition where slaves were given only first names and numbers, and Lumina’s has become part of her moniker in modern times — all one phrase tumbling out, Lumina Sophie dite Surprise: Light, Wisdom, called Surprise. It would be difficult to be more on the nose, unless you were to add something equally mellifluous that means an “ahead-of-her-time renegade who wasn’t afraid to literally burn shit down.”
But back to Martinique. The tiny island had been mapped by Christopher Columbus and then colonized in the 17th century by French settlers; just a few decades later, the first slaves were brought to the island to work on sugar plantations. Power over the island passed between France and Britain for hundreds of years as the two nations battled at home and abroad. The French were still in charge when slavery was abolished on the island in 1848, the same year that Lumina was born, on Nov. 9 in the town of Rivière-Pilote. Her birth was recorded in the local register as Marie-Philomène Roptus, and scant details about her early life indicate that her mother became head of the family when Lumina was 6. At a time when former slaves had no access to formal education, she was also literate, with a penchant for reading newspapers and keeping up with politics. By the age of 21, known for her independent streak, Lumina was working as a seamstress and a merchant — and living with Emile Sidney, a man whose family had been free Black people even before the abolition of slavery on the island. Well-informed but raised in rural poverty, she was in a prime position to understand and protest inequality in Martinique.
Lumina’s revolution lasted only five days. It began when a Black sailor was jailed over a minor altercation with a European man; tensions escalated until the whole region erupted on Sept. 22, 1870. Lumina was then two months pregnant by Sidney, a leader of the revolution who, along with several of his comrades, mysteriously disappeared.
Undeterred, Lumina organized a group of Pétroleuses — female insurrectionists who shared a name with the legendary fighting women of the Paris Commune just months earlier — in torching plantations where their ancestors had worked as slaves, and where Black islanders were then shackled by unfair work contracts aimed at keeping them in economic bondage. On Sept. 26, she was arrested and imprisoned, identified by the governor as the “flame of the revolt.” When her trial finally began the following spring, the first inquest lasted an entire month and a few of the charges against her were dropped. Weeks later, her baby, Théodore Lumina, was born in prison and separated from her immediately, dying just 14 months later.
At the end of May, the trial resumed, conducted entirely in French even though Lumina spoke only Creole. On charges of revolt, blasphemy and burning three homes, she was sentenced to life with hard labor and sent to a prison in Guyana, where she died eight years later at the age of 31, reportedly of exhaustion. After that, according to Dracius, she was all but forgotten in Martinique — outside of folk legend — for more than a century, until media interest rekindled national pride in a woman who may not have been White or a teenage virgin like Joan of Arc but was just as ready to sacrifice herself for a cause she believed in.