Visited by Columbus, probably in 1502, the island was ignored by the Spanish; colonization began in 1635, when the French, who had promised the native Caribs the western half of the island, established a settlement. The French proceeded to eliminate the Caribs and later imported African slaves as sugar plantation workers. In the 18th cent. Martinique's sugar exports made it one of France's most valuable colonies; although slavery was abolished in 1848, sugar continued to hold a dominant position in the economy. A target of dispute during the Anglo-French worldwide colonial struggles, Martinique was finally confirmed as a French possession after the Napoleonic wars. In 1902 an eruption of Mt. Pelée destroyed the town of St. Pierre.
Martinique supported the Vichy regime after France's collapse in World War II, but in 1943 a U.S. naval blockade forced the island to transfer its allegiance to the Free French. It became a department of France in 1946 and an administrative region in 1974. Although the island has recovered from the extensive damage caused by a hurricane in 1980, France has continued its attempts to improve the economic life of the Martinique, which is plagued by overpopulation and a lack of development. A referendum on increasing the island's autonomy was defeated in 2010, in part because the proposal did not specify the extent of the change.