Lumina Sophie dite Surprise

Vanessa Lee is a DPhil student in French Studies at the University of Oxford working on theatre by French Caribbean women writers. She studied Literature and Theatre Studies at Trinity College, Dublin, and at the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon. Her interests include Gender, Postcolonial, and Theatre Studies, and Intercultural and Caribbean Theatre.

A dangerous woman is an ordinary woman. A dangerous woman is inconspicuous, invisible. A dangerous woman may be one woman amongst many, but her spark can ignite multitudes.

1870: Martinique, French West Indies.[1] An eighteen-year-old pregnant black woman leads a group of her peers in the first worker’s protests since the abolition of slavery in 1848. These female insurrectionists, in charge of burning down plantations, were called Pétroleuses, a name shared with the women involved in the Paris Commune that took place months later. The Martinicans came first, but were the first to be forgotten. Forgotten by official history, not local myth. The local myth of Rivière-Pilote, where the revolt started. The Pétroleuse leader’s name? Lumina Sophie dite Surprise. ‘Lumina’, short for Philomène, her real name. Marie-Philomène Roptus was her full name.

A dangerous woman not only is one with a nickname, with a title, but one whose nickname is recorded by official historical narrative.  The official transcripts of the trials that followed the quelling of the 1870 revolt feature the names of Insurrection leaders and major offenders. Does the name Marie-Philomène Roptus feature? No. Instead, the transcripts read: ‘Lumina Sophie dite Surprise, 19 ans, couturière, née au Vauclin, domiciliée à la Rivière-Pilote. [Lumina Sophie dite Surprise, 19 years, seamstress, born in the Vauclin, resident of Rivière-Pilote].’[2] The official narrative inadvertently allowed the myth to seep in.

Lumina was born on the 9th of November 1848, the year slavery was abolished (for the second time) in the French West Indies. Hers was one of the first births to a slave woman, or former slave woman for that matter, recorded in Rivière-Pilote’s birth register. She was registered under the name Marie-Philomène Roptus, for she had not yet become Surprise. Lumina became a seamstress, and learned how to read and write. Her occupation and her literacy conferred her a certain status. Those she led and fought for during the revolt of 1870 were mostly fieldworkers and illiterate. So why sacrifice herself and her bright future?

Perhaps her inconspicuous eyes fell on a newspaper detailing the injustices faced by the black working populations despite their shackles being replaced by workmen’s contracts. She read that a black man had been tried for standing up against a white man and sentenced to a term in prison. In contrast, a plantation owner who had sparked the workers’ revolt by hanging a white flag (nostalgic symbol of royalty, and white supremacy) had previously been accused of sexually assaulting and leaving for dead a black woman, yet had only received a fine.

It is said Lumina was pregnant with one of the revolt’s leaders, Émile Sydney. When Sydney disappeared along with other male leaders of the Insurrection, Lumina fought on. She was arrested at the end of the Insurrection and dealt a life sentence of hard labour at Saint-Laurent du Maroni, in French Guyana. Her son, Théodore Lumina, born while she was in captivity in Martinique and separated from his mother at birth, died after seven months. In 1877 Lumina was forced to marry a former prisoner in French Guyana, a farmer from Northern France fourteen years her elder, and she died two years later at the age of thirty-one. But her name lives on.

Lumina Sophie dite Surprise has inspired musicians, artists, and writers. She is the subject of songs by Martinican artists Loriane Zacharie (Lumina) and MIZIK BO KAIL (Lumina Sophie; interpreted by Lea Galva). Two schools in the French West Indies bear her name: ‘Lycée Polyvalent Lumina Sophie’ in Saint-Laurent du Maroni, French Guyana; and ‘Lycée Professionnel Régional Lumina Sophie’ in Schœlcher, Martinique. Distinguished writer and award-winning poet Suzanne Dracius wrote an eponymous play entitled Lumina Sophie dite Surprise, about the last days of Lumina and her Pétroleuses’ fight against government forces. Dracius wrote the play to reinstate Lumina into local history. Most Martinicans when prompted to name a young woman ready to sacrifice herself for a cause would answer: Joan of Arc. Everyone knows Joan of Arc. Not everyone knows Lumina, the opposite in many ways to Joan. Pregnant, not virginal. Black, not white. Pious? Perhaps. But her God was not Joan’s. She called him ‘un vieux béké [an old slave-owner]’, whom she would readily burn down along with the plantations. Lumina, the opposite of Joan, but no less different, and no less deserving of recognition.

A high-rise building was inaugurated in 2012 and named after her, the ‘Tour Lumina’. A roundabout was also dedicated to her and all other rebel slave women. [See photo] She was not a slave herself, but since she was born the year of the abolition, her mother and grandmother, Zulma and Reine, were. She carried their spark to ignition. Lumina. Surprise.


[1] Martinique is a French overseas territory, and gained the status of administrative region in 1946, conferring its inhabitants concomitant rights to French metropolitan citizens.

[2] My translation.