Cartes postales du bagne

Map #1

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Large wall map indicating locations of French Guiana, New Caledonia, Paris, Brest, Rochefort and Toulon. Displayed in the former chapel, now an exhibition space, at Musée Balaguier.

It’s not a full world map, cutting off as it does a sizeable portion of the eastern Pacific and North America, as well as leaving off Antarctica altogether and missing off quite a bit of Russia and the Arctic circle. The limits of the map serve the function of pointing out the relative locations of France’s former penal colonies in French Guiana (Guyane) and New Caledonia (Nouvelle Calédonie), and giving enough geographical context to enable the viewer to quickly and easily gain an impression of the great distances involved in the relationship between these two named sites and their ‘centre’, France.

France features the most concentrated area of place names on an otherwise very spare map – ‘France’ itself, accorded the same larger-size font as Guyane and Nouvelle Calédonie, and, in smaller type, along with dots, Rochefort, Brest and Toulon, the original sites of the bagne in mainland France. We do not find labels for any of the continents or countries, or bodies of water beyond two instances of ‘Océan Atlantique’, and one each of ‘Océan indien’ and ‘Océan pacifique’. We do not find topography, political boundaries, routes, climatic information, or any other indicators of human and non-human life – we do not need them here.

Great distance, then – between Guyane, Nouvelle Calédonie, and France – is the primary claim that is advanced by this large scale display map. Perhaps the secondary claim is continental (or regional) context, or affiliation (without needing to know which countries Guyane shares borders with, we can at once locate it as belonging to South America). I say ‘secondary’ because Nouvelle Calédonie does not have such a clear affiliation; we can readily classify it as ‘near Australia’, perhaps as ‘part of Australasia’, but for more precision than this we will need to look elsewhere. I think we could further specify that, since the only other place names we find on the map are those of oceans, the ‘great distance’ this map invites us to consider has an oceanic character – but again, to be more specific than this is neither invited nor warranted by this map.

This map is useful for me as I consider what choices I will make in creating new cartographic depictions of the bagne of Nouvelle Calédonie and Guyane: I will have to consider how to depict their positions in relation to France, to each other, and to the rest of the world’s geography; I will consider what to include and not to include in these depictions (is it helpful to be able to view more of the Pacific? Do we immediately want to see transportation routes or can those come in subsequent depictions? How much familiarity with global geography can be assumed for the viewer? (Quite a lot, I think.)) and whether more information and detail is necessarily better.

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The wall map in context in the exhibition space, Musée Balaguier

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