Site visit #1. Fort Balaguier Part 1

Thursday 5 April 2018 – Musée Balaguier, La Seyne-sur-Mer, France

Part 1. Ceinture de fer

In Île-prison: bagne et déportation, Eric Fougère identifies the strong links between France’s military strategy and its bagne not least in the importance of the sea in defining both. The history of the bagne begins, perhaps, with the sentencing of convicts to forced labour on the galleys in the 16th and 17th centuries. Where initially galley slaves were prisoners of war, the practice became more widespread during the reign of Louis XIV as he sought to grow his fleet. The practice continued in peacetime but the galley slaves were ultimately sent to work carrying out other forms of hard labour on the dockyards in Toulon, Brest and Rochefort often kept in chains linking them to the floating prison hulks where they were locked up at night. The term bagne, comes from the Italian bagno referring to an old slave prison in Rome once used as public baths.

At the same time as convicts were being pressed into the service of France’s military and commercial maritime infrastructure, the French coastline and the multiple tiny islands located around it became increasingly marked by structures intended both for defense and incarceration. One notable example is the Île d’If part of the Frioul archipelago a short boat ride from Marseille. Château d’If was first constructed as a fort in 1529 to defend the Marseille coastline from attack. Prisoners were held in the Château from 1540 onwards. It became a Prison d’État in the 18th Century when over 3,500 Protestants were imprisoned followed in the mid-19th Century by Republican political prisoners including Auguste Blanqui.

This link between the sea and the prison is also something which has played a key role in the framing of former prisons, in France, its overseas departments, and elsewhere (Alcatraz, Robben Island etc.) as sites of historical and geographical interest. Where, as Alain Corbin has written, the sea once produced a natural limit in the fear and reverence it produced amongst sailors, fishermen, artists, writers and city dwellers alike, from the mid-18th century onwards it came to be associated with a growing culture of leisure and travel increasingly open to all classes. The sense of awe and adventure inspired by the sea or the ocean undoubtedly imposes itself upon the carceral spaces it bounds and frames.


Fort Balaguier, it seems was never a prison, or at least not in official history. Yet as a fort located on the Côte d’Azur, it nevertheless affirms this link between sea and prison. Located about 10 km from Toulon, between La Seyne-sur-Mer and the small neighbourhood of Tamaris, it was constructed in 1636 and as such predates the extensive fortification project known as the “Ceinture de fer” undertaken by Vauban during the 1650s and 1660s. Despite not operating as a prison, there is a strange and oddly neat circularity at work in that the site now houses one of the most important collections of objects linked to France’s overseas penal colonies along with items from the earlier bagne along the coast at Toulon where traces of the dockyard penitentiary have all but vanished. SF

Read Part 2. The doctor and the plan here


Corbin, Alain, Le Territoire du vide. L’Occident et le désir du rivage. 1750-1840 (Paris: Flammarion, 1990). Translated as The Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of the Seaside, 1750-1840, translated by Jocelyn Phelps (London: Penguin, 1995).

Fougère, Eric, Île-prison. Bagne et deportation (Paris: Harmattan, 2003).

Musée Balaguier – Exhibition Catalogues

Les Artistes du bagne. Chefs d’œuvre de la debrouille (1748-1953). March 2010.

Nouvelle Calédonie. Le Bagne oublié. November 2012.
Photographs by Marinette Delanné. Text by Julien Gomez-Estienne and Franck Sénateur.

Museum website:


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