Site visit #1. Fort Balaguer Part 2

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

Read Part 1. “Ceinture de fer” here

Part 2. The Doctor and the “plan”

Visites du Bagne-365

The Fort Balaguier became a national monument in the 1970s and it is at this point that another ring can be added to the circular history of the bagne. We were shown around the museum by its curator, Julien Gomez-Estienne. Julien explained how many of the items in the collection came from the personal collections belonging to doctors working in the maritime service and posted in the colonies. French Guiana was often a first posting for junior medics whereas Toulon became an area to which many former maritime doctors retired no doubt keen to retain proximity to the sea and its promise of adventure. The 1970s and 1980s it seems were a big period of discovery (in attics and trunks) of forgotten objects and photographs associated with the penal colonies. These were often sold or donated by families not quite sure what to make of them.

The role of the doctors in the production, acquisition and circulation of these souvenirs du bagne is interesting and merits further exploration. To what extent should we think of doctors as amongst the earliest ‘tourists’ to the bagne? Stationed in the penal colony the doctor’s visit is temporary and he would have enjoyed a sense of freedom not experienced by either the convicts or the penal administration responsible for them. In his memoir, Albert Clarac who was posted in French Guiana twice, describes how on first arrival in Cayenne he was treated as a minor celebrity by the local non-convict population keen to make use of his services. While initially reluctant to practice civilian medicine, Clarac recounts the necessity of this extra work given the inflated cost of living in Cayenne. Even doctors, it seems, were not exempt from the Système D [D for Débrouille] in the penal colony.

Nevertheless, a doctor’s account either oral or photographic was considered to be more objective and disinterested than that of either guard or bagnard. Yet we should perhaps think more carefully about this assumption. How, for example, might we draw comparisons between the photogrqphs taken by doctors based in the penal colony, albeit usually for recreational purposes, with Jean-Martin Charcot’s invasive and ultimately abusive use of photography in La Salpêtrière framed as it were by an unshakeable belief in the scientific rigour of the photographic method and its ability to diagnose, educate and ultimately cure? (See Didi-Huberman’s critique of Jean-Martin Charcot in Invention de l’hystérie) Yet perhaps it is less in terms of any claim to objectively document the bagne and its inhabitants that we should think about the role of the doctor here. Rather, it is the temporary, transitory relationship he has with the bagne, the knowledge of his imminent departure and the opportunities to commission and collect bagnard-made trinkets which allow for the spectacle of colonial punishment to be more widely transmitted and consumed.

Amongst the many artworks in its collection produced in either French Guiana or New Caledonia, Musée Balaguier has a series of original cartoons produced by L.K which featured alongside Albert Londres’ reports in Le Petit Parisien (subsequently reproduced as Au Bagne). A favourite for me is the image of the doctor retrieving a ‘plan’. It is very interesting to see these images in their original format and consequently recontextualised away from their best-known framing as small black and white images accompanying newspaper articles (as above). The images are larger than one expects – around A4 size and the artist has used a range of different colours (as also reproduced in the exhibition catalogue Les artistes du bagne). Londres claimed that L.K. was a convict but Julien suggested that it was more likely to have been a doctor or a guard keen to remain anonymous. Firstly, the artist has access to decent materials including different colours. Secondly, they seem to have access to sites from which bagnards would have been excluded. Another interesting aspect of these images is that some of them (including that of the doctor and the plan) appear in multiple versions each with different captions. There are, Julien told us, at least three different versions of the doctor and the plan. I think these multiple versions (in a similar way to the different versions of Londres’ reporting) affirm the double sense of légende [legend and caption] to borrow from Didi-Huberman that defines the bagne and its representation. SF

Read Part 3. The Chapel here


Clarac, Albert, Mémoires d’un médecin de la marine et des colonies. 1854-1934 (Vincennes: Service historique de la marine, 1994)

Didi-Huberman, Georges, Invention de l’hystérie: Charcot et l’iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière (Paris: Éditions Macula, 1982).

Londres, Albert, Au Bagne (Paris: Albin Michel, 1923)

[NB. Londres’ accounts originally appeared in Le Petit Parisien before being reproduced on book form for which there have been numerous editions.]

 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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