Bagne des Annamites, Montsinéry-Tonnegrande
9 June 2018
I made it to Cayenne last Wednesday having spent the previous week in Ho Chi Minh City. I flew to Paris via Shanghai and then on to Cayenne. Despite the disorientation of so many (largely sleepless) long haul flights and time zones not to mention currencies (a bottle of Evian costs too much whichever airport you fly from), it occurs to me that this is nothing compared to the transportation of Vietnamese political prisoners from Saigon (and sometimes Poulo-Condore or Con Son, the horrific island prison that operated under French colonial rule of Indochine and where more than 20,000 Vietnamese died). During the 1930s two camps were set up to accommodate the Vietnamese prisoners, the Bagne des Annamites near the Crique Anguille and the Camp Forestière near Apatou. Although the Vietnamese were convicted as political prisoners, a series of manoeuvres were undertaken in order to sentence them to the forced labour from which political prisoners were usually exempt. The Tiralleurs Sénégalais (a French colonial infantry corps drafted predominantly from West Africa) were drafted to guard the camp based on a European colonial mentality that assumed the different races and populations subjected to colonial rule would be incapable of solidarity or shared understanding.
Besides the sites commonly associated with the bagne in French Guiana, namely the Îles du Salut and the Camp de la Transportation at Saint Laurent du Maroni, the ruins of the Bagne des Annamites at Montsinéry-Tonnegrande play an important role in the, until very recently, largely unexamined memory of France’s use of the penal colony to incarcerate and displace members of its colonies and not just criminals and political subversives from mainland France. In recent years the site as well as the Camp de la Forestière have been visited by delegations from Vietnam following the discovery of the existence of the camps by Vietnamese journalist Danh Đức’ when he visited French Guiana in 2008 in order to report on the launch of the Vinasat-1 satellite at the Centre Spatial Guyanais (for more on this see Lorraine M. Paterson’s post on the Carceral Archipelago blog)
For those living in Cayenne, the site is perhaps better known and more easily accessed than the Îles du Salut which requires a full day to visit via Kourou and a expensive catamaran trip. The Bagne des Annamites is about 40 minutes drive from Cayenne. There is a small car park at the entrance to the trail leading to the ruins. The path is well-maintained even after heavy rain and there are a series of signs providing both maps of the area and detailed histories of the camp, reproducing both historical documents and images. After about 30 minutes walk from the car park you arrive at an intersection in the forest marked by remains of the railway track set up for a small manually operated wagon which would have carried materials to different parts of the camp and to and from the creek which, before the construction of the road, was the only way to access the camp. The trail is also used by families walking their dogs or talking their children to the picnic area down by the creek. To see the ruins of the bagne, there are three small circular trails leading to the quartier administratif, the quartier des condamnés and the quartier des tiralleurs sénégalais.
Where the bagne in French Guiana is famous for its red bricks marked A.P., many of the ruins here consist of stone. Besides, remains of the kitchen in the quartier des tiralleurs sénégalais, the predominant ruin found at all three sites was the stone toilet complete with foot rests. We must have encountered 5 or 6 of these. However, the most significant buildings left intact were the individual prison cells where bagnards were placed in solitary confinement as punishment. The prison within a prison. Like the cells found on Île Saint Joseph used for the same purpose, these featured metals bars instead of a ceiling (although a placard informs visitors that there was a roof over these so bagnards weren’t exposed directly to the elements). Guards could walk along the top of the cells and view those inside from above ensure a constant, invasive surveillance. The cells are tiny and it seemed impossible that a person could fully lie down in them. They reminded me, unsurprisingly of the tiger cages on display at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, reconstructions based on those designed and used by the French on Con Son Island.
On my last visit to Cayenne, I didn’t get the chance to visit the Bagne des Annamites. Different people talked briefly to me about the site. Interestingly, one person I spoke to dismissed it as disappointing. He told me, laughing, that the most memorable thing about it was encountering the ‘chiottes du directeur’. Yet another person told me that he found the site more moving than the Îles du Salut precisely because of the solitary confinement cells. I think both these pronouncements are telling. If the ruins of the dungeon or prison are what remains when a castle or city are destroyed, then what remains of the remains of the prison? Here, the answer is clear: the toilet and the solitary confinement cells – the prison within the prison. What can we take from this legacy? What should we take? SF
Dedebant, Christèle and Céline Frémaux, Le Bagne des Annamites: Montsinéry-Tonnegrande (Guyane: Le Service de l’Inventaire général du patrimoine culturel de la Région Guyane. 2012).
Paterson, Lorraine M., ‘Of Satellites and Sentiment: The Forgotten Vietnamese Prisoners of French Guiana’, Carceral Archipelago, 22 September 2017. Available: http://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/carchipelago/2017/09/22/of-satellites-and-sentiment-the-forgotten-vietnamese-prisoners-of-french-guiana/. Last accessed 11 June 2018.