Cartes postales du bagne

Site visit #7. Saint Laurent du Maroni Pt1

Part 1. A la recherche des vestiges…

Journée nationale de l’archéologie
Centre d’Interprétation Architecture et Patrimoine (CIAP)
Camp de la Transportation, Saint Laurent du Maroni, 15 June 2018

This will be the first of several posts on Saint Laurent du Maroni. Although the former Camp de la Transportation is home to a museum, guided tours of the quartier de la réclusion as well as CIAP, the town’s architecture and infrastructure continues to bear the marks of the bagne and its history. Throughout the town there are public and private buildings that once former the administrative quartier. Unlike Cayenne the town did not exist before the arrival of the AP in 1858. It maintained its role as bagne after the penal operation in Cayenne had started to wind down. In this respect SLM is the prison town par excellence. Although today its cultural heritage draws on the different populations in the area as well as the biodiversity of its natural heritage most notably that resulting from its location on the Maroni river on the border with Suriname (there are numerous creeks and waterfalls to visit) the bagne is nevertheless a central narrative in the town’s past and present.

Friday 15th June was Journée nationale de l’archéologie. At CIAP, Didier Rigal from Inrap presented findings from the excavations carried out at Saint Maurice site of the former sucrerie run by the Administration Pénitentiaire as part of its activities. The presentation provided some fascinating insights into the complex stakes around bagne heritage in and around Saint Laurent du Maroni. The site, located on the outskirts of Saint Laurent du Maroni, was first discovered in 2016 by Arnauld Heuret. What was most surprising, perhaps, was how intact one of the former buildings, the caserne des surveillants [guards quarters] was. Despite how widespread the A.P.’s operation was across French Guiana, today there are very few sites where the ruins of the bagne evoke the original architectural structures. Despite time pressures, the site had been earmarked for the construction of a new centre commercial, Inrap were able to conduct a series of excavations as well as using historical and contemporary photographs and maps to produce a 3D rendering of the caserne. Due to the fragile and often close-knit structures of former sites belonging to the bagne as well as the proliferation of secondary forest, the excavations of a former site associated with the bagne in French Guiana were unique in their activity and scope.

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Journée nationale de l’archéologie. Photo by Claire Reddleman

Although the site is on the edge of a housing estate and next to the commercial distillerie, Rhums Saint Maurice, currently the only rum distillery in French Guiana, it is nevertheless difficult to spot without knowing what to look for. In summer 2017, I visited the site shortly after some of the archaeological work had been completed. The site was already covered in a pervasive grass and the caserne couldn’t be seen from the road. Consequently, public interest has been limited despite the potential to incorporate the vestiges into the project for the shopping centre. One suggestion I’ve heard was that it could have formed the basis for a museum of rum and tafia. The establishment of distilleries was one of the various ways the A.P. attempted to make the bagne pay for itself as well as to provide work for the libérés, convicts who had completed their sentences but who were obliged to remain in French Guiana as part of the doublage system. According to Rigal, the distillerie and the concessions (small plots of land) around the site had limited success.

The shopping centre is now under construction and the developers decided not to keep the vestiges as part of the site. From a heritage perspective this seems to be something of a tragedy. But this poses the question: do all historic buildings and sites possess intrinsic value as heritage? Given the failure of the A.P. to produce a sustainable economy which did not revolve around the maintenance of bagnards and administrators, the erasure of one site of such failed industry and development might seem more appropriate, especially for those currently living in and around Saint Maurice in need of the facilities proposed by the centre commercial development. SF

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