Cartes postales du bagne

site visit #7. Saint Laurent du Maroni Pt4

Part 4. La nuit TOMBE

Night tour of the Camp de la Transportation, Saint Laurent du Maroni
23 June 2018

Last weekend as part of the project we took a night tour of the Camp de la Transportation. We had already done a tour during the day. As the night tours only run once a month, sometimes even less frequently, it seemed like an opportunity we shouldn’t miss. Below are our respective reflections on the tour.

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The only other night tour of a former prison I’ve been on was to Alcatraz about 17 years ago. At the time, I was not particularly interested in prison tourism and went on the tour more as a part of a generic bucket list of SF activities. The night aspect of the tour seemed as much intended to allow visitors to enjoy the twinkling lights on the San Francisco skyline on the way back to the mainland as to provide anything especially eerie by way of the prison tour. The guided tour, if I recall correctly, took the form of an audioguide so didn’t differ from the day tour in any way. That isn’t to say it wasn’t eerie but the interior was well lit and the boat load of tourists swarming around the site meant it was near impossible to feel isolated.

Since that trip I have come across but not participated in various night prison tours. Of course it is also possible to sleep overnight in former prisons either in the original cells (for example, Fremantle prison YHA in Australia and HI Ottawa Jail Hostel) or in the high spec luxury hotels that have repurposed prisons (Boston Liberty Hotel, Four Seasons Istanbul, Malmaison Oxford). In Dana prison in Shrewsbury, which closed in 2013, zombie tours are run at Halloween. During a daytime tour of the prison, I overheard the former guard turned tour guide describing one of these to a nurse who had also worked on the site and come on the tour. From what I gathered the tour drew on a whole mishmash of horror iconography including Hannibal Lecter strapped to a stretcher. The guard thought it was all great fun. I thought it sounded terrifying.

The Camp de la Transportation runs a night tour about once a month. It also apparently does a tour for Halloween. The tours are organised by the tourist office which has a distinct operation to the Centre d’Interprétation d’Architecture et de Patrimoine (CIAP) which runs school visits. Where regular guided tours during the day are usually run by a single guide, the night tour had them tag team of three guides delivering different parts. There seemed to be a large number of support staff also on hand. The group of visitors numbered about 25, mostly couples including one child aged about 10 or 11.

The content of the tour didn’t differ much from the day tour although there was perhaps more focus especially in the blockhaus as to the conditions of being there at night. The guide emphasized that the windows were sealed and the 75m2 space would regularly contain 80 men. We were all sat along the concrete banks that functioned as beds. The space seemed pretty crowded with only 25 of us. The thing I found hardest to imagine was the smell and I heard other visitors discussing this as well. Increasingly work by researchers and museums is being done around the prison as soundscape since the eerie silence of a former prison fails to evoke the cacophony experienced at certain times in a working prison. But the smell of the prison seems something far more visceral and, difficult, to capture or simulate.

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The blockhaus at night

Former prisons are often very cold especially at night. Before the tour started there was a light rain but the temperature remained above 25C. A group was playing music at the bandstand next to the statue of the bagnard located outside the camp. Nature is noisy at night in French Guiana and this was no exception in the camp. So here there was no eerie silence. Of course the presence of multiple sounds did not replicate the sounds of the bagnards sleeping, grumbling, groaning, chatting, pissing and defecating all in the confined space of the blockhaus but it did provide a sense of the lack of silence in this particular space of imprisonment.

What most struck me was the way in which the tour was not set up to intentionally scare people. We were asked at a couple of points to close our eyes to listen to recordings, the first a song about forçats and the second an extract from an interview with Henri Charrière, played outside cell no47 where his name has been scratched into the stone floor. But this was simply a means of focusing the group. Candles had been placed around the camp and we were handed small hand torches as well. In certain parts of the camp there are ant hills with nasty biting ants. We were invited to explore the same cells that are accessible to visitors during the day tours. This was at our leisure. We were never shut in or forced to enter absolute darkness. The candles felt a little like a vigil. I thought it was quite sensitive but perhaps it also produced an aesthetics that was all too easy on the eye, too twinkly and magical.

Being made to feel scared in a former site of atrocity, as indeed that is what this is, is perhaps counterproductive since one focuses on a very individual and really quite narcissistic experience that cannot easily translate into compassion towards those who had to spend every night over a period of years in the same space. The official part of the night tour concluded with a joke about Papillon. It was delivered well and would be less funny in any retelling I might attempt. Perhaps this was intended to ease any potential tension the group might have been feeling and no doubt such tension would have varied according to the group and individuals on the tour.

At the end of the tour we were invited back into the entrance of the Quartier de Réclusion where all the tours begin. This is the part of the camp reserved for guided visits. A table of refreshments had been set up including soft drinks, rum and wine as well as platters of sausage rolls and quiche. There was also a table selling t-shirts from the tourist office. These draw on a convict aesthetic in their reproduction of Saint Laurent’s postcard 97320 in the guise of a numéro de matricule. Otherwise there was no bagne-related merchandise.

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A few of the visitors seemed to know the guides and the refreshments consolidated the idea that the event was out on less for tourists and more for locals. Although there are a number of tourists from outside French Guiana, many visitors to the camp come from other parts of the department. There are a number of teachers and other administrators working in SLM (as well as Cayenne and Kourou) who spend a few years in the department before returning to France when, for example, their children get to secondary age. So it seems like one of the goals of the tourist office is to create a community out of this population via tourism. The quiche was really nice but it still feels like a strange touch. SF

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