site visit #7. Saint Laurent du Maroni pt5

Part 5. A guided tour with Daniel

28 June 2018

When reconstruction gets it right after all…

During this visit to Saint Laurent we have had the chance to spend a few days working at the Centre d’Interprétation d’Architecture et du Patrimoine (CIAP) located at the Camp de la Transportation and benefit from the expert support of the Centre’s archivist and conservatrice, Lydie Joanny, who has patiently sought out documents, maps, videos and objects linked to our enquiries. The archives are located in Case 3 which was the former bibliothèque during the Camp’s operation.

During one conversation about some renovation work done to the Quartier de la réclusion, I showed her a photo I’d taken of a plan of the quartier that was made in 1940 and now housedat the Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer in Aix-en-Provence. The plan (itself most likely traced from much earlier versions) was drawn up due to proposals for the construction of a new interior wall.


Looking at the plan, Lydie remarked that the rélégués and libérés sections were indeed together. They are marked as such on the walls in the camp but everyone, guides and historians included, has assumed this was inaccurate and the painting which was part of a reconstruction done in the 1990s for the film L’Affaire Seznec (1992) is generally explained as a misrepresentation of how the quartier was divided up. The plan, particularly because it was made in the final phase of the penal administration, suggests a different story.

Liberes relegues

Narrating the bagne

On discovering this, Lydie called on Daniel Mark, CIAP’s expert guide who takes a lot of school groups around. Where the tour guides employed by the tourist office veer towards a performance of the bagne and celebrate the more well-known and, indeed, sensationalist elements of the Camp’s history, Daniel is charged with inspiring a younger, often more local, group of visitors to learn more about the history as well as to challenge their assumptions and prejudices as to who ended up in the bagne and why.

One of the sites where tour guides continue the story of the guillotine despite its rare use in the bagne

To reward (or perhaps punish) us for messing up the longstanding narrative around the misrepresentation of the rélégués/libérés cells, Daniel took us on a very comprehensive tour of the Camp. He took us through the museum, the exhibition spaces and finally the quartier de réclusion. This was amazing as it allowed the opportunity to ask quite obscure questions about tiny details related to both the camp and its presentation. He explained to us how his own tours had evolved through a more comprehensive understanding of the Camp and its architecture. For example, there is a concrete circle towards the back of the Camp which has been thought to have been a second site for placing the guillotine. The guides from the tourist office often develop a long narrative around the guillotine and so continue it here with everybody gathered round. Daniel suggested that it was more likely to have been a well that has been filled in.

CR checking out one of the former wells. The story of the bagne is most definitely a story about water

There is a door at the far end of the Quartier de réclusion which has led to a revised understanding about who was houses in the cases in the main area of the camp. It was previously thought no 3rd class convicts slept in the camp as they were all located out in the forest camps along the Maroni. But the door suggests easy communication between the two parts of the camp which would most likely have been used to punish and isolate difficult and badly behaved 3rd class convicts in the solitary cells in the quartier de réclusion.


History as rupture

He also showed us interesting aspects of the camps ruination. One side of the camp has deteriorated faster than the other. Although they are almost mirror images, perhaps one side had its foundations reinforced. There are also large cracks down the buildings located in the middle of the quartier. Daniel pointed these out and suggested that if there was an earthquake the camp might split clean in two. SF


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