Food security in the penal colony

Return to Guyane, March 2019

There are many objectives and narratives that recur in different prison museums and exhibitions all over the world. Notably these include objects like shackles and chains and other forms of restraint. Visitors are often invited to handle a chain or shackle (as is the case on the tour of the Camp de la Transportation) to get a sense of its weight. Other features of museum tours can include emphasis on the specific use of solitary confinement within a specific regime or institution. This is often intended to challenge common assumptions that individual cells constitute the default mode of imprisonment rather than being deployed as an extra form of punishment and segregation.

Abashiri prison museum, Hokkaido, Japan

Another less documented example of prison life, are the narratives around food and nutrition within the prison or penal colony. Frequently, the diet of prisoners is recounted as evidence of poor conditions and, in cases where prisoners are expected to fund their stay, examples of the way in which class hierarchies persist within the space of the prison. Elsewhere, such as Abashiri prison museum in Hokkaido, Japan, mealtimes are reconstructed with the use of mannequins as a means of showing how prisoners ate together and were treated humanely. A similar approach is found, somewhat incongruously at the Jing-Mei human rights memorial in Taipei located on the site of the prison used during the white terror. On a tour of the recently closed HMP Dana Prison in Shrewsbury, the former guard turned tour guide told us how inmates were given an extensive choice of meals intended to cater to all religious and dietary needs. However, meal choices had to be made two weeks in advance. Freedom of choice is mapped back onto the disciplinary constraints of the prison timetable.

jingmei food
Reconstruction of prison food at the Jing-Mei memorial museum in Taipei, Taiwan

On this return visit to French Guiana, I started to attend more closely to the different narratives presented around convict diet as well as the origins of the food they were provided with. Much of the scholarship already published on the A.P. draws on archival material in order to demonstrate budget allocated on food and the problems of shipping large quantities of meat and other produce from France due to the absence of sustainable food production in French Guiana. Cited alongside A.P. archives are the convict narratives which highlight the gap between what each convict was officially allocated and what he or she actually received. Those sent to work in forest camps such as Charvein and required the highest calorific intake often had least access to the food distribution systems which saw suppliers, prison officials and convicts placed in administrative roles skimming at every level.

Îles du Salut 10 June DSC_1506 Cuisine Kourou
Vestiges of former kitchen at Kourou, now located on private property. Photo by Claire Reddleman (June 2018)

How might the museum or former sites related to the penal colony explore the question of what has recently come to be termed ‘food security’ not simply in terms of the daily rations of convicts but in terms of the penal colony and its camps as a model of unsustainable consumption and unequal distribution? How might such questions be mapped onto contemporary questions about sustainable food production and the unsustainable models of today’s prisons?

This seems a difficult task for various reasons. It is easier and perhaps more appealing to many visitors to be presented with rusting shackles and torture instruments which seem to bear little resemblance to today’s penal technologies (although this is not always true). Lists of rations often appear in prison museum displays but I wonder how useful such lists are. I find it hard to imagine what 800g of bread looks like. Moreover, where plastic, replica food is part of Japanese restaurant displays and thus does not seem particularly out of place in a prison museum like Abashiri, elsewhere museum displays favour authentic objects rather than replicas or reconstructions.

Bagne des Annamites, Montsinery

At the Bagne des Annamites site near Montsinery, about 40 minutes’ drive from Cayenne, a series of panels tell the story of the camp which was established in 1931. Very little remains of the original site (see earlier blog post) but the numerous toilets highlight the emphasis on hygiene in comparison to earlier sites. The panels offer a high level of detail yet do so in a way that is unobtrusive, acknowledging the different users of the site include those taking the path to the picnic site at Crique Anguille who might not necessarily want to be confronted with the dark heritage of the penal colony in their walk through the forest.

Bagne des Annamites, Montsinéry – Tonnégrande (June 2018). Vestiges of oven located in the camp belonging to the Tirailleurs Sénégalais brought over to guard the Vietnamese prisoners

The panels reproduce a mixture of official documents, images, correspondence and maps. I cite their presentation of convict rations as well as the farming undertaken on-site as examples of how official documents are used to provide insight into the daily experience of convicts living and working in the camp, but which might require more work to produce a meaningful appreciation of what such rationing looked like in reality. Did the convicts receive what they were supposed to? Who controlled distribution? How was the calorific intake offset against the energy required in their daily tasks? Was food grown used to supplement rations or was it sold for profit? It is difficult to explore all these questions at a site like this, but I wonder if the state of ruination can actually create a useful setting in which to explore the gaps between official documentation and lived realities…

Musée du Bagne. Camp de la Transportation, Saint Laurent du Maroni

The extensive grounds of the former Camp de la Transportation in Saint Laurent du Maroni has been gradually turned into a multipurpose site with different buildings used for various cultural activities only some of which are related to the history of the penal colony and Saint Laurent, more generally. A small building which once comprised the former kitchen together with the anthropometric room and chapel has been converted into a small museum. The large central room which formed the kitchen is dedicated to various themes related to life in the camp and its surrounds. Elsewhere I have suggested that former kitchens, store rooms or bakeries are often repurposed as museums. This is perhaps due to the longevity of their structures, but they also appear as neutral rather than macabre and so are reused and maintained for other purposes before becoming heritage sites. However, if we consider questions of food security and sustainability, we might challenge the idea of a prison/camp kitchen as neutral but rather the site where the slow violence (to adopt Rob Nixon’s expression) of malnutrition versus the quick violence of corporal punishment is meted out.

On the wall by the chimney, the following statement appears:


‘Nourrir près de 1500 condamnés n’est pas une mince affaire et la cuisine est un lieu essentiel de la vie quotidienne. Les rations sont notoirement insuffisantes. Les vols, les détournements et la mauvaise qualité des aliments aggravent la situation de malnutrition, surtout pour les condamnés qui n’ont ni argent ni influence.’

[Feeding almost 1500 convicts was no simple matter and the kitchen was an essential location in the everyday life of the camp. The rations were notoriously insufficient. Theft, reappropriation and poor quality of foodstuffs exacerbated malnutrition especially for those convicts with neither money nor influence.]

St Laurent Museum in Camp de la Transportation 21 & 22 June DSC_2866
Panel located by the chimneys in the Musée du bagne, Camp de la Transportation, Saint Laurent du Maroni (June 2018)

 As I have become increasingly interested in the impact of the penal colony on a territory and, following Miranda Spieler’s excellent study Empire and Underworld (2012), the ways in which such an impact often takes the form of an absence rather than presence of traces, I have also started to think about the penal colony as an ecology. This is an ecology that is toxic on various levels. The penal colony in French Guiana is often described in early critiques as a form of ‘gangrene’ or rot. Such a metaphor contests the utopian vision of the penal colony as creating opportunities for regeneration and growth both in terms of the spiritual rehabilitation of convicts being transported and the development of land taken over by the penal administration with the aim of producing sustainable agriculture.

DSC_2261 Cuisine Museum
The Musée du Bagne in Saint Laurent is located in the former building that housed the kitchen, chapel and anthropometry suite

In thinking about the penal colony as unsustainable in terms of being able to support itself economically and, more specifically, in terms of food production, this tends to be posited as a failure. Not least because self-sufficiency based on the earlier Australian model was the rationale for establishing a penal colony in the first place. But to what extent might we consider its failure as part of the penal colony’s success? And to what extent is the narrative of unsustainability just one version of the story of the penal colony? Pascale Cornuel provides some interesting reflection on the farming projects which took place in the early 19th century at Mana, a short distance from the most brutal forest camps including Charvein. A further example is Îlet la Mère located a short boat ride (about 13km) from the Dégrad de Cannes. After operating as one of the first sites for political deportees, the island was evacuated between 1867 and 1875 due to an outbreak of yellow fever. However, in 1923, former convict, Edmond Duez, and his wife rented the island and turned it into a prison farm with a certain degree of success. On his death, his wife returned to France and the island was abandoned once more until the 1980s when the Institut Pasteur used the site for breeding spider monkeys used in the study of malaria (and possibly also yellow fever).

Îlet la Mère (June 2017). Photograph by Sophie Fuggle

Today French Guiana is still dependent on food imports from France. A bag of salad flown over from France is priced at 8 euros. Despite departmentalisation in 1946 which coincided with the closure of the bagne, France continues to perceive French Guiana in terms of a colony to be plundered for its rich mineral resources. This lack of sustainability, it seems, is one of the enduring legacies of the bagne. SF


Calmot, André, ‘Le Pénitencier de l’îlet la Mère (1852-1875)’, Revue Guyanaise d’histoire et de géographie 11 (Oct-Nov-Dec 1979), pp.38-52.

Cornuel, Pascale, ‘Guyane française: du “paradis” à l’enfer du bagne’,  in Le Livre noir du colonialisme. XIXe-XXIe siècle: de l’extermination à la repentance. Edited by Marc Ferro (Robert Laffont: Paris, 2003), pp.208-219.

Dedebant, Christèle and Frémaux, Céline, Le Bagne des Annamites: Montsinéry-Tonnégrande (Guyane: L’inventaire, 2012).

Nixon, Rob, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

Spieler, Miranda Frances, Empire and Underworld: Captivity in French Guiana (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).


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