Over the past month I have returned to two islands that once were part of France’s overseas penal colonies. The first Con Dao or Poulo-Condore located 230km off the mainland of Vietnam was used over a 100 year period for both political and common law prisoners. It was subsequently used by the Southern Vietnamese and Americans during the American war.
The second island is Ile des Pins (Kunié) located about 70 miles from Noumea, New Caledonia. This was where many of the deported communards ended up.
Last year I took turboprop flights to both islands. However, this time, completely by chance, it worked out better to travel by boat. Aside from the somewhat hairy take offs and landings you get with a turboprop, I was excited to travel by boat as I thought it might offer a different visual encounter, one that might be closer to how the islands appeared to those exiled there. Of course it was incredibly naive to think that travelling by high speed catamaran in the company of (at least in the case of Con Dao) hundreds of other passengers bore any resemblance to the slow boat that took 12 hours from Cap Saint Jacques.
Despite all this, the experience of arriving on Ile des Pins by ferry did give me some pause for reflection. The first buildings you see on shore are the shells of former guards quarters and the restored house once assigned to the médecin du bagne. Granted you have to go further inland to find the main remaining vestiges but arriving this way rather than by plane, you get an immediate sense of the island’s penal history.
The geography of a place, even an island, becomes abstracted when arriving by plane. At least that’s how it seems to me. The high speed catamarans in many ways resemble airplanes with their seat configurations and passport checks but they still embody a type of slow passage evoked by Marguerite Durasin L’Amant (The Lover):
“For centuries, because of the ships, journeys were longer and more tragic than they are today. A voyage covered its distance in a natural span of time. People were used to those slow human speeds on both land and sea, to those delays, those waitings on the wind or fair weather, to those expectations of shipwreck, sun, and death. The liners the little white girl knew were among the last mailboats in the world. It was while she was young that the first airlines were started, which were gradually to deprive mankind of journeys across the sea.”