Podcasts from the bagne

As part of the Postcards from the bagne project, we have just launched a podcast which is hosted on Anchor and can be listened to on all of the usual platforms – https://anchor.fm/podcasts-bagne

Cover image for the podcast, original photograph by Claire Reddleman.

Over recent months, the global COVID-19 pandemic has invited numerous comparisons with historical pandemics from the Bubonic plague onwards. Looking to history cannot offer a template of how to live through this current moment nor is there much reassurance to be found in comparisons. References in the mainstream media tend to focus on big data, death tolls and survival rates, or individual personal tragedy presented as cautionary tales. There has been far less enquiry into what parallels might be made with the highly racialised stakes of the pandemic and the questions of which lives we value and why. Yet there are valuable insights to be obtained from looking not simply at the effects of pandemics and epidemics across history but also how these were organised and managed.

The emergence and spread of disease and contagion as well as its representation is often linked to shifts in global migration themselves linked with economic trade and different forms of forced and coerced labour. In this short series of podcasts, we explore the story of disease within France’s overseas penal colonies in French Guiana and New Caledonia. Leprosy, yellow fever, malaria and other diseases pervade the penal settlements across these two territories and contribute to the elevated death rates amongst both the convict and civilian population. Yet, the suffering and treatment of such diseases tend to be overshadowed by insalubrious tales of moral contagion. But what became of those who were too sick and contagious to work? How were they treated and where were they housed? What do we know of their lives and the spaces they inhabited?

Approaching Île aux Lepreux/Île de la Quarantaine on the Maroni river in French Guiana, photograph by Sophie Fuggle.

The story of disease in the penal colonies is one of double exile and double forgetting. It also offers a warning as to how today’s society continues to treat those deemed surplus or unwanted when they also become sick and contagious.

We had planned to create a board game to disseminate the findings of the project, but had to rethink this in light of Covid-19 which, understandably, prohibited people sitting in close proximity and playing games. A podcast seemed a good alternative. Podcasts have the potential to reach a wider audience than an academic conference, for example, and also provides a freer form of dissemination. Danisch, Associate Professor at the University of Waterloo, expressed that by podcasting he was, ‘able to explore a variety of themes and ideas, unconstrained by the limitations of a syllabus or the conventions of a journal article’ (University Affairs, 2020). Although blogging has grown in popularity with academics looking to share research beyond the ivory tower of academia, according to Landman, podcasting remains an underused resource (The Guardian, 2016). Academic podcasts are becoming increasingly common and due the constraints imposed by the global pandemic, 2020 has seen a wealth of online conferences, talks and podcast episodes emerge.

We used SquadCast to record our podcast which meant that we could easily capture interviews and presentations with guests around the world, including in Australia, New Caledonia, French Guiana, and Vietnam, as well as in the UK. Most of the guests were academics with research interested linked to the penal colonies in New Caledonia and French Guiana, but we were also delighted to be joined by Emmanuelle Eriale, Director of the Site Historique de l’Île Nou in Noumea, New Caledonia.

In the studio, editing the episodes for the series.

Once recorded, episodes were then edited by a sound engineer, who also composed music for the series. Episodes were then uploaded to Anchor, a platform which is free to use and will host the podcast indefinitely, meaning that they are openly accessible to all. The podcast is then distributed and disseminated via the usual services, such as iTunes, Spotify, Acast, Google Podcasts etc.

This series of podcasts looking at disease, contagion and confinement will contain five episodes from Dr Sophie Fuggle, Prof. Charles Forsdick, Dr Briony Neilson, Emmanuelle Eriale and Dr Claire Reddleman. We are very grateful to all of our guests for their excellent contributions.

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