Project Overview

Vestiges of the bagne on Île Saint Joseph, French Guiana

France’s Penal Colonies

Between 1852 and 1938, over 70,000 convicts were transported to the bagne in French Guiana which finally closed in 1946. Approximately 21,000 convicts were sent to New Caledonia between 1864 and 1924. While the two territories bear witness to different penal histories framed by their specific geographies, climate and local communities, both attest to a complex tension between the role of convict transportation and labour as an integral part of France’s colonial project and the inevitable social exclusion produced by this form of incarceration.

Tourism to the Bagne

While unofficial forms of tourism have always taken place in both settlements during and after their operation, it is only recently that serious restoration initiatives have been undertaken and supported by the local community. In French Guiana, these include the transportation camp at Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, the Saint Jean relegation camp and former prison buildings, including the warden’s residence, on the Îles du Salut which fall within the jurisdiction of the Centre National des Études Spatiales (CNES). In New Caledonia, restoration initiatives in the South Province include a prison museum housed in the former prison bakery; Prony village, a reconstructed site of forced labour; Fort Teremba and the ruins of the penal colony on the Île des Pins.

A difficult process of decarceration

Taking these restoration and preservation activities at its starting point, the project considers the former penal settlements as representing a moment of decarceration within a wider global history of punishment, imprisonment and detention. Looking at the delicate process of remembering the bagne, the aim is to consider how penal tourism might focus more directly on questions of decarceration and abolition within a contemporary carceral context.

Exploring the penalscape

The ongoing presence and impact of the bagne and on the landscapes of both French Guiana and New Caledonia in terms of architecture and infrastructure highlights the multi-sited nature of the settlements as well as the routes and trajectories existing between sites. As such they draw greater attention to the pervasive role of the carceral past, present and future within a wider human and natural geography than single sites of penal heritage (former prisons, camps, dungeons etc.) which are often considered as exceptional or isolated spaces.

Mapping the bagne

A key aspect of the project’s methodology is to take a cartographic approach to understanding the multiple sites belonging to the penal colony and the connections both historical and contemporary between these sites. We are also interested in how these sites are ‘imagined’ cartographically within the context of historical travel writing and journalism and as part of an emerging global penal tourism [further reading and resources on this will be presented shortly in our ‘Resources’ section].

The project is generously funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. For details of the research team click here.