Cartes postales du bagne

Site visit #17. The little church at Païta

30 July 2018

In contrast to the foreboding Cathédrale Saint Joseph in the centre of Nouméa which closely resembles Notre Dame in Paris, the little church, Sacre-Cœur, in Païta is another example of a building project overseen by the Administration Pénitentiaire during the 1880s. It is a light and airy, welcoming building. Most striking perhaps are the stain windows which seem to embody an art deco style. Composed of fragmented coloured glass arranged mosaic style they perhaps also embody a discourse of rehabilitation occurring through the collective work of a series of broken lives. This may of course be reading too much into the design but the contrast with Saint Joseph forces a comparison. This also seems much more DIY perhaps partly due to problems with costs and other delays to the original completion of the building.

Today the church sits on the edge of the neat little town centre just behind the school. Opposite there are small memorials to both world wars. Although there is no signage recounting the history of the church either inside or out, a guide to the ‘traces du passé’ published in 1991 indicates that the font was carved by a bagnard using a single block of marble.

The construction of churches along with their decoration often suggests a neat synthesis between religious instruction and creative labour, together producing rehabilitative, redemptive effect on the bagnard. This is the story told about Bagnard Huguet who painted the murals in the church at Iracoubo in French Guiana. Francis Lagrange’s murals on Ile Royale which despite multiple attempts at restoration and preservation have not stood the test of time and climate, seem to offer in their present ruined form a riposte to this narrative. Lagrange’s own autobiography is far from a tale of rehabilitation but rather one of ongoing opportunism.

Moreover there is a certain irony that the main remnant of the administration pénitentiaire in Païta is its church. According to the curate of Païta, in 1892 the town represented an outpost of Noumea that attracted the worst forms of depravity and criminal activity. The account refers to ‘scandaleuses orgies‘ and ‘professions inavouables’ but leaves the reader to speculate on what these might consist of. What it does indicate is the way in which the penal colony extended across the territory but in ways that were irregular and complicated. The exil of the libérés from the centre of Nouméa also reminds us of the horrors of the doublage system as it produced above all a subclass of individuals who were no longer supported by the A.P. The opportunities for employment or the receipt of a concession were the exceptions that worked to simultaneously affirm both the potential of the bagne as successful form of colonial development and the myth of the irredeemable criminal (the fort tête) unable to seize the opportunity to improve his conditions of existence, demonstrating a disloyalty to France in his failure to contribute towards the building of its Empire.

Site Visit 16 – Ducos

Exploring further at presqu’ile Ducos yesterday, a large peninsula just to the north of Noumea, which used to be completely given over to the penal colony (as far as I can gather). We visited initially guided by Emmannuelle of ATP (Association Temoignages du Passe), and saw the conserved prison block at l’anse Undu (‘anse’ means bay or cove), the cimetière des gardiens (prison guards) at Numbo, and viewed the former location of Louise Michel’s hut from a vantage point up on the road, looking down towards what is now known to Google maps as ‘Entrepôt Petrolier et Gaz Total’, a large industrial site spanning the width of the presqu’ile at this point, rendering Koumourou, the tip of the peninsula, inaccessible to the public.

Returning to Ducos, I wanted to take a little more time and work out how the maps I’ve seen of the penal colony here ‘play out’ in the places as they are today. I used a map from the ‘Encyclopedie de la Nouvelle-Caledonie’, volume 9 ‘Sur les traces du passe’ by Marcel Petron and Philippe Godard:


I began at anse l’undu, on the southern side of the peninsula, where we had been guided previously to see the prison building, which is still standing and has been restored with a new roof. It doesn’t have any contextual signage and I was glad to have been shown it first, as it’s within a small community area that has entrance gates (open) and I wouldn’t have read it as somewhere one was allowed to go into if I’d been exploring on my own.

Ducos Guided Tour Emmanuelle 26 July DSC_4988 La prison de l'anse Undu small

This is what remains of no.40 on the encyclopedie map, clearly showing a much more extensive set of buildings as part of the penal colony.

This is a map of Ducos made in 1885 by the Service Topographique:

ANOM CR 123 H839 Proces-verbaux de delimitation et plans 1885-1890 Ducos 1885 small

ANOM CR 123 H839 Proces-verbaux de delimitation et plans 1885/1890 Ducos 1885
Image courtesy of Archives National d’outre mer, Aix-en-Provence, France
Here we see the penal colony presence marked with the label ‘Camp de transportation’ but without buildings being depicted yet:
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I drove back up the steep hill to rejoin the main road in search of the cimetière des gardiens at Numbo, no.17 on the encyclopedie map:
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This is all that remains of the penal colony at Numbo – driving down to the far end of the road took me to the entrance to another industrial area, so the tip of this promontory is inaccessible to the public. From looking at Google maps the way leading north east towards Undu appears to be open, but it’s not in practice. The rue des Frères Terrasson (running down the eastern side of Baie de Numbo) is lined with industrial establishments on its western side, and on its eastern side north of the steep rock wall. It leads north towards the cimetière des gardiens at Numbo.
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The cimetière has been renamed in Google maps as cimetière de Numbo, neatly removing mention of the cemetery’s history as part of the penal colony:
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In this detail of a 1913 map by the Service Topographique of the Administration Penitentiaire, I think the cemetery is indicated by the scribble-marks area beside the ‘L’ of ‘LEPROSERIE’ – it’s not labelled but corresponds with the present day location of the cemetery and suggests it was previously rather larger. Although this needs developing as reference to other maps makes me think this may indicate an area of mangroves.
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ANOM CR 27 Box H2035 NC Ducos 1913
ANOM CR 27 Box H2035 NC Ducos 1913
Image courtesy of Archives National d’outre mer, Aix-en-Provence, France
I continued towards the end of the presqu’ile, retracing my way towards Baie des Dames. With the group led by Emmannuelle, we looked down towards the site, marked by two palm trees. There are no visible indications that this used to be a part of the bagne, and there are no remnants at all to be seen.
Ducos Guided Tour Emmanuelle 26 July DSC_5061 The view of Louise Michel's hut location (between palm trees) small
Ducos Guided Tour Emmanuelle 26 July DSC_5065 The view of Louise Michel's hut location (between palm trees) small
I drove down to the gates of the entrepôt and turned the car around, not queried by anyone but it’s the sort of site where I tend to feel people might be wondering why you’re taking photos – this is well away from the tourist areas of Noumea and I would guess a few people must end up down there simply needing to turn around and head straight back again.
Here we see the isthmus in close-up from the 1885 map, showing ‘cases des femmes’ (or ‘women’s huts’) slightly east of the present-day palm trees:
ANOM CR 123 H839 Proces-verbaux de delimitation et plans 1885:1890 Ducos 1885 screenshot
And the contemporary view via Google maps of the same location, showing the entrepôt and the contemporary name for this bay, ‘Baie des Dames’, in place of the 1885 label of Anse Ngi:
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Returning to the north east and heading back towards Noumea, I wanted to look for the débarcadéres (jetties) at Tindu in the north of the peninsula. I have become rather attached to the idea of the débarcadéres at a number of the penal colony sites, both here in New Caledonia and in French Guiana, as the places of arrival for the people beginning their experience of imprisonment at each particular place. They have left recognisable traces at a number of sites we’ve seen so I wanted to see if there was also anything remaining of two débarcadéres at Tindu:
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Number one, Débarcadère de Uatimburu, has been preserved and re-fashioned but remains a visible structure in the cove:
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And as depicted by Google maps satellite view:
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Number 7, Débarcadère de Tindu:
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These sites are certainly not presented for tourist consumption in any way, but I wanted to get a sense of the extent of the area involved in the penal colony at Ducos. From looking at the archive maps it had become one name to me, Ducos, but I think distinguishing its parts is worthwhile, especially as the peninsula is now a mix of heavy industry with areas of housing at Tindu.

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

site visit #12. Île aux Lépreux

23 July 2018

The Île aux Lépreux is perhaps best known in the popular imaginary of the bagne as a place that Papillon stops off at on one of his escapes from Saint Laurent du Maroni. It is actually a lot smaller and a lot closer to Saint Laurent than the book and film might lead you to believe. A little further down the Maroni is Île de la Quarantine which is larger but inaccessible.

Today the site functions as a picnic and camping area contains a few basic carbets where you can hang a hammock. A few guys work on the island, charging a few euros to clear away the rubbish left by visitors. Littering still seems to be a problem. SF

site visit #7. Saint Laurent du Maroni Pt4

Part 4. La nuit TOMBE

Night tour of the Camp de la Transportation, Saint Laurent du Maroni
23 June 2018

Last weekend as part of the project we took a night tour of the Camp de la Transportation. We had already done a tour during the day. As the night tours only run once a month, sometimes even less frequently, it seemed like an opportunity we shouldn’t miss. Below are our respective reflections on the tour.


The only other night tour of a former prison I’ve been on was to Alcatraz about 17 years ago. At the time, I was not particularly interested in prison tourism and went on the tour more as a part of a generic bucket list of SF activities. The night aspect of the tour seemed as much intended to allow visitors to enjoy the twinkling lights on the San Francisco skyline on the way back to the mainland as to provide anything especially eerie by way of the prison tour. The guided tour, if I recall correctly, took the form of an audioguide so didn’t differ from the day tour in any way. That isn’t to say it wasn’t eerie but the interior was well lit and the boat load of tourists swarming around the site meant it was near impossible to feel isolated.

Since that trip I have come across but not participated in various night prison tours. Of course it is also possible to sleep overnight in former prisons either in the original cells (for example, Fremantle prison YHA in Australia and HI Ottawa Jail Hostel) or in the high spec luxury hotels that have repurposed prisons (Boston Liberty Hotel, Four Seasons Istanbul, Malmaison Oxford). In Dana prison in Shrewsbury, which closed in 2013, zombie tours are run at Halloween. During a daytime tour of the prison, I overheard the former guard turned tour guide describing one of these to a nurse who had also worked on the site and come on the tour. From what I gathered the tour drew on a whole mishmash of horror iconography including Hannibal Lecter strapped to a stretcher. The guard thought it was all great fun. I thought it sounded terrifying.

The Camp de la Transportation runs a night tour about once a month. It also apparently does a tour for Halloween. The tours are organised by the tourist office which has a distinct operation to the Centre d’Interprétation d’Architecture et de Patrimoine (CIAP) which runs school visits. Where regular guided tours during the day are usually run by a single guide, the night tour had them tag team of three guides delivering different parts. There seemed to be a large number of support staff also on hand. The group of visitors numbered about 25, mostly couples including one child aged about 10 or 11.

The content of the tour didn’t differ much from the day tour although there was perhaps more focus especially in the blockhaus as to the conditions of being there at night. The guide emphasized that the windows were sealed and the 75m2 space would regularly contain 80 men. We were all sat along the concrete banks that functioned as beds. The space seemed pretty crowded with only 25 of us. The thing I found hardest to imagine was the smell and I heard other visitors discussing this as well. Increasingly work by researchers and museums is being done around the prison as soundscape since the eerie silence of a former prison fails to evoke the cacophony experienced at certain times in a working prison. But the smell of the prison seems something far more visceral and, difficult, to capture or simulate.

The blockhaus at night

Former prisons are often very cold especially at night. Before the tour started there was a light rain but the temperature remained above 25C. A group was playing music at the bandstand next to the statue of the bagnard located outside the camp. Nature is noisy at night in French Guiana and this was no exception in the camp. So here there was no eerie silence. Of course the presence of multiple sounds did not replicate the sounds of the bagnards sleeping, grumbling, groaning, chatting, pissing and defecating all in the confined space of the blockhaus but it did provide a sense of the lack of silence in this particular space of imprisonment.

What most struck me was the way in which the tour was not set up to intentionally scare people. We were asked at a couple of points to close our eyes to listen to recordings, the first a song about forçats and the second an extract from an interview with Henri Charrière, played outside cell no47 where his name has been scratched into the stone floor. But this was simply a means of focusing the group. Candles had been placed around the camp and we were handed small hand torches as well. In certain parts of the camp there are ant hills with nasty biting ants. We were invited to explore the same cells that are accessible to visitors during the day tours. This was at our leisure. We were never shut in or forced to enter absolute darkness. The candles felt a little like a vigil. I thought it was quite sensitive but perhaps it also produced an aesthetics that was all too easy on the eye, too twinkly and magical.

Being made to feel scared in a former site of atrocity, as indeed that is what this is, is perhaps counterproductive since one focuses on a very individual and really quite narcissistic experience that cannot easily translate into compassion towards those who had to spend every night over a period of years in the same space. The official part of the night tour concluded with a joke about Papillon. It was delivered well and would be less funny in any retelling I might attempt. Perhaps this was intended to ease any potential tension the group might have been feeling and no doubt such tension would have varied according to the group and individuals on the tour.

At the end of the tour we were invited back into the entrance of the Quartier de Réclusion where all the tours begin. This is the part of the camp reserved for guided visits. A table of refreshments had been set up including soft drinks, rum and wine as well as platters of sausage rolls and quiche. There was also a table selling t-shirts from the tourist office. These draw on a convict aesthetic in their reproduction of Saint Laurent’s postcard 97320 in the guise of a numéro de matricule. Otherwise there was no bagne-related merchandise.


A few of the visitors seemed to know the guides and the refreshments consolidated the idea that the event was out on less for tourists and more for locals. Although there are a number of tourists from outside French Guiana, many visitors to the camp come from other parts of the department. There are a number of teachers and other administrators working in SLM (as well as Cayenne and Kourou) who spend a few years in the department before returning to France when, for example, their children get to secondary age. So it seems like one of the goals of the tourist office is to create a community out of this population via tourism. The quiche was really nice but it still feels like a strange touch. SF

Peripheral vision

DSC_1433 blog

Editing the photos I took on my first visit to Ile St Joseph, I’m glad – in spite of the pressure of having a backlog of editing to do – to have had some time between taking them and now editing. These weren’t easy pictures to take. We keep using the phrase ‘documenting’ and I keep wondering about what it is that I am documenting. I am making documents, in one sense, photographs about which I will be able to claim ‘this shows the ruins at Ile St Joseph on 10 June 2018, this is how they were on that day, on that afternoon, at the moment I stood in that place’. But the thing I am wondering about primarily is what my role is, what do I have to offer to other people by having been in this place and taken photographs? Mainly, the answer should be, my skill at taking photos – fine. Not everyone has a feeling for composition. Fine. But what did I see, and what relationship is there between what I saw and the ‘documents’ I am in the process of making? I am thinking about light and about sadness. I am aware of an idea I have of ‘good photography’ or a good single photograph. And I’m not interested in simply knee-jerk reacting against that and saying it’s a tyranny (of what, anyway). A good photograph – what does this involve? Composition – where your verticals are, are you using symmetry, is there one main subject of the photograph or do you have two or three, which elements in the photograph get to be whole and which will be cut off at the edges of the frame? Have you balanced your dark and light bits or do you want more darkness or lightness to predominate – and why? People, expressions and movement – not applicable here. Colour – range, balance. How did you see the colours? How vivid were they when you looked? If you looked at noon or 1pm, where they perhaps rather bleached out, not much contrast, do you find yourself reaching for the ‘dehaze’ slider in your photo editing software and thinking ‘this is more like what I saw’? Yes, yes and yes. And I don’t want to follow this to an overly pedantic end – but I saw all of this through my glasses and the longer I am photographing in the muggy sweaty heat, the more sweat is present on my face, the more traces and droplets get smeared onto my glasses from my face by pressing the viewfinder up to my glasses, I must pause and locate in my bag a clean cloth (none of my clothing will serve, it is no longer clean) and the more I find myself wondering how things were for the shortsighted among the prisoners here, what could they see? My task is to use an extremely complex and expensive device, that feels very alien here, to record the light that exists in this place, this place where the light is sometimes so stark in the heat that it is hard to see the edges of the tree canopy, or the walls, I squint a lot and wonder how much to turn down the highlights and turn up the shadows, how much to ‘dehaze’. I pause to clean all the glass surfaces between my eyes and the ruins, and resume.

Les Hattes part 2

At the far corner of French Guiana, meaning the north west, on the estuary of the River Maroni, can be found some small remains of the bagne, a site that was known as Les Hattes. The present life of this part of French Guiana is organised under the name of the village of Yalimapo, and the vestiges of the bagne didn’t feel very prominent to me.

The village is at the end of the road, there being no bridge across the River Maroni into neighbouring Suriname – not that you would expect to find one here where the mouth of the estuary is roughly 4 km wide. Interestingly Apple maps map view indicates a land connection across the mouth of the river, while its satellite map view does not indicate this fictional structure or landform.

My Google searches for the term ‘Les Hattes’ bring up, for the most part, results connected with tourism in the area, especially TripAdvisor, and tide forecasts, while the image search results mostly focus on turtles laying their eggs along the shore. Tucked in among these offerings is one of the postcard images I’ve seen reproduced in a number of places:


No signposts direct the tourist to the remains of the old jetty, which we discovered by means of following the well-established path running alongside the beach, so richly green and giving a partial view of the brown sea and threatening sky that in translating the view into a digital photograph I had the impression that visually it rather resembled the English countryside.

Les Hattes 18 June DSC_2455 small

The information signs related to the behaviours of the turtles, and rules relating to their safeguarding, but no mention that the jetty of the former penal colony establishment lay just a little further around to the left. I noticed a brick in the sand, and knowing bricks to be one of the signature remnant-objects of the bagne, with each establishment generally having its own briquetterie (brickyard), I immediately wanted to see if it had any remaining inscription of ‘AP’ for Administration Penitentiaire, or ‘Les Hattes’. It proved to be the first in a long line of brick discoveries, leading us to wade further along the beach, to find two sets of rotting wooden supports for the former jetty that used to occupy this place.

Les Hattes 18 June DSC_2508 small


I have since been able to confirm the location of the jetty with reference to archival maps of Les Hattes held in the Archives National d’Outre Mer, but have yet to secure an image of this map that I can reproduce.

Les Hattes was once an integral part of the telegraph system that ran along the coastline of French Guyana, connecting Cayenne in the south east with Les Hattes before turning upriver to St Laurent du Maroni and its subsidiary camps. The corner of the territory was, previously, a crucial link in this chain of communication, and I understand the camp also had responsibility for monitoring the mouth of the river. In the present, it appears to my tourist/researcher gaze as a corner that has since been ‘cut off’ and is now part of a nature reserve. The remains of the jetty attest to an extent of the former settlement that it is now difficult to picture from the position of the shoreline.

Les Hattes 18 June DSC_2521 Jetty small

I left a temporary ‘drawing’ on the shore, taking up the gluier finer grey mud (a good texture for spreading) and adding it to one surface of a former-jetty stone. Obviously this is something of a nod to Andy Goldsworthy’s work, but mostly an attempt to take up materials that are to hand at a site of bagne vestiges and to try to make something of it that can be both material and rendered in a digital photograph.

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My interest in the material is a lot to do with the idea of the extensive material existence of the bagne as a longstanding institution that produced a huge amount of infrastructure, buildings, roads, jetties/pontoons, railways that embodied (and continue to embody, where they continue to exist or their subsequent forms continue, eg. where the road has been constructed on top of the previously existing railway line between St Laurent and Mana) imprisoned persons’ labour, but also the idea of the institution attempting to reduce people to their material being via bodily suffering, and this materiality being paramount in how we can think about depicting both this history and its implications and possibilities for the future. For now, the shoreline at Yalimapo continues quietly as the broken up AP bricks erode slowly on the beach.

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Questions from here include:

– how does one work against fetishizing the AP bricks because they are findable objects and easily photographable?

– can one use visual methods to pursue the recognition that every brick – as well as infrastructure – was created through the bodily labour of bagnards and that to some extent their labour is what is being abraded through the processes of natural erosion?