Cartes postales du bagne

Exposition temporaire

The Camp de la Transportation in Saint Laurent du Maroni has over several decades been transformed into a form of cultural centre which not only engages with the history of the bagne and its role in the development of the town but also repurposes former camp buildings so that these now host multiple community and creative activities including a theatre, fab lab, media centre and the municipal library (as well as CIAP whose work is dedicated to the history and memorial of the Camp itself), named after the last living bagnard in Saint Laurent, Icek Baron.

View of the Quartier de réclusion from the Salle d’exposition temporaire

In recent years, the Camp has offered artist residencies which conclude with a temporary exhibition housed in a building which runs alongside the Quartier de reclusion, the prison within a prison where convicts awaited trial (usually for failed escape attempts) in front of the Tribunal Maritime Spécial (TMS). The exhibition building houses the camp’s bell tower and while it can be accessed from outside the Quartier de reclusion, its windows give views directly onto the rows of cells that used to confine both rélégués and libérés. As such it is a kind of liminal space within the camp.

In its current incarnation as creative space, it exhibits work that is inspired by different aspects of French Guiana’s culture, history and geography beyond its role as penal colony. Previous exhibitions have included Léa Magnien’s Cartes postales de la Guyane and Au Royaume des Toulouous by Laure Chartefou and Anne Guillou. The current exhibition, Résister, vivre by Casimir Bationo (CasziB) has been timed to coincide with events commemorating the abolition of slavery in French Guiana. As a town, Saint Laurent did not exist prior to the arrival of the penal administration in the 1860s and thus did not bear witness to the slave plantations that predated the penal colony. This has led some to question the appropriateness of commemorating slavery at a site not directly implicated in the use of slave labour. At the same time there is also a danger in conflating two distinct historical moments in French Guiana especially via the all too easy misrepresentation of objects such as shackles at memorial sites. However, it is also important to emphasize the continuity between slave and convict labour and the persistence of racist ideologies that informed the evolution and ultimately closure of the bagne.

In Résister, vivre, CasziB shows us a disjointed and problematic history in which the fragments of the past are overlaid, in order to explore the nature of identity.  The exhibition comprises of paintings on canvas and fabric hung around the once walls of the prison camp, showing a broad range of colour and abstract faces – all somewhat sombre and liberated at the same time. The artist uses this patchwork colour style seemingly to understand the nature of human experience and how identity is not a linear progression of events, rather the overlaid colour seems to suggest a village of identity amalgamated in the individual to make them who they have become.

This bold technique functions excellently in the space, as not only does the dominant narrative of the bagne involve a fragmented and collective combination of different stories and histories (Papillion being the most renowned example), but there also a confusion on a global stage of the difference in time and history between slavery and the penal colony; this exhibition then plays with this melange of the past so it is not just a story of individual identity, but moreover the identity of French Guiana.

Another striking aspect of the collection is that many of the works are named after woman, femme 1 and so on. This is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, using the title femme to denote a patchwork image seems to not create a single identity, but rather pull it apart in order to tell a wider story of women within the history of slavery. If it is indeed an unmapping of a singular female identity onto the canvas then the artist risks undermining rather than showcasing the multitude of untold stories. On the other hand, it seems somewhat poignant to create a fragmented identity in order to piece together a female female narrative, often absent, from these periods. It is also interesting to bring the figure of the woman into the space of the Camp de la Transportation and, similar to the previous exhibition on the Touloulous, this move enacts a deliberate form of dislocation with the historically male space of the camp that challenges the idea of which stories get to be told and retold and in which spaces.

As the artist himself states in the exhibition catalogue:

‘La série de toiles exposées à l’occasion de cette commemoration dénonce l’innomable, des deportations en nombre mais aussi cette “force collective” permettant d’accéder à la liberté. Des visages singuliers viennent ponctuer cette exposition. Derrière cette foule d’individus déportés et réduits à l’esclavage, il y avait des hommes, des femmes, des enfants aux histoires et destins uniques.’

RS and SF

Rochefort & Île d’Aix – life history narratives in museums

A view of Fort Boyard from the boat on the way to Île d’Aix © AS

Between 10-14 June 2019 Sophie and I (Ayshka) travelled to the Île de Ré (et environs) to visit sites where former convicts were held before deportation to the French colonies. The island is popular with French tourists and retirees profiting from the peaceful surroundings, we saw a number of couples exploring the island en velo during our visit. In conversation with one of the local museum’s curators, we learned that many visitors are unaware of the island’s penal heritage and are even more surprised to learn that Île de Ré’s links with the penal system are not only historic, since the site also houses a large Maison Centrale for inmates completing lengthy sentences (see Sophie’s recent blog post for more information about this modern day prison).

Aerial view of Vauban’s fortifications on the Île de Ré © Criminocorpus.

First stop on our itinerary was the Musée Nationale de la Marine in Rochefort. We were keen to see how the history of the bagnard was represented in this museum space, since Rochefort had functioned as a prison for just under a century, between 1767 and 1854, closing when overseas penal colonies were established. The town’s naval history was the primary focus of the museum and the ‘vie du bagnard’ did not feature heavily. There were a couple of information boards focusing on the daily life of the convict, accompanied by a small number of artefacts on display. Including the bell photographed below.

Bell from the former bagne portuaire in Rochefort © SF.

The connection between the bagnard and the town’s naval history was not explicit in the museum and the target audience seemed to be maritime enthusiasts keen to see model ships, the fairly extensive collection of figureheads, and the vessels moored outside. Reviews on Tripadvisor reinforce that the ships are the main attraction (‘It’s on boats!’ and ‘Boatiful’), as well as the bar/restaurant on the top deck of the final navire. Human narratives and life histories from former bagnards were absent and it was difficult to get a sense of what their prison experiences had been.

Musée Napoleon on Île d’Aix with commemorative plaque © AS.

The lack of life history narratives from bagnards was also evident in our visit to the Île d’Aix the following day. Although the island is popular with tourists for day trips from the mainland, the population is only around 230 and there are no cars permitted. The island’s connection with Napoleon is celebrated – he famously spent his last days in France on the island in 1815, following his defeat at Waterloo – and the former commander’s house, commissioned by Napoleon and pictured above, is now a museum.

Fort Liédot, a semi-buried fortification on the north of the island, which was commissioned by Napoleon, houses a second museum promising to introduce the visitor to the soldiers and prisoners who were stationed and incarcerated there. The Fort held Communards in 1871 and various prisoners during the First World War and Algerian War. There was little evidence of prisoner’s narratives in the museum – there were no photographs, letters, or diary entries relating to those held there. As shown in the image below, the museum’s primary focus seemed to be on the island’s connection to Fort Boyard (both the gameshow and the edifice).

Fort Boyard display at Fort Liédot © AS

Life history narratives (letters, diaries, photographs) have proved particularly useful in under-documented areas of history, as the narratives ‘suggest hypotheses, provide personal details, reveal local colour, facilitate insights and preserve individuality’ (Kedward 1993:vii). They have also been mobilised effectively in the museum space. Including life history research in museums foregrounds unique life stories and provides personal examples of the broader political and cultural histories which are being documented. The absence of personal narratives in the museums in Rochefort and Fort Liédot meant that the visitor did not get a sense of life as a bagnard in either location. Instead, the dominant narrative in Rochefort focused on maritime vessels, human histories were largely absent, and in Fort Liédot, visitors were invited to discover ‘Les Mystères du Fort Boyard’ with tv screens showing the famous gameshow. The inclusion of some personal narratives from former convicts might be one way of broadening the memory narratives which are promoted at these historical sites to include the under-documented area of the penalscape in mainland France.


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).

Cyanotypes at the well

IMG_8567At the disused well in the Camp de la Transportation in St Laurent du Maroni, I made two cyanotypes using plants I had just picked from the vegetation protruding from the well. I was interested in the plants as potential symbols – of the lives of the bagnards who had previously existed here. These cyanotypes are made using Sunography paper, the most readily available commercial light sensitive papers that I’ve found. This technique was borrowed, or serendipitous, just as was the idea to collect plants in the first place – Sophie had had some light sensitive paper that she had meant to pack for the trip but forgotten, and so asked me to see if I could get hold of some. As it turned out, I really got into using the papers and so it ended up becoming my ‘thing’. I’d bought a packet of paper to take to French Guiana, which contained six sheets, and so it felt appropriate to do the same in New Caledonia and create six images there as well. This was partly due to price considerations – we hadn’t allocated this in the budget, and personal money was tight. This chosen ‘scarcity’ of the material ended up making me so much more careful and deliberate in my choices about making the pictures, in contrast to how I was taking digital photographs where my attitude was to document as much as possible. Thinking back on it with this in mind makes it seem almost wanton to have made two cyanotypes in the one location – but if I recall, this was the last day in St Laurent and I had been holding back, wanting them to be good.


I rinsed the papers under running water at the Camp’s toilets, and wanted to document them straight away in case the image faded away, as it had done the first time in the forest.
Obviously these images show no real details of the plants, and would be useless for plant identification. But perhaps that makes them slightly more suggestive of the metaphorical senses of haziness, not seeing clearly, imagining, that I am hoping to get at in relation to depicting the bagnards? This is completely indirect, setting up in my mind the idea that the weeds and incidental vegetation at our chosen sites can be made to stand for the lives of real people imprisoned in the penal colony; then picking those plants and so killing them; then turning their dying matter into the subject of a photograph; then treating that photograph as itself a precious totem of the bagne; as well as pressing the dead plant matter between papers and later scanning it to become a digital image file.


I am also interested in the reverse of the cyanotypes, and the enigmatic shapes that were produced here. This followed from having noticed a number of maps in the archive which showed a technique of painting in watercolour (‘aquarelle’) on the reverse of the map sheet in order to produce a gentler shading effect on the front. An example here is a plan of St Laurent showing the vivid colours, which make a composition of abstract shapes that still possess the appearance of a map, to my mind. It wouldn’t be quite right to say that this painting is unintended, since of course it has been made deliberately, but it’s not intended to be presented for viewing. There is also an interesting implication that we, as the viewer, are now looking ‘upwards’ at the underside of the town, which is brighter and more vibrant than the ‘correct’ viewing position using the cartographic view from nowhere looking down from ‘above’. CR

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:
Screen Shot 2018-08-04 at 12.24.59
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.
Screen Shot 2018-08-04 at 12.35.08
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.
Screen Shot 2018-08-04 at 12.53.00
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:
Screen Shot 2018-08-04 at 01.23.42
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:
Screen Shot 2018-08-04 at 13.12.28
Number one, Débarcadère de Uatimburu, has been preserved and re-fashioned but remains a visible structure in the cove:
DSC_5632 small.jpg
And as depicted by Google maps satellite view:
Screen Shot 2018-08-04 at 13.20.32
Number 7, Débarcadère de Tindu:
Screen Shot 2018-08-04 at 13.30.52
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.