Cartes postales du bagne

Delicate ruins

5 July 2018
The Vestiges at Port Boisé

Having been disappointed several times in our search for ruins over the past week or so, we didn’t expect to find anything beyond a trail. As it turned out there are also vestiges from one of the camps annexed to Prony. The ruins are well signposted from the road and also have their own Itinéraire Bagne panel. There are three main buildings still intact on the primary site which also includes parts of the perimeter wall.Slightly north of the main site of the vestiges, there seems to be a family living in a building that was once perhaps the Maison du chef. The ruins have been cleared and made as safe as possible but in a way that gives the appearance of casual abandonment.

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The main vegetation in two of the buildings consists of smaller weeds including tiny delicate pink and purple flowers (am yet to identify) something also present at Ile des Pins but here it is clear that larger more structurally damaging plants and trees have been discouraged. This creates a different and perhaps calmer sense of nature reclaiming the site than more dramatic examples found on Ile Saint Joseph, Prony village and Ile des Pins. Of course both are cultivated and carefully maintained.

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In a number of places, structures have been ‘casually’ propped up

What comes into focus as a result are the large window and door frames further enlarged by the erosion of the brick work around them. They are reminiscent of the frames found especially in Rodolphe Hammadi’s photos of the vestiges of the bagne in French Guiana but there is something less sinister, less disturbing about the structures and their ruination. There is a gentle breeze and birds are singing. In the distance a small child is whining at his parents.

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Erosion revealing building processes

I’ve tried to think about why this. Perhaps it is the climate. Perhaps the more visible signs of maintenance and clearance of vegetation. The buildings in their arrested decay seem to exhibit a care for the past. The erosion doesn’t so much imply disrepair but allows you to see how the buildings were constructed. The foundations are also visible giving a more complete sense of the building process. The buildings have been carefully presented here in order to demonstrate pride in the convict labour that built them rather than shame in the system that demanded convicts to build their own accommodation along with the administrative buildings that would serve in the management and determination of their longterm fates.

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Extension to the ‘vestige’ complete with door number

Attached to one of the former buildings is a small more recently built extension. This also makes me think of the Chamoiseau-Hammadi project. Chamoiseau dismisses the squat that was still there when he visited or had recently been evicted to make way for restorations and preservation. His preference seems to have been for a presentation of the bagne as an abandoned site bearing near imperceptible traces of the lives that once inhabited and encountered it. Here at Port Boisé it is clear someone was living or working there quite recently. The door has a number as if mail was delivered there. Perhaps it was a squat or a caretaker’s accommodation. It is odd to see it continue to exist after the conservation initiatives have been put in place rather than erased and forgotten. SF

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In search of the Chemin des Bagnards

5 July 2018

On our first day in New Caledonia we went on a tour of Prony village with a local guide. Prony was one of the forest camps belonging to the penal colony.

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On the final day of our trip we retraced some of the route, negotiating somewhat more carefully the tiny bridges and oversized potholes in our little hire car than our guide had in his 4×4. However, rather than take the turn off to Prony we continued on the CR9 towards Port Boisé located at the South of the mainland. This is key nickel mining territory and the soil is a deep red. We passed a processing plant which temporarily interrupted the wilderness of the area, a wilderness that is really on perceived since the landscape is scarred by the roads and mines cut into the hills, before arriving at a vista with views out onto the coast. We then began our descent down towards the ocean.

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Before getting to the coast we spotted a brown heritage sign indicating ‘Vestiges du Bagne’. See part 2 ‘Delicate Ruins’ on this.

The Chemin des Bagnards is a nice trail which takes about 90 minutes depending on how much you stop. It starts at the Kanua Tera Ecolodge where you can also park and ends up at the mouth of the river at a point known as ‘Trou bleu’. You can continue across the river via stepping stones and assume a second trail which takes you all the way the the campsite. The trail is the route that was used by the bagnards as part of their work in and around Port Boisé, an annex camp to Prony. Forestry was developed within the penal colony in order to remove the need for imports of wood from Australia and New Zealand. Although the vestiges that can be seen on the trail are limited, ruins of a low wall, remains of a bridge, for example, these lay emphasis to the infrastructure that supported the bagne’s operation which was at the same time created and maintained by convict labour.

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Walking the trail which runs along the coast does little to evoke the trials of convict labour or the quotidian physical labour involved in logging. It is hard to imagine the alienation of being exiled here or the suffering introduced by forced labour. But instead one thing we might glean from this is the mobility of the bagne. Although the penal colony is often conceived as a network of sites and operations, the sites in themselves often seem disconnected or self-contained especially in their posthumous representation. Even where there are multiple buildings and vestiges to visit within a space such as on Île Nou these are encountered collectively as a ‘historic site’. The trail offers a greater sense of the movement and displacement of bagnards within the penal colony and beyond their initial journey from France and other colonies. SF

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Hotel Banu, La Foa

31 July 2018

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We drove to La Foa in search of various vestiges of the notorious Camp Brun, where the most ‘difficult’ convicts were sent as further punishment, located between the town and Boulouparis. However, as we later found out from the Tourist Office in La Foa, these vestiges are located on private properties and, where they haven’t been destroyed, are only occasionally opened up to the public on heritage days. Apparently lots of people come looking possibly having stumbled across the same outdated information on Le Petit Futé as we have.

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At La Foa we grabbed a drink in the bar at the Hotel Banu. It was definitely the coolest bar I had visited in New Caledonia with an enormous collection of caps hanging from the ceiling. The Hotel is a family business and embedded in local history. Interestingly, it also become enmeshed in WWII politics and was the site where Admiral Georges Thierry D’Argenlieu was placed under surveillance for 15 days by supporters of Governor Sautot in May 1942. Sautot and D’Argenlieu has disagreed over the role of the American Allies in New Caledonia. I find this story of brief internment significant because of the different strategic role played by New Caledonia during WWII compared to other French colonies. Where the bagne was still an important feature in French Guiana and Poulo-Condore in Vietnam, the penal colony had disappeared from New Caledonia. Despite initial support by Governor Pélicier for De Gaulle and the Free France campaign, he begun to waver during summer 1940 before being overridden by the General Council and replaced by Henri Sautot in September 1940.

More about the history of the Commune can be found here.

The Itinéraire Bagne

July 2018

One of the major initiatives that inspired the project’s focus around the potential for multisite penal heritage is the ‘Itinéraire Bagne’ in the South Province of New Caledonia. The itineraire was inaugurated in 2013 and consists of a series of panels found through Nouville [Île Nou], Nouméa, Île des Pins, Bourail and Fort Teremba. The first panel was inaugurated during the Nuit des Musées at the former Boulangerie [bakery] on Île Nou on 24 May 2013. According to local news source, Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes, the inauguration attracted over 500 visitors to the site, a number previously unheard of and demonstrative of an emerging interest in a past that was once heavily obscured. The ‘Itinéraire’ was put together by the Association Témoignage d’un Passé and was supported by the Province Sud and the Inspecteur général des musées de France.

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The former boulangerie and proposed site for the Musée du Bagne. Photograph by Claire Reddleman

Unfortunately, now 2018, the museum at the boulangerie is yet to open to due ongoing problems with financing. The main issue is the need to create a visitor’s centre separate from the historic building which can accommodate the various needs of visitors. However, this doesn’t mean that visits to the site have been prevented but take the form of fortnightly guided walking tours around the area which finish up in the boulangerie.

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Panels include a colour-coded list of all sites around the South Province. Photograph by Claire Reddleman

The panels themselves are easy to spot and each one has been painstakingly put together, compiling historic images and maps with detailed texts which are also usually translated into English. As we have been taking a keen interest in the shifting infrastructure of the sites over the entire period of their operation, the photos and maps were of great interest and also helped us orient ourselves especially on Île des Pins.

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Kuto Bay, Ile des Pins. Photograph by Claire Reddleman

There was clearly also an earlier plan for audioguides which would work by calling a telephone number. Due to no cell phone coverage during our stay, we didn’t have the chance to test these for ourselves but were told these were no longer in operation. There are no doubt future opportunities to develop smart phone apps which could offer further information. This may be less effective somewhere with very limited 3G coverage such as Île des Pins.

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Panel indicating the ‘Site historique de l’Ile Nou’ next to the Université de Nouvelle Calédonie. Photograph by Claire Reddleman

The panels are just a snapshot of life during the operation of the bagne and there are numerous sites across the South Province that aren’t included or which due to the temporary nature of camps and buildings as well as redevelopments have left few traces to discover. Nevertheless, they provide a starting point for appreciating how embedded the history of the bagne is in the wider infrastructure and architecture of New Caledonia. Despite being collectively named the ‘Itinéraire Bagne’, there is no set path or itinerary proposed or prescribed – this seems more in keeping with Patrick Chamoiseau’s account of the traces-mémoires du bagne in French Guiana. The traces are everywhere and we stumble across them often by chance, often missing them when we are looking purposively. We cannot hope to fully grasp the space or the lives as they were. To write and to follow an ‘itinéraire du bagne’ could thus be read as an utopian, failed or impossible project but one that people in recent years have been committed to trying out. SF

Further resources

You can visit the Association Témoignage d’un Passé’s website here:
https://atupnc.blogspot.com/p/musee-du-bagne.html
They organise regular guided tours and other events which are usually posted on their site as well as on their facebook page.

A recent article entitled on the multiple sites associated with the bagne in New Caledonia entitled ‘Transportation et déportation en Nouvelle-Calédonie’ and written by François Goven, Louis-José Barbançon and Louis Lagarge was published this year in Monumental: Revue scientifique et technique des monuments historiques as part of their issue on ‘Le Patrimoine de l’enfermement’. More information on the issue can be obtained here.

site visit #14. musée de Nouvelle Calédonie

Musée de Nouvelle Calédonie, Nouméa
19 July 2018

There are a number of museums located in Nouméa which provide a wider history of the territory. We decided to start with the Musée de Nouvelle Calédonie as it provides a wider perspective on the history and geography of the territory as well as the surrounding Pacific regions. The ground floor is dedicated to Kanak objects and their more recent representation by local artists. These representations are defined in terms of a ‘parcours iconographique’ or ‘picture path’.

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The museum claims to have the second largest collection of Kanak objects after the Musée Quai Branly in Paris. This seems at once wrong but also perhaps inevitable. It also raises the question of who and what a museum is for and what different groups of visitors can learn and appreciate from seeing objects in glass cases. One of the main criticisms toward the Musée Quai Branly is its often apparently thoughtless juxtaposition of objects from different periods and regions with different uses or symbolism based on the similarity of their shapes or aesthetic. (See, for example, Edward Rothstein’s critique in The New York Times)

The space in the Musée de Nouvelle Calédonie avoids this perhaps carnivalesque approach and time is taken to carefully explain different objects and their function. Upstairs the space is given over to objects from nearby regions including Australia, Melanesia, Polynesia, Micronesia, allowing for some comparison but without reducing this to cacophony.

There are a few references to the bagne made in the museum and these within the context of a small corner displaying interactions of the Kanak population with the colonial administration including most notably the Kanak revolt of 1878. A commemorative cane which was given to Edmond Hayes, Director of the Pénitencier Agricole.

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Perhaps the most important item related to the bagne is a statue of a Kanak man carved by a bagnard on Île des Pins. The label reads:

‘La sculpture dite «en mie de pain » présentée ici comporte l’inscription «fait au pénitencier de l’Ile des Pins en 1898».
Le nom de l’homme qui l’a créée, en 1898, reste inconnu mais l’on sait qu’il avait fabriqué deux figures similaires, l’une d’un homme, l’autre d’une femme. Leur propriétaire, un surveillant militaire de l’administration pénitencière à qui ces statuettes ont été données, a tenu à les transmettre à chacune de ses deux filles. Cette statuette a été achetée en 2008 à l’un des arrières petit fils de cet homme.’

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Another item I came across was a painting of a bagnard signed J. Peres. The signage laments that the artwork which was donated sometime in the 1970s or 1980s was not adequately catalogued. It also suggests the bagnard is a forçat rather than a political deportee because he is clean shaven. SF

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Hyde Park Barracks

15 July 2018

En route to New Caledonia for the next phase of site visits, I spent a couple of days in Sydney where I managed to visit both Cockatoo Island and Hyde Park Barracks. Built between 1817 and 1819 and designed by convict-architect Francis Greenway, around 50,000 convicts were thought to have passed through the barracks during the operation of the penal colony. Between 1848 and 1887, the building was used the Female Immigration Depot and subsequently by local government and the courts until the end of the 1970s.

Since 2010, the museum has been part of the UNESCO world heritage convict sites which incorporate 11 sites including Cockatoo Island. The history of the site as museum is far longer, dating from the end of the 1970s. Embedded in the museum is the presentation of its evolution to museum including reference at various to the politics of preservation and presentation at stake. In this respect, it seems to offer a model of ‘best practice’ for convict history as well as self-reflexivity in terms of the political and social function of a ‘museum’. As one panel informs visitors:

‘Everything you see is part of the history of this place. From the limewashed walls of the original convict dormitory to the galvanised iron duct to aircondition the modern museum. From the lowly rat who saved many possessions to the lofty wig that donned the judge in session.’

One of the core narratives running through the museum and especially in the room which reconstructs life for the immigrant women housed there between 1848 and 1887, is the role of archaeology in elucidating the everyday life of the site. This is not just taken for granted in the display of excavated objects. As well as a large exhibition focused on the excavation work and the objects found, individual objects and sets of objects are displayed within the women’s dormitory but framed with explanations as to what each object might tell us about various aspects of life at the Barracks. Nit combs found under the floorboards of the dormitories, for example, are used as evidence of both unsanitary conditions and attempts on the part of the women staying there to maintain hygiene. Seeds also found in the floorboards suggest eating in the dormitories as well as the mess but also give indications of a more varied diet than official records might suggest.

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Downstairs in the museum but also at points throughout such as the stairwells, there is a concerted attempt to show different layers of history through the stripping away of paintwork and plaster. Interestingly, the extensive archaeological excavations taking place in the 1980s which yielded over 85,000 different items and fragments were only possible as a result of extensive renovations being carried out some of which might now be seen as working counter to preservation and conservation initiatives. I find this particularly interesting as a point of comparison with different sites in French Guiana related to the Administration Pénitentiaire where archaeological excavations have been very limited either due to lack of recognition or the fragility of remaining structures.

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Layers of history at Hyde Park Barracks

Use and Abuse

The museum refers on several occasions to notion of ‘use and abuse’ that defined the convict system. This is perhaps one of most direct critiques I have ever seen in a prison museum that wasn’t a former site of political detention. But it is unclear how we should understand ‘use’ here. Does this imply a utopian ideal that was corrupted yet ultimately redeemed by the ‘successful’ colonial development built off the back of the convict system? Should we read it as critical of the idea of individuals as a means to an end, bodies as unpaid labour? Or does use refer to ‘useful’ here?

Elsewhere there is a more clear agenda set out as to the purpose of the museum within wider political/social agenda. There is a brief reference to the need to draw on history to understand contemporary context yet the space offers no real possibility for this except via the idea of valorisation convict contribution towards colonial development and removing the shame of this past for descendants of convicts. I found myself asking various questions about this: What about contemporary forms of detention? Immigration? What about the lack of options presented to those claiming refugee status? The ongoing use of islands as sites of incarceration and detention? Nauru? (see, for example, the recent Guardian opinion piece on this) Despite its larger claims, there is a limit to the self-reflexivity of the site in this respect.

Reimagining the space

In addition to the physical objects, historical maps and paintings and reconstructions of the living spaces, the museum has also commissioned artists to produce different interpretations of the convicts themselves. In one of the upstairs room, the space features a series of convict ‘shadows’, black life-sized cut outs with the stories of each convict represented etched onto their torsos. The same room features a ‘soundscape’ based on archival material reproduced as spoken word, noises associated with the space but also silences. The use of soundscapes at prison museums is a growing phenomenon. This one which shifted between different speakers in the room was quite hard to make out particularly when other visitors came into the room with their personal audioguides blaring.

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One of the most enduring images of the Barracks was, for me, a photograph entitled ‘Flogged Back’ which was commissioned by the Historic Houses Trust NSW but is undated and has no information of the photographer. Underneath the photograph are a series of accounts of floggings given out to different convicts for various infractions. The visual presentation of direct, premeditated violence meted out by the penal authorities rather than the usual accounts of suffering produced through labour and deprivation is unusual both here and elsewhere. There is something both Christ-like and eroticised about this image. Although it is unlike anything else presented in the museum, it also highlights the redemptive discourse of convict labour once presented by the penal system itself and now reproduced by the museum in its affirmation of the role of convicts in the development of present-day Australia.

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Cockatoo Island

14 July 2018

En route to New Caledonia for the next series of site visits, I stopped off in Sydney for a couple of days. I managed to visit a couple of sites, Cockatoo Island and Hyde Park Barracks which form part of the UNESCO world heritage Convict Sites. As such they are important examples of multi-sited penal heritage and as a result of their UNESCO status suggest various forms of ‘best practice’ in terms of accessibility, legibility and so on. There is work being done in both New Caledonia and French Guiana to produce a multi-sited concept of penal heritage and to use this as a basis for applying for UNESCO world heritage status. This is far more advanced in New Caledonia with the Itinéraire Bagne (a series of panels marking former convict sites at various sites across the South Province including Île des Pins). In French Guiana work is still being done to locate, map and document the various vestiges along the Maroni river which indicate the different camps and satellite operations organised around the Camp de la Transportation in Saint Laurent du Maroni and the Camp de la Rélégation at Saint Jean. Consequently, the sites in Sydney seem to be very useful in identifying different agendas and levels of community-led interest in convict heritage.

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En route to Cockatoo Island

A short ferry hop from the Sydney Harbour terminal, Cockatoo Island was once home to convict labour. Like prison islands elsewhere, it was a site where those caught re-offending were sent. It was established in 1839 to deal with overcrowding on Norfolk Island. A prison within the penal colony. Convicts mined the sandstone which was used for building in Sydney as well as building the administrative buildings on the island itself. Later, after the closure of the penal settlement in 1869, the island is renamed Biloela (aboriginal for black or white cockatoo) in order to forget its convict history. It is used for shipbuilding but between 1871 and 1888 it also housed a reform school for girls. An orphanage for 500 boys was housed in an old ship docked on the island between 1871 and 1911. The island became a prison once more in 1888-1908. Today it’s possible to explore the old dockyard buildings as well as a small number of excavated cells only discovered in 2009, a year before the site acquired UNESCO status. You can also camp on the island.

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There is an aesthetic of rust which dominates the island’s buildings and which inserts an important layer of history between the island’s use as a prison and its museification. Its  use as a reform school provides an interesting example of the link between education and incarceration that emerged with the 19th century notion of discipline. Similarly, the ship-orphanage cannot but evoke the earlier prison hulks which were a common feature in convict transportation. For me these also provide an important reminder of how the closure of one form of imprisonment often leads to different forms of detention or containment.

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Dog Leg Tunnel through the sandstone

Given the proximity to Sydney harbour, doesn’t have the same sense of isolation as other prison islands. It is also a space that is quickly and cheaply accessed by regular ferries. While this does not necessarily mean it is visited by a wide range of local and tourist visitors, it does suggest a space that has the potential to be more embedded in community life and events (as indeed its brochure suggests – the Sydney Biennale was held there for the first time in 2008) than many former prison islands elsewhere which have since become luxury resorts only accessible by private boats or airplane. Its accessibility (together with its empty warehouses and rust aesthetic) also explain why it has been used for various film and tv shows including X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and Unbroken (2014).

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