Cartes postales du bagne

L’art du voyager

Next week I am visiting Saint Martin de Ré where convicts from mainland France were held immediately before their departure for French Guiana aboard La Martinière. While it has become a pleasant port town and popular tourist destination, Saint Martin not only bears the scars of Vauban’s ‘Ceinture de fer’ in the form of foreboding ramparts and gates but also continues to operate a prison which houses inmates undertaking lengthy sentences.

Saint Martin de Ré twinned with Saint Laurent du Maroni

The OIP (2013) reports that with 460 places, Saint Martin is the largest Maison Centrale in France with sentences averaging 18 years. Despite its centrality, the presence of the prison seems to go largely unnoticed by most of the tourists visiting Saint Martin despite the fact it is possible to cycle right past its front gates. For me, the site acts as an important and generally overlooked reminder that the end of the bagne saw many convicts returned to France’s Maison Centrales to finish up their sentences.

Overlooking the roofs of Saint Martin. It is possible to make out the Maison Centrale in the distance

However, while the connection between Saint Martin and French Guiana has long been severed, limited to the story of transportation recounted in the small Musée Ernest Cognacq, a new link between those currently incarcerated at Saint Martin and the administrative centre of the bagne, Saint Laurent du Maroni, has recently been created. On display in the reception area of the Centre d’Interprétation de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine (CIAP) located within the former Camp de la Transportation at Saint Laurent, is a small art exhibition entitled ‘L’art du voyager au travers de la peinture.’

CIAP, Camp de la Transportation, Saint Laurent du Maroni

The exhibition features artworks produced by inmates in Saint Martin which create a connection with French Guiana. Each piece features a scene from French Guiana’s landscape. At the centre of each canvas is a photograph which the inmates, who have never been to French Guiana, expand outwards to create a larger scene. The project draws upon the therapeutic role played by nature and its artistic reproduction of particular importance to those whose imprisonment limits their direct engagement with the natural environment.

A selection of canvases from the ‘L’Art du voyager project

At the same time, the project seems to have a wider symbolic value in shifting the position of French Guiana from common conceptions of the department as peripheral in order to highlight its central importance in terms of its biodiversity and location as part of the Amazon (the world’s lungs). Moreover, a new connection is forged with emphasizes French Guiana as a starting point for creative inspiration rather than the end point it once represented for those housed in Saint Martin. It is thus all the more moving that the canvases are now on display in the former Camp de la Transportation emphasizing the complex and sensitive ways in which former sites of punishment can offer a meaningful space for engaging with contemporary experiences of incarceration.

SF

Site visit #20. Camp Est and the penalscape*

Camp Est still operates as New Caledonia’s prison today

If you take the bus up to the university on Île Nou one of the first vestiges you pass is not a vestige at all but rather Camp Est which continues to operate as a prison. The bus that takes you around Ile Nou drives right up to the prison. As it loops around you can see the old chapel inside. It’s also possible to drive along the perimeter wall which is covered in graffiti before you arrive at a few squats.

graffiti on the perimeter wall of Camp Est

The prison has been termed the ‘prison postcolonial’ by the Observatoire International des Prisons due to its overcrowding and poor conditions. While the quartier cellulaire on Ile Nou was destroyed after the closure of the bagne as the most visible architecture of imprisonment there are nevertheless continuities with the present day. In addition to Camp Est, the psychiatric hospital is located in the grounds of the former prison hospital. 

View of the chapel inside Camp Est from the bus

Thus where we conceived the project as looking at the legacy of the bagne as attesting to a moment (albeit drawn out) of decarceration, what also emerges in exploring the ‘penalscape’ of Ile Nou is how the legacy of the bagne does not just involve the restoration of architecture as museum, theatre or university buildings but also in the evolution of what Goffman terms the ‘total institution’ within existing spaces of imprisonment.

View of the former boulangerie site of the proposed Museé du Bagne on Ile Nou as seen from the bus

*The term ‘penalscape’ first appears in Joy James’ Warfare in the American Homeland: Policing and Prison in a Penal Democracy (Duke University Press, 2007). Our use of the term which has developed as part of this project expands the notion of a penalscape beyond a very specific U.S. context.

Approaching things differently (En route to the islands)

Aerial views of Con Dao including turboprop propeller

Over the past month I have returned to two islands that once were part of France’s overseas penal colonies. The first Con Dao or Poulo-Condore located 230km off the mainland of Vietnam was used over a 100 year period for both political and common law prisoners. It was subsequently used by the Southern Vietnamese and Americans during the American war.

Con Dao from the air

The second island is Ile des Pins (Kunié) located about 70 miles from Noumea, New Caledonia. This was where many of the deported communards ended up.

Ile des Pins

Last year I took turboprop flights to both islands. However, this time, completely by chance, it worked out better to travel by boat. Aside from the somewhat hairy take offs and landings you get with a turboprop, I was excited to travel by boat as I thought it might offer a different visual encounter, one that might be closer to how the islands appeared to those exiled there. Of course it was incredibly naive to think that travelling by high speed catamaran in the company of (at least in the case of Con Dao) hundreds of other passengers bore any resemblance to the slow boat that took 12 hours from Cap Saint Jacques. 

The Con Dao Express departing from Vung Tau
En route to Con Dao on deck of the catamaran

Despite all this, the experience of arriving on Ile des Pins by ferry did give me some pause for reflection. The first buildings you see on shore are the shells of former guards quarters and the restored house once assigned to the médecin du bagne. Granted you have to go further inland to find the main remaining vestiges but arriving this way rather than by plane, you get an immediate sense of the island’s penal history.

Vestiges of the bagne near to the jetty on Ile des Pins

The geography of a place, even an island, becomes abstracted when arriving by plane. At least that’s how it seems to me. The high speed catamarans in many ways resemble airplanes with their seat configurations and passport checks but they still embody a type of slow passage evoked by Marguerite Durasin L’Amant (The Lover):

“For centuries, because of the ships, journeys were longer and more tragic than they are today. A voyage covered its distance in a natural span of time. People were used to those slow human speeds on both land and sea, to those delays, those waitings on the wind or fair weather, to those expectations of shipwreck, sun, and death. The liners the little white girl knew were among the last mailboats in the world. It was while she was young that the first airlines were started, which were gradually to deprive mankind of journeys across the sea.”

View of vestiges and the doctor’s house from the jetty on Ile des Pins

Site visit #19 Musée Maritime, Nouméa

The maritime museum in Noumea is one of my favourite museums in New Caledonia. This is probably largely due to its layout comprised of lots of small alcoves as well as to its huge collection of objects many of which have been salvaged from shipwrecks. It also interweaves the practical history of technologies such as archaeology and sonography into the stories it tells without making this over-reflexive or confusing.

But another reason I like this museum is due to the way it embeds the story of the penal colony into the wider maritime history and moreover a colonial history of forced and indentured migrant labour. Convict labour is presented alongside other groups brought to New Caledonia from Indochina, Japan, Indonesia, Reunion and elsewhere to carry out the worst forms of agricultural labour as well as in the nickel mines. Where other museums focus in on individual convicts, the display here emphasizes the huge convoys of ‘human flesh’ brought to New Caledonia from the mid-1900s onwards.

Sending shiploads of workers. Display about the different forms of forced and contractual labour brought to New Caledonia

Located almost adjacent to the section on imported labour is a section which tells the tragic, unresolved story of La Monique. The ship carrying 126 passengers disappeared without a trace in August 1953 after leaving the island of Maré for Nouméa. What is known is that the boat was dangerously overloaded with both goods and passengers. The boat was operated by the Société des Iles Loyauté (SIL) but what is worth noting is that the largest stakeholder in SIL also happened to be one of the wealthiest and most politically powerful companies in New Caledonia at the time, La Maison Ballande. There is evidence that the company tried to interfere with official enquiries into the ship’s disappearance and downplay any accusations of negligence. A short documentary screened in the museum emphasizes the huge impact of those lost to communities in New Caledonia especially on Lifou and Maré. What the tragedy and its lack of resolution also call to mind within the space of the museum is the wider impact of colonialism on communities elsewhere via the displacement and disappearance of different populations through transportation and indentured labour. Without taking anything away from the adventure of seafaring, the artisanal craft of shipbuilding or the increasingly refined technologies of underwater exploration and salvage, the museum emphasizes the distinction between those who chose (and still choose) to risk everything for the call of the ocean and those upon whom these risks were imposed unwillingly or unknowingly out of greed. SF

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.