Cartes postales du bagne

Site visit #17. The little church at Païta

30 July 2018

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

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

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

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

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.


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.

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.

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.

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


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.


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.


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.


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


Hotel Banu, La Foa

31 July 2018


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.


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.

Site Visit 16 – Ducos

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

ANOM CR 123 H839 Proces-verbaux de delimitation et plans 1885/1890 Ducos 1885
Image courtesy of Archives National d’outre mer, Aix-en-Provence, France
Here we see the penal colony presence marked with the label ‘Camp de transportation’ but without buildings being depicted yet:
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I drove back up the steep hill to rejoin the main road in search of the cimetière des gardiens at Numbo, no.17 on the encyclopedie map:
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This is all that remains of the penal colony at Numbo – driving down to the far end of the road took me to the entrance to another industrial area, so the tip of this promontory is inaccessible to the public. From looking at Google maps the way leading north east towards Undu appears to be open, but it’s not in practice. The rue des Frères Terrasson (running down the eastern side of Baie de Numbo) is lined with industrial establishments on its western side, and on its eastern side north of the steep rock wall. It leads north towards the cimetière des gardiens at Numbo.
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The cimetière has been renamed in Google maps as cimetière de Numbo, neatly removing mention of the cemetery’s history as part of the penal colony:
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In this detail of a 1913 map by the Service Topographique of the Administration Penitentiaire, I think the cemetery is indicated by the scribble-marks area beside the ‘L’ of ‘LEPROSERIE’ – it’s not labelled but corresponds with the present day location of the cemetery and suggests it was previously rather larger. Although this needs developing as reference to other maps makes me think this may indicate an area of mangroves.
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ANOM CR 27 Box H2035 NC Ducos 1913
ANOM CR 27 Box H2035 NC Ducos 1913
Image courtesy of Archives National d’outre mer, Aix-en-Provence, France
I continued towards the end of the presqu’ile, retracing my way towards Baie des Dames. With the group led by Emmannuelle, we looked down towards the site, marked by two palm trees. There are no visible indications that this used to be a part of the bagne, and there are no remnants at all to be seen.
Ducos Guided Tour Emmanuelle 26 July DSC_5061 The view of Louise Michel's hut location (between palm trees) small
Ducos Guided Tour Emmanuelle 26 July DSC_5065 The view of Louise Michel's hut location (between palm trees) small
I drove down to the gates of the entrepôt and turned the car around, not queried by anyone but it’s the sort of site where I tend to feel people might be wondering why you’re taking photos – this is well away from the tourist areas of Noumea and I would guess a few people must end up down there simply needing to turn around and head straight back again.
Here we see the isthmus in close-up from the 1885 map, showing ‘cases des femmes’ (or ‘women’s huts’) slightly east of the present-day palm trees:
ANOM CR 123 H839 Proces-verbaux de delimitation et plans 1885:1890 Ducos 1885 screenshot
And the contemporary view via Google maps of the same location, showing the entrepôt and the contemporary name for this bay, ‘Baie des Dames’, in place of the 1885 label of Anse Ngi:
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Returning to the north east and heading back towards Noumea, I wanted to look for the débarcadéres (jetties) at Tindu in the north of the peninsula. I have become rather attached to the idea of the débarcadéres at a number of the penal colony sites, both here in New Caledonia and in French Guiana, as the places of arrival for the people beginning their experience of imprisonment at each particular place. They have left recognisable traces at a number of sites we’ve seen so I wanted to see if there was also anything remaining of two débarcadéres at Tindu:
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Number one, Débarcadère de Uatimburu, has been preserved and re-fashioned but remains a visible structure in the cove:
DSC_5632 small.jpg
And as depicted by Google maps satellite view:
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Number 7, Débarcadère de Tindu:
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These sites are certainly not presented for tourist consumption in any way, but I wanted to get a sense of the extent of the area involved in the penal colony at Ducos. From looking at the archive maps it had become one name to me, Ducos, but I think distinguishing its parts is worthwhile, especially as the peninsula is now a mix of heavy industry with areas of housing at Tindu.

Bad maps. An inaccurate guide to tracing one’s steps

Île des Pins
23-24 July 2018

Île des Pins is an island located to the South of the mainland and is part of the South Province. It is about a 20-minute flight from Magenta Airport in Nouméa. The island was the site where political deportees were sent both from France but also the Kabyle rebels. As the commune located the furthest away from Paris, the exile of the communards to Ile des Pins after 1871 bears enormous symbolic as well as geographical weight. Rélégués (recidivists sent to the penal colony) were subsequently sent to the island between 1887 and 1910. The island became an indigenous reserve once more in 1913.


Today there are a number of vestiges associated with the bagne. We were grateful for the blog Un jour en Calédonie which provided a fair amount of useful information on where to find various ruins on the island. Most notably there are those found in Ouro, the restored doctor’s house and gendarmerie on the Baie de Kuto and also the neat and carefully maintained Cimetière des Déportés near Ouro. Some of the ruins at Ouro are located on private land and you have to ask permission from the épicerie built within the old walls of the ruins.

During our visit we focused our attention on the ruins across the road from the épicerie and in particular on those contained by a large perimeter wall. This was partly due to the odd opening hours of the épicerie and partly due to intermittent rain. Although there is a brown heritage sign indicating the vestiges, there are no panels here (details about the sites were found at the Itinéraire Bagne panel located at the Baie de Kuto). This means there is a certain amount of guesswork as to the original function of the buildings. On entering the interior of the walled space, we found 4 brick buildings. Two seemed to have held dormitories and it was still possible to see hooks for hammocks on the walls. Two were slightly smaller buildings containing 10 individual cells. This suggests (prior to checking on any plans) that the site was a quartier de réclusion as the cell system was only really used in the bagne as a form of punishment. In a recent guide, it suggests that this was the ‘prison’ for rélégués at Ouro, a closed space distinct to other sites such as the ateliers and hospital.

A grumpy bull provided a useful reference point.

Exploring the site, the vegetation made it easy to become disorientated. We both decided it might be easier to get a clearer understanding of the space by creating mini maps or plans of the layout. There is something exciting about how ruins allow one to get lost and disorientated whilst speculating on the stories of the space. There is a greater sense of freedom perhaps than at a site which has been carefully restored and heavily signposted. Ruins offer the possibility of exploration even if what we discover is limited to a very personal engagement with a space. It is an engagement that relies heavily on the tactile, touching walls, negotiating brambles and nettles.

Different pathways amongst the vegetation leading to the different buildings

The attempt to come up with a map of the space was an attempt to move beyond this tactile experience and to produce an understanding of the layout that wouldn’t easily be transmitted by a series of photos. I also wanted to experiment with diy methods of getting the scale right.

A first attempt at a plan of the ‘vestiges’

My first attempt freestyle had to be scribbled over and redrawn, showing the inadequacies of my ability to think spatially. So I decided to note down the distances between key points as well as the dimensions of each building using my stride as a measure. The next day I redrew the map using the strides as a very rough guide. The result is neater but I feel more attached to the original draft sketch with all its scribbles. Still as I was to find out…I was still way out.

Second attempt. Still wrong.

Claire’s map, as will become apparent, is more accurate. The reference to ‘shit building’ is because she stumbled (almost) across some human excrement in one of the cells there. She has opted to denote the bull as a vortex.

CR’s map

After drawing our own plans, we came across a bird’s eye view photo of the site taken from one of the nearby hills. It is clear the original or earlier organisation of the buildings and walls was different and had undergone some significant developments to constitute the layout we encountered. For example, in one photo I’ve seen there was a small hut or ‘kiosk’ located in the centre of the space which has now completely disappeared. Today I came across an aerial view from 2000 featured in a short guide produced in 2014. The vegetation at that point has been completely cleared from around the buildings although they all seem to have trees growing inside. This is the reverse to the current state of the ruins which also suggests that the roofs have been replaced on all except one building in the inner compound. The photo makes the symmetry of the buildings much clearer. The positioning of the two cell buildings at diagonals is something that was obscured by the vegetation and the wiggly paths leading to each building. SF (& CR)

Detail from aerial view taken in 2000. From Angleviel (2014)



‘Les Vestiges du bagne de l’Ile des Pins’. Un Jour en Calédonie. Blog. 7 February 2016. Available: Last Accessed 3 August 2018.

Frédéric Angleviel, Le pays Kunié: Déportation, Bagne et Patrimoine Pénitentiaire (Marie des Ile des Pins & Éditions du GRHOC, 2014).

Sketch #4. Ile des Pins

23 July 2018

A few raggedy sketches of buildings I did as an aide memoire. These relate to the four buildings enclosed by a surrounding wall at Ouro on Ile des Pins. Building five is outside the interior wall and was most likely for guards. Buildings 1-4 seem to be sleeping quarters with two buildings composed of individual cells. Due to all the vegetation at the site, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to distinguish different structures retrospectively especially after a certain amount of time had passed. Taking some to do these also made me think more about the architecture as well as the different points at which the lines and frames of the buildings had been disrupted or eroded.