Cartes postales du bagne

Adventures in Instagram #4

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On my way home from Guyane I stopped off in Paris. Turns out I’ve been staying opposite Rue Crémieux which has recently been featured in international news as one of the most instagrammed streets in Paris due to its brightly painted houses, a stark contrast to the usual Parisian aesthetic of white/grey buildings.

Residents have requested gates be put up as the street is becoming overcrowded not just with tourists but with models and rappers using it as a backdrop for photo shoots and music videos.

In thinking more critically about instagram as a research tool especially when documenting and analysing dark heritage, this story (which on the surface has very little connection to dark tourism or heritage) provides a reminder of the tensions between local and tourist appropriations and representations of certain spaces. Instagram encapsulates the desire to clear out the messy, everyday, inhabited-ness of certain spaces in order to turn them into 2D backdrops.

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Residents find different ways to make their house fronts less photogenic

Similar examples can be found in cities like Detroit where deep recession caused by the sharp decline in manufacturing has resulted in the abandonment and ruination of vast swathes of its once glorious real estate. John Patrick Leary has written on the appropriation of such space by film crews looking for locations which offer a vision of a post-apocalyptic future. The irony of course is that this future is now.

References

Leary, John Patrick, ‘Detroitism: What does “ruin porn” tell us about the Motor City,’ Guernica, 15 January 2011. Available: https://www.guernicamag.com/leary_1_15_11/. Accessed 5 April 2019.

O’Sullivan, Feargus, ‘Their street is famous on instagram and they can’t take it anymore,’ CityLab, 5 March 2019. Available: https://www.citylab.com/life/2019/03/rue-cremieux-paris-instagram-tourists-where-to-take-pictures/584164/. Accessed 5 April 2019.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.]

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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.

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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).

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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

References

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).

Adventures in Instagram #3

I made a short return trip to French Guiana in March 2019. Although I didn’t take a lot of photos, there were things I noticed at sites that I hadn’t seen or at least noticed previously.

For example, on this visit to the Bagne des Annamites in Montsinery, I had time to continue along the trail to the creek which is a popular picnic spot. As it was half-term there were a number of families swimming and picnicking. I took a photo of the creek using my smartphone rather than my Nikon but was nevertheless careful not to be invasive of people’s privacy. The image shows people swimming but you cannot make out any clear details. Nevertheless I decided not to post the photo on instagram despite thinking how it contests dominant images of former prison sites. By which I mean images which fetishize certain aspects of architecture such as windows with bars, cells, instruments of torture and restraint and so on. The creek was integral to life in the camp and provided a form of transportation via the river network at a time when there was no road to Cayenne. One of the roles of the camp was to create a network between the other sites at Saut Tigre and near Apatou where Annamite (Vietnamese) prisoners had been sent.

But in not reproducing the photo, I am also caught up in the processes of cropping, framing and excluding which allow us to present penal heritage as empty and abandoned. This seems to me a similar practice as the production of images of the pristine, empty beach. Such images evoke notions of blank, deserted space awaiting the arrival of the tourist to project his or her neocolonial fantasies and pathologies. The enlightened amateur (or indeed professional) historian or anthropologist exploring the vestiges of the bagne is perhaps no different here to the gap year traveller looking for Leonardo DiCaprio’s beach. So instead of reproducing the image I took of families enjoying the creek, I will offer up a different yet comparable image – a postcard on sale in the gift shop on the Iles du Salut.

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I have taken care to reproduce this as an object rather than an image for copyright reasons. The postcard shows a similar bathing scene but this time at what came to be known as the ‘piscine des bagnards’ on Ile Royale, the largest island of the Iles du Salut archipelago. The postcard whose date is unknown probably dates from the end of the 1990s, early 2000s when AGAMIS (whose stamp appears on the back) took over the management of the Iles on behalf of CNES. However, the image itself seems to capture an aesthetic belonging to an earlier moment, itself located between the vintage reproductions of images taken during the operation of the penal colony and more recent photography which offers us a conventional aesthetic of ruins and nature abandoned of messy human presence. It reminds me of tourist guides dating from the 1970s and 80s during which the Iles du Salut were being reimagined as a site of leisure within a wider agenda intended to energise the department’s tourist industry precisely by moving beyond rather than celebrating its dark past.

Today the two activities appear less mutually exclusive although for some there is something inappropriate about reimagining a site of suffering as a site of pleasure. The stakes are complex not least the various discourses aimed at controlling and often excluding the use of different sites by local communities. SF

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.

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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.

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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

Postcard #4. A (postcard) history of Cayenne

Today while looking for a post box that wasn’t defunct I walked past the town hall in Cayenne. There are often outdoor exhibitions attached to the railings which surround the mairie. Featured currently is a short exhibition of historic images representing Cayenne. Most of these are postcards and the exhibition brings together multiple archives and collections including the Archives Départementales, the Société des Amis des Archives et de l’Histoire de Guyane (SAAHG) and the Musée des Cultures Guyanais.

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This mini-exhibition made me realise two (fairly obvious) things about the postcard. First, that its role as visual marker of history cannot be underestimated especially in places like French Guiana where access to photographic equipment and film was more restricted than in mainland Europe during the early days of photography. And second that there are two, if not three, histories being presented on the railings – the history of the town, Cayenne, the history of its representation to the world beyond and, finally, the history of each postcard as it travelled from sender to recipient to collector and ultimately to the archives and museums back in French Guiana.

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There is also something interesting visually about presenting enlarged images of the town just minutes from the actual sites featured. You only need to turn the corner or walk another block and you are confronted with an updated view of the postcard image that you’ve just seen. SF

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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.

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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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