Cartes postales du bagne

site visit #10. Camp de la Forestière

27 June 2018

After lunch in Apatou, we picked up another teacher yielding a machete and headed to Camp de la Forestière. This is one of the sites known as the ‘bagne des Annamites’ where Vietnamese political prisoners were sent. No one goes to the forest in French Guiana without a machete to clear the way. Unlike the vestiges at Montsinery-Tonnegrande, the site is not signposted. We turned off too early – the camp is located next to a local cemetery. A young man on a motorcycle dissuaded us from going to have a look. It turned out they were preparing the site for a burial. We later heard drums playing as part of the process.

When you go in search of ruins in the forest in French Guiana, you never know what condition you will find them in. Sometimes a site has been recently cleared but often the foliage has returned. During the wet season there can be deep puddles to negotiate as well. Frequently there is no set path and so the encounter each time and sense of time, space and light is unique. Last year when I visited the site, we took one route which meant we completely missed the memorial plaque erected in 2011 by Vietnamese visitors. I also missed the staircase which gives an impression of the enormity of the buildings in the camp. The tall brick pillars that define the site appear as if from nowhere in the middle of the forest. Almost like a mirage. I find the ruins here perhaps the most striking of all the sites we have visited in French Guiana. The secondary forest that has returned since the camp was abandoned is visibly different from elsewhere. It seems denser and darker. More foreboding.

I sent a picture of the plaque to some colleagues in Vietnam. As the image was of fairly poor quality and the plaque has become tarnished, I’ll reproduce the inscription (it is given in French, English and Vietnamese) here:

“Vive le Vietnam
Les gens du Vietnam sont éternellement reconnaissants pour les héros anonymes luttant pour l’Indépendance du Patrie, exilés à perpétuité et ayant perdu âme et corps en cette terre, après le soulèvement général de la Révolte à Yên-Báy, le 10 Février 1930, sous la directions du Parti Nationaliste du Viet Nam,”

site visit #9. Collège d’Apatou

This week I was invited to talk to teachers at the high school in Apatou. Apatou is located about 45 minutes drive from Saint Laurent du Maroni or a couple of hours down the river by pirogue. The road to Apatou was only completed about ten years ago and the new school opened in 2015. The buildings are amazing and the views of the surrounding forest seemed impressive even after 3 weeks amongst the foliage in French Guiana. The students had already finished for the summer so the place was perhaps a bit quieter than usual.

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I spoke to teachers from French, English, History and Geography about the global phenomenon of penal heritage. Everyone was keen to talk about the wider culture of incarceration and there was some great discussion. They also told me about students had done at the Camp de la Forestière, further up the river. Camp de la Forestière is one of the camps where Vietnamese political prisoners were sent. We also talked about developing future teaching material around the theme of the bagne and setting up links with schools in Vietnam. I’m hoping to spend at least a few days back in Apatou when I come back to French Guiana next spring.

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