Cartes postales du bagne

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 #6. Maison d’arrêt

14 June 2018
rue François Arago, Cayenne

Last year I stayed in Cayenne and happened to come past the former maison d’arrêt while the new murals were being painted. The old prison which existed alongside the A.P. but operated separately. It was built in 1821 and so pre-dates the Administration Pénitentiaire. A new larger prison opened in Remire-Montjoly in 1998 but the old Maison d’Arrêt continued to operate for a while afterwards. The renovation project is part of an apprenticeship scheme for under 25s and there’s a short article is France-Guyane available here.

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The maison d’arrêt is an interesting bit of standalone penal heritage in a town that had erased most traces of its history within the penal colony. This isn’t to say it did not interact with the bagne as bagnards released from imprisonment but obliged to stay in French Guiana as part of the doublage system often ended up there after committing various crimes (often related to the abject poverty they experienced since the A.P. no longer bore any responsibility towards them). It is thus important as part of the overlapping parallel and extended history of incarceration in French Guiana. The prison at Rémire-Montjoly has been subjected to severe criticism for its overcrowding and violence. In 2016, the Observatoire International des Prisons (OIP) wrote a scathing report on the prison, characterising it in terms of ‘un climat de violence permanent’. Plans for a new prison at Saint Laurent du Maroni are currently underway. Where there are intense debates in both SLM and Cayenne around the project for the mine d’or, there seems to be little to no discussion about the construction of a new prison. I cannot help but see a link between the two projects. I hope to write more on this later.

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