Cartes postales du bagne

site visit #14. musée de Nouvelle Calédonie

Musée de Nouvelle Calédonie, Nouméa
19 July 2018

There are a number of museums located in Nouméa which provide a wider history of the territory. We decided to start with the Musée de Nouvelle Calédonie as it provides a wider perspective on the history and geography of the territory as well as the surrounding Pacific regions. The ground floor is dedicated to Kanak objects and their more recent representation by local artists. These representations are defined in terms of a ‘parcours iconographique’ or ‘picture path’.

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The museum claims to have the second largest collection of Kanak objects after the Musée Quai Branly in Paris. This seems at once wrong but also perhaps inevitable. It also raises the question of who and what a museum is for and what different groups of visitors can learn and appreciate from seeing objects in glass cases. One of the main criticisms toward the Musée Quai Branly is its often apparently thoughtless juxtaposition of objects from different periods and regions with different uses or symbolism based on the similarity of their shapes or aesthetic. (See, for example, Edward Rothstein’s critique in The New York Times)

The space in the Musée de Nouvelle Calédonie avoids this perhaps carnivalesque approach and time is taken to carefully explain different objects and their function. Upstairs the space is given over to objects from nearby regions including Australia, Melanesia, Polynesia, Micronesia, allowing for some comparison but without reducing this to cacophony.

There are a few references to the bagne made in the museum and these within the context of a small corner displaying interactions of the Kanak population with the colonial administration including most notably the Kanak revolt of 1878. A commemorative cane which was given to Edmond Hayes, Director of the Pénitencier Agricole.


Perhaps the most important item related to the bagne is a statue of a Kanak man carved by a bagnard on Île des Pins. The label reads:

‘La sculpture dite «en mie de pain » présentée ici comporte l’inscription «fait au pénitencier de l’Ile des Pins en 1898».
Le nom de l’homme qui l’a créée, en 1898, reste inconnu mais l’on sait qu’il avait fabriqué deux figures similaires, l’une d’un homme, l’autre d’une femme. Leur propriétaire, un surveillant militaire de l’administration pénitencière à qui ces statuettes ont été données, a tenu à les transmettre à chacune de ses deux filles. Cette statuette a été achetée en 2008 à l’un des arrières petit fils de cet homme.’


Another item I came across was a painting of a bagnard signed J. Peres. The signage laments that the artwork which was donated sometime in the 1970s or 1980s was not adequately catalogued. It also suggests the bagnard is a forçat rather than a political deportee because he is clean shaven. SF


Map #3. The two hemispheres

Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney
15 July 2018

As with other penal heritage sites especially those related to convict transportation and the role of convict labour in colonial development, Hyde Park Barracks makes extensive use of maps throughout its exhibition. Notably there are huge floor maps on the ground floor which work to explain how present day Sydney evolved from its earlier function within the penal colony. This is a similar approach to the one taken at the Camp de la Transportation in Saint Laurent du Maroni with its ‘La Ville en chantier’ exhibition. The intention here is, to some extent, to validate convict labour in the making of the contemporary town and its infrastructure. The use of floor maps is also interesting in that they demand visitors to literal ‘walk over’ the re-presented history of the space Borges-style.

Huge floor map with key at Hyde Park Barracks

But the map that I found most striking at the Barracks was a large re-presentation of a map made in 1800 depicting the ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ Hemispheres. The map is used to mark the different European uses of convict transportation at various locations. This is interesting because it is possible to see French penal transportation in relation to other European colonial powers. Of course the main purpose is to emphasize the extent of transportation to Australia.

Western Hemisphere featuring references to transportation to French Guiana and New Caledonia

Site visit #7. Saint Laurent du Maroni Pt1

Part 1. A la recherche des vestiges…

Journée nationale de l’archéologie
Centre d’Interprétation Architecture et Patrimoine (CIAP)
Camp de la Transportation, Saint Laurent du Maroni, 15 June 2018

This will be the first of several posts on Saint Laurent du Maroni. Although the former Camp de la Transportation is home to a museum, guided tours of the quartier de la réclusion as well as CIAP, the town’s architecture and infrastructure continues to bear the marks of the bagne and its history. Throughout the town there are public and private buildings that once former the administrative quartier. Unlike Cayenne the town did not exist before the arrival of the AP in 1858. It maintained its role as bagne after the penal operation in Cayenne had started to wind down. In this respect SLM is the prison town par excellence. Although today its cultural heritage draws on the different populations in the area as well as the biodiversity of its natural heritage most notably that resulting from its location on the Maroni river on the border with Suriname (there are numerous creeks and waterfalls to visit) the bagne is nevertheless a central narrative in the town’s past and present.

Friday 15th June was Journée nationale de l’archéologie. At CIAP, Didier Rigal from Inrap presented findings from the excavations carried out at Saint Maurice site of the former sucrerie run by the Administration Pénitentiaire as part of its activities. The presentation provided some fascinating insights into the complex stakes around bagne heritage in and around Saint Laurent du Maroni. The site, located on the outskirts of Saint Laurent du Maroni, was first discovered in 2016 by Arnauld Heuret. What was most surprising, perhaps, was how intact one of the former buildings, the caserne des surveillants [guards quarters] was. Despite how widespread the A.P.’s operation was across French Guiana, today there are very few sites where the ruins of the bagne evoke the original architectural structures. Despite time pressures, the site had been earmarked for the construction of a new centre commercial, Inrap were able to conduct a series of excavations as well as using historical and contemporary photographs and maps to produce a 3D rendering of the caserne. Due to the fragile and often close-knit structures of former sites belonging to the bagne as well as the proliferation of secondary forest, the excavations of a former site associated with the bagne in French Guiana were unique in their activity and scope.

Journée nationale de l’archéologie. Photo by Claire Reddleman

Although the site is on the edge of a housing estate and next to the commercial distillerie, Rhums Saint Maurice, currently the only rum distillery in French Guiana, it is nevertheless difficult to spot without knowing what to look for. In summer 2017, I visited the site shortly after some of the archaeological work had been completed. The site was already covered in a pervasive grass and the caserne couldn’t be seen from the road. Consequently, public interest has been limited despite the potential to incorporate the vestiges into the project for the shopping centre. One suggestion I’ve heard was that it could have formed the basis for a museum of rum and tafia. The establishment of distilleries was one of the various ways the A.P. attempted to make the bagne pay for itself as well as to provide work for the libérés, convicts who had completed their sentences but who were obliged to remain in French Guiana as part of the doublage system. According to Rigal, the distillerie and the concessions (small plots of land) around the site had limited success.

The shopping centre is now under construction and the developers decided not to keep the vestiges as part of the site. From a heritage perspective this seems to be something of a tragedy. But this poses the question: do all historic buildings and sites possess intrinsic value as heritage? Given the failure of the A.P. to produce a sustainable economy which did not revolve around the maintenance of bagnards and administrators, the erasure of one site of such failed industry and development might seem more appropriate, especially for those currently living in and around Saint Maurice in need of the facilities proposed by the centre commercial development. SF

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.


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.


sketches 3.

Bagne des Annamites, Montsinéry-Tonnegrande
9 June 2018

bagne des annamites sketch map
Bagne des Annamites

Up until now the plans I have drawn have tended to focus on the organisation of a museum space as viewed from within the space itself. This is a line drawing I did based on a tourist map of the Bagne des Annamites at Montsinéry-Tonnegrande. It isn’t annotated as I drew it before visiting the site and decided to leave it as it was. In French Guiana the secondary forest is prolific and routes and trails can quickly become overgrown or inaccessible due to heavy rainfall. It had been raining heavily the day before we went to the site so I didn’t know what to expect although existing blog posts and comments suggested the site was easily accessible and well-signed. Nevertheless I copied the paths in case we did get lost and couldn’t rely on GPS coverage. This turned out to be completely unnecessary. The paths around the site were well marked and there were mini maps indicating the specific location on the various signage around the ruins. Still, the important skill of using manual maps and moreover other methods of finding one’s way should not be underestimated especially in French Guiana. SF

Site Visit #3. Bagne des Annamites

Bagne des Annamites, Montsinéry-Tonnegrande
9 June 2018

I made it to Cayenne last Wednesday having spent the previous week in Ho Chi Minh City. I flew to Paris via Shanghai and then on to Cayenne. Despite the disorientation of so many (largely sleepless) long haul flights and time zones not to mention currencies (a bottle of Evian costs too much whichever airport you fly from), it occurs to me that this is nothing compared to the transportation of Vietnamese political prisoners from Saigon (and sometimes Poulo-Condore or Con Son, the horrific island prison that operated under French colonial rule of Indochine and where more than 20,000 Vietnamese died). During the 1930s two camps were set up to accommodate the Vietnamese prisoners, the Bagne des Annamites near the Crique Anguille and the Camp Forestière near Apatou. Although the Vietnamese were convicted as political prisoners, a series of manoeuvres were undertaken in order to sentence them to the forced labour from which political prisoners were usually exempt. The Tiralleurs Sénégalais (a French colonial infantry corps drafted predominantly from West Africa) were drafted to guard the camp based on a European colonial mentality that assumed the different races and populations subjected to colonial rule would be incapable of solidarity or shared understanding.

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Entrance to the Bagne des Annamites. Photo: Claire Reddleman

Besides the sites commonly associated with the bagne in French Guiana, namely the Îles du Salut and the Camp de la Transportation at Saint Laurent du Maroni, the ruins of the Bagne des Annamites at Montsinéry-Tonnegrande play an important role in the, until very recently, largely unexamined memory of France’s use of the penal colony to incarcerate and displace members of its colonies and not just criminals and political subversives from mainland France. In recent years the site as well as the Camp de la Forestière have been visited by delegations from Vietnam following the discovery of the existence of the camps by Vietnamese journalist Danh Đức’ when he visited French Guiana in 2008 in order to report on the launch of the Vinasat-1 satellite at the Centre Spatial Guyanais (for more on this see Lorraine M. Paterson’s post on the Carceral Archipelago blog)

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Track remains. Bagne des Annamites. Photo: Claire Reddleman

For those living in Cayenne, the site is perhaps better known and more easily accessed than the Îles du Salut which requires a full day to visit via Kourou and a expensive catamaran trip. The Bagne des Annamites is about 40 minutes drive from Cayenne. There is a small car park at the entrance to the trail leading to the ruins. The path is well-maintained even after heavy rain and there are a series of signs providing both maps of the area and detailed histories of the camp, reproducing both historical documents and images. After about 30 minutes walk from the car park you arrive at an intersection in the forest marked by remains of the railway track set up for a small manually operated wagon which would have carried materials to different parts of the camp and to and from the creek which, before the construction of the road, was the only way to access the camp. The trail is also used by families walking their dogs or talking their children to the picnic area down by the creek. To see the ruins of the bagne, there are three small circular trails leading to the quartier administratif, the quartier des condamnés and the quartier des tiralleurs sénégalais.

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toilettes du bagne. photo: Claire Reddleman

Where the bagne in French Guiana is famous for its red bricks marked A.P., many of the ruins here consist of stone. Besides, remains of the kitchen in the quartier des tiralleurs sénégalais, the predominant ruin found at all three sites was the stone toilet complete with foot rests. We must have encountered 5 or 6 of these. However, the most significant buildings left intact were the individual prison cells where bagnards were placed in solitary confinement as punishment. The prison within a prison. Like the cells found on Île Saint Joseph used for the same purpose, these featured metals bars instead of a ceiling (although a placard informs visitors that there was a roof over these so bagnards weren’t exposed directly to the elements). Guards could walk along the top of the cells and view those inside from above ensure a constant, invasive surveillance. The cells are tiny and it seemed impossible that a person could fully lie down in them. They reminded me, unsurprisingly of the tiger cages on display at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, reconstructions based on those designed and used by the French on Con Son Island.

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Solitary confinement cells, Bagne des Annamites. Photo: Claire Reddleman

On my last visit to Cayenne, I didn’t get the chance to visit the Bagne des Annamites. Different people talked briefly to me about the site. Interestingly, one person I spoke to dismissed it as disappointing. He told me, laughing, that the most memorable thing about it was encountering the ‘chiottes du directeur’. Yet another person told me that he found the site more moving than the Îles du Salut precisely because of the solitary confinement cells. I think both these pronouncements are telling. If the ruins of the dungeon or prison are what remains when a castle or city are destroyed, then what remains of the remains of the prison? Here, the answer is clear: the toilet and the solitary confinement cells – the prison within the prison. What can we take from this legacy? What should we take? SF

Dedebant, Christèle and Céline Frémaux, Le Bagne des Annamites: Montsinéry-Tonnegrande (Guyane: Le Service de l’Inventaire général du patrimoine culturel de la Région Guyane. 2012).

Paterson, Lorraine M., ‘Of Satellites and Sentiment: The Forgotten Vietnamese Prisoners of French Guiana’, Carceral Archipelago, 22 September 2017. Available: Last accessed 11 June 2018.

Postcard #3. A short history of the postcard

As subsequent posts will explore, my understanding of the postcard as philosophical trope for thinking about incarceration and its aftermath draws heavily on Jacques Derrida’s La Carte postale: De Socrates à Freud et au-delà. In the extended preface ‘ENVOIS’, described as the preface to the book he hasn’t written, Derrida refers on various occasions to the history and technology of the postal system. In his evocations of the fax machine, the computer and the telephone, Derrida posits the postcard and the post, more generally, as an obsolete form of communication. Yet it is one he cannot abandon.

The history of the postcard in France and elsewhere is useful for understanding this ongoing attachment to its format. Ironically, perhaps, the early history of the postcard in France seems, at least retrospectively, to involve a failure by the French government and its postal service to appreciate that the success of the postcard as a mode of communication lies in the simplicity of its format. Its basic form and fiscal value underwent multiple, often unnecessarily complicated changes during the 1870s and 1880s with the hybrid ‘carte-lettre’ being introduced in 1886.

The first printed and patented postcard was produced in the United States in 1860. The first official European use of the ‘postcard’ as a form of correspondence took place in Austria in 1869 and the first ‘souvenir’ postcard is said to have been produced there. According to Georges Brunel in his history of the French postal system written at the end of the 18th century, during the first month 500,000 postcards were sold in Austria. While Brunel suggests that there was opposition from the French Minister of Finance, France followed suit in 1872 with the creation of their first postcard which went on sale in January 1873. However, the use of cards to send correspondence at regular postal rates seems to have occurred much earlier. The earliest known example is the picture card Theodore Hook sent to himself in London in 1840. The first known example of a postcard with a printed image dates from 1870 and was created by Léon Besnardeau at Camp Conlie, a training camp based in France during the Franco-Prussian war. Postcard collectors and historians seem to debate whether the card produced by Besnardeau really constitutes a ‘postcard’ since there was no space for stamps and it is unlikely it was ever sent without being first placed in an envelope thus defeating the purpose of the postcard as we have come to appreciate it. Derrida also talks of sending his postcards in envelopes, an open acknowledgement perhaps that he is cheating here. The most famous early picture and souvenir postcards were the 300,000 copies of ‘La Libonais’, a postcard (in 5 variations) featuring an lithographic image of the Eiffel Tower produced for the 1889 Exposition Universelle.

The first official French postcards were not franked but consisted of an ornate border, designated space on the right hand side for two 5 centimes stamps with the centre of the card reserved for the recipient’s address. The reverse was reserved for the message.


In 1875 the printing of postcards was opened up to general industry with the following conditions. The postcards had to have dimensions of 12cm x 8cm and weigh between 2 and 5 grams. In 1878, the postcard acquired its own fiscal value. Many of the previous indications on the front of the card disappeared so that it just read:


Ce côté est exclusivement réservé à l’adresse.

Two lines were given for the writing of the address and the rest of the front was left blank.

During the early 1890s, the card on which the postcards were printed underwent a series of tint changes: lilac, ochre and pale green. Brunel laments the awfulness of the lilac tint but also points out the failure of the green postcards, produced using a paste that made writing on the cards very difficult.

In 1879, postcards with a ‘paid response’ or ‘cartes-réponses’ were introduced by the French postal system (Union postale). Brunel indicates that these were effectively two cards with one left blank by the sender. Brunel points to the paradox whereby the ‘cartes-réponses’ were valid across the Union postale whereas stamps were only valid in the country from which they were sent.

In subsequent posts, I will look briefly at the development of the postal service in French Guiana as well as the production of postcards within the space of the penal colony.


Brunel, Georges, Le Timbre-poste francais. Étude historique et anecdotique de la Poste et du timbres en France et dans ces Colonies francaises (Paris: Librairie Ch. Delgrave, 1896).

Cartolis. Conservateur Régional de la Carte Postale, ‘Histoire de la carte postale’, Accessed 7 June 2018.

Derrida, Jacques, La Carte postale: De Socrates à Freud et au-delà (Paris: Flammarion, 1980).