Cartes postales du bagne

Approaching things differently (En route to the islands)

Aerial views of Con Dao including turboprop propeller

Over the past month I have returned to two islands that once were part of France’s overseas penal colonies. The first Con Dao or Poulo-Condore located 230km off the mainland of Vietnam was used over a 100 year period for both political and common law prisoners. It was subsequently used by the Southern Vietnamese and Americans during the American war.

Con Dao from the air

The second island is Ile des Pins (Kunié) located about 70 miles from Noumea, New Caledonia. This was where many of the deported communards ended up.

Ile des Pins

Last year I took turboprop flights to both islands. However, this time, completely by chance, it worked out better to travel by boat. Aside from the somewhat hairy take offs and landings you get with a turboprop, I was excited to travel by boat as I thought it might offer a different visual encounter, one that might be closer to how the islands appeared to those exiled there. Of course it was incredibly naive to think that travelling by high speed catamaran in the company of (at least in the case of Con Dao) hundreds of other passengers bore any resemblance to the slow boat that took 12 hours from Cap Saint Jacques. 

The Con Dao Express departing from Vung Tau
En route to Con Dao on deck of the catamaran

Despite all this, the experience of arriving on Ile des Pins by ferry did give me some pause for reflection. The first buildings you see on shore are the shells of former guards quarters and the restored house once assigned to the médecin du bagne. Granted you have to go further inland to find the main remaining vestiges but arriving this way rather than by plane, you get an immediate sense of the island’s penal history.

Vestiges of the bagne near to the jetty on Ile des Pins

The geography of a place, even an island, becomes abstracted when arriving by plane. At least that’s how it seems to me. The high speed catamarans in many ways resemble airplanes with their seat configurations and passport checks but they still embody a type of slow passage evoked by Marguerite Durasin L’Amant (The Lover):

“For centuries, because of the ships, journeys were longer and more tragic than they are today. A voyage covered its distance in a natural span of time. People were used to those slow human speeds on both land and sea, to those delays, those waitings on the wind or fair weather, to those expectations of shipwreck, sun, and death. The liners the little white girl knew were among the last mailboats in the world. It was while she was young that the first airlines were started, which were gradually to deprive mankind of journeys across the sea.”

View of vestiges and the doctor’s house from the jetty on Ile des Pins

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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

 

References

‘Les Vestiges du bagne de l’Ile des Pins’. Un Jour en Calédonie. Blog. 7 February 2016. Available: https://www.unjourencaledonie.com/vestiges-bagne-ile-des-pins/. 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.

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The Itinéraire Bagne

July 2018

One of the major initiatives that inspired the project’s focus around the potential for multisite penal heritage is the ‘Itinéraire Bagne’ in the South Province of New Caledonia. The itineraire was inaugurated in 2013 and consists of a series of panels found through Nouville [Île Nou], Nouméa, Île des Pins, Bourail and Fort Teremba. The first panel was inaugurated during the Nuit des Musées at the former Boulangerie [bakery] on Île Nou on 24 May 2013. According to local news source, Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes, the inauguration attracted over 500 visitors to the site, a number previously unheard of and demonstrative of an emerging interest in a past that was once heavily obscured. The ‘Itinéraire’ was put together by the Association Témoignage d’un Passé and was supported by the Province Sud and the Inspecteur général des musées de France.

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The former boulangerie and proposed site for the Musée du Bagne. Photograph by Claire Reddleman

Unfortunately, now 2018, the museum at the boulangerie is yet to open to due ongoing problems with financing. The main issue is the need to create a visitor’s centre separate from the historic building which can accommodate the various needs of visitors. However, this doesn’t mean that visits to the site have been prevented but take the form of fortnightly guided walking tours around the area which finish up in the boulangerie.

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Panels include a colour-coded list of all sites around the South Province. Photograph by Claire Reddleman

The panels themselves are easy to spot and each one has been painstakingly put together, compiling historic images and maps with detailed texts which are also usually translated into English. As we have been taking a keen interest in the shifting infrastructure of the sites over the entire period of their operation, the photos and maps were of great interest and also helped us orient ourselves especially on Île des Pins.

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Kuto Bay, Ile des Pins. Photograph by Claire Reddleman

There was clearly also an earlier plan for audioguides which would work by calling a telephone number. Due to no cell phone coverage during our stay, we didn’t have the chance to test these for ourselves but were told these were no longer in operation. There are no doubt future opportunities to develop smart phone apps which could offer further information. This may be less effective somewhere with very limited 3G coverage such as Île des Pins.

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Panel indicating the ‘Site historique de l’Ile Nou’ next to the Université de Nouvelle Calédonie. Photograph by Claire Reddleman

The panels are just a snapshot of life during the operation of the bagne and there are numerous sites across the South Province that aren’t included or which due to the temporary nature of camps and buildings as well as redevelopments have left few traces to discover. Nevertheless, they provide a starting point for appreciating how embedded the history of the bagne is in the wider infrastructure and architecture of New Caledonia. Despite being collectively named the ‘Itinéraire Bagne’, there is no set path or itinerary proposed or prescribed – this seems more in keeping with Patrick Chamoiseau’s account of the traces-mémoires du bagne in French Guiana. The traces are everywhere and we stumble across them often by chance, often missing them when we are looking purposively. We cannot hope to fully grasp the space or the lives as they were. To write and to follow an ‘itinéraire du bagne’ could thus be read as an utopian, failed or impossible project but one that people in recent years have been committed to trying out. SF

Further resources

You can visit the Association Témoignage d’un Passé’s website here:
https://atupnc.blogspot.com/p/musee-du-bagne.html
They organise regular guided tours and other events which are usually posted on their site as well as on their facebook page.

A recent article entitled on the multiple sites associated with the bagne in New Caledonia entitled ‘Transportation et déportation en Nouvelle-Calédonie’ and written by François Goven, Louis-José Barbançon and Louis Lagarge was published this year in Monumental: Revue scientifique et technique des monuments historiques as part of their issue on ‘Le Patrimoine de l’enfermement’. More information on the issue can be obtained here.