Cartes postales du bagne

Object of the game vs. game as object

Over the past month, the Postcards from the bagne team has been discussing different approaches to creating a boardgame as a way of engaging different audiences and telling alternative stories relating to the bagne that are often overlooked in favour of those which privilege a select few (see for example, Ayshka’s post on boardgames and agonistic memory). Within the wider context of the project, this is not simply about engaging more people in the general history of the penal colony but also to explore relationships between different sites relating to the bagne and the ongoing interconnectedness of these sites today. A boardgame seems to offer up the potential to emphasize these links both visually and textually.

One of the things which most appeals about creating a boardgame is its materiality – the opportunity to design counters, dice, cards, the board and so on using different materials. This is, of course, part of the wider appeal of boardgames and the reason they have over the past decade enjoyed a resurgence in popularity with adult gamers. However, if their materiality is part of what makes them a useful pedagogical tool (as witnessed in particular at museums in New Caledonia), designing a game not only as a means of engaging a wider audience with research but, potentially, as a research tool in itself raises questions about exclusivity and accessibility.

Somewhat creepy chess game intended to emphasize the complex political struggles in Nouméa at the end of the 19th Century. Musée de la ville de Nouméa.

Like the video game industry, the boardgames industry markets itself on exclusivity and novelty. New games as well as extension packs can be prohibitively expensive to casual players and a testament to the commitment of serious gamers. One of the things we have been discussing is how to appeal to different audiences all the way up to serious adult gamers via the combination of complex narratives and challenging game play. At the same time, we recognise the scope to explore the boardgame as a research methodology which suggests trying different formats and approaches. Of key importance here is the question of accessibility and how to reconcile this with the materiality of the boardgame which can be expensive and difficult to distribute? Another option is to design a ‘print and play’ game similar to other projects (see for example the Counter-Cartographies Collective project on counter-mapping Queen Mary) produced in and around the space of the university. A ‘print and play’ game has potential to be circulated widely and perhaps reach those less interested in the game as object in itself. At the same time, it places limitations on the type and amount of text and graphics that can be used. There are reasons why this can be both useful and restricting, something we shall hopefully reflect on in future posts.

Site visit #19 Musée Maritime, Nouméa

The maritime museum in Noumea is one of my favourite museums in New Caledonia. This is probably largely due to its layout comprised of lots of small alcoves as well as to its huge collection of objects many of which have been salvaged from shipwrecks. It also interweaves the practical history of technologies such as archaeology and sonography into the stories it tells without making this over-reflexive or confusing.

But another reason I like this museum is due to the way it embeds the story of the penal colony into the wider maritime history and moreover a colonial history of forced and indentured migrant labour. Convict labour is presented alongside other groups brought to New Caledonia from Indochina, Japan, Indonesia, Reunion and elsewhere to carry out the worst forms of agricultural labour as well as in the nickel mines. Where other museums focus in on individual convicts, the display here emphasizes the huge convoys of ‘human flesh’ brought to New Caledonia from the mid-1900s onwards.

Sending shiploads of workers. Display about the different forms of forced and contractual labour brought to New Caledonia

Located almost adjacent to the section on imported labour is a section which tells the tragic, unresolved story of La Monique. The ship carrying 126 passengers disappeared without a trace in August 1953 after leaving the island of Maré for Nouméa. What is known is that the boat was dangerously overloaded with both goods and passengers. The boat was operated by the Société des Iles Loyauté (SIL) but what is worth noting is that the largest stakeholder in SIL also happened to be one of the wealthiest and most politically powerful companies in New Caledonia at the time, La Maison Ballande. There is evidence that the company tried to interfere with official enquiries into the ship’s disappearance and downplay any accusations of negligence. A short documentary screened in the museum emphasizes the huge impact of those lost to communities in New Caledonia especially on Lifou and Maré. What the tragedy and its lack of resolution also call to mind within the space of the museum is the wider impact of colonialism on communities elsewhere via the displacement and disappearance of different populations through transportation and indentured labour. Without taking anything away from the adventure of seafaring, the artisanal craft of shipbuilding or the increasingly refined technologies of underwater exploration and salvage, the museum emphasizes the distinction between those who chose (and still choose) to risk everything for the call of the ocean and those upon whom these risks were imposed unwillingly or unknowingly out of greed. SF

Writing in transit

Views of New Caledonia taken from the passenger seat

In 2011-12 I lived for a short time between Loughborough junction and Camberwell. I would take the bus from Camberwell to where I worked in New Cross. Sitting upstairs on the bus I found that drafting book reviews using the notes app on my phone the best use of bus-time. Better than reading which made me feel slightly nauseous. I cannot fully explain it but writing on the notes app seemed the easiest way to get my thoughts down and organise my ideas into a reasonably coherent narrative. 

The same does not apply to other types of writing. I’ve never been able to apply the same method to journal articles or book chapters. I think this mode of writing really only works for short pieces (500-1000 words) that involve a certain amount of reflection and are not constrained by the need to look up references incessantly, impose rigid structures or count words. With that in mind I have come to find that writing blog posts also comes easiest using the notes app while in transit. This was my experience last summer when Claire and I would visit various sites especially in French Guiana with Claire driving. We would often chat on our journeys but sometimes Claire liked to listen to podcasts and I would use the time to write up some thoughts about the sites we had just seen.

I hadn’t really thought about it much (except to lament not doing it more) until I recently read an article by Stacey Pigg about mobile writing habits. Pigg’s focus was on how students write and study using laptops in specific yet transitory places such as cafes or shared workspaces. What the article made me realise about my own writing practices was that writing in the car or in transit is perhaps less about being productive during otherwise dead time where use of a laptop or pen and paper is too fiddly and more about establishing certain of writing habits. Pigg refers to the rituals and habits that students she interviewed talked about such as the things they needed to do to settle down into work having arrived at a cafe or work space. This is perhaps why it takes me a while to pick this style of writing up again, especially if I am not in transit, despite knowing it is most effective for blogging. At the same time I am aware that blogging also comes easiest as relatively spontaneous reflection (it can always be tidied up before it goes live) immediately after a site visit. There is always the risk that I might later disagree with what I have written but this is not unique to blogging. I disagree with a lot of what I once thought and said and wrote. 

So the question I am left with is how do I/we adapt these writing rituals when not only in transit but when the ability to establish rituals and habits is rendered difficult as a result of different factors – modes of transport, travelling companions (especially family), irregular routines and the frequent sense of disorientation that comes with travel and which cannot always be channelled into literary or philosophical prose? SF


Pigg, Stacey, ‘Emplacing Mobile Composing Habits: A Study of Academic Writing in Networked Social Spaces,’ College Composition and Communication, Vol. 66, No. 2, SPECIAL ISSUE: Locations of Writing (December 2014), pp. 250-275.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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)

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



‘Les Vestiges du bagne de l’Ile des Pins’. Un Jour en Calédonie. Blog. 7 February 2016. Available: 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.




Le patrimoine ‘gris’

Notes towards a definition of (French) penal heritage
July 2018

Earlier this year, Monumental: Revue Scientifique et technique des monuments historique, dedicated an issue to ‘le patrimoine de l’enfermement’. This is significant as there has until very recently been a reluctance in France to commemorate sites of incarceration and, more notably, of detention and internment that has lagged behind other European initiatives to acknowledge these sites and the role they have played in different histories. The review is an excellent resource and includes a plethora of short articles by experts on the state of play at various sites in both mainland France and its overseas departments. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the extensive work that has been done and is ongoing in both French Guiana and New Caledonia together with the frustrations experienced by those committed to the memoire du bagne is well-documented within the publication.

While I was, of course, interested to see how the patrimoine du bagne was presented within the ideological framework of the issue published by the Centre National des Monuments, my attention was equally drawn to an introductory interview with radical prison historian, Philippe Artières, who has done some excellent work in presenting histories of incarceration that contest existing representations. Notable here is his edited collection of images and documents from the Nancy prison riots of 1972.

In the interview given for the issue of Monumental, Artières makes some important statements around the importance and relevance of prison heritage. One of the things he suggests is that:

‘Entre le patrimoine doré et le patrimoine industriel, il y a un patrimoine gris qui doit faire l’objet d’une attention et d’un questionnement.’

This suggestion resonates with the recent work by others, such as Charles Forsdick (2018), in identifying the absence of sites of incarceration from Pierre Nora’s epic Lieux de mémoire project. At the same time, the idea of penal heritage as constituting ‘un patrimoine gris’ is also worth some closer attention.

Taken in its material sense, ‘gris’ makes direct reference to the grey stone and later concrete structures that define most prison architecture. It also evokes a form of architecture that inhabits a grey zone since it suggests both the quotidian banality of the prison experience for many as well as the moral paradoxes of a form of punishment that is often seen as being all at once too cruel, too gentle, too generalized, too expensive and too ineffectual. Former sites of incarceration and internment can be presented in terms of a rupture with the past – examples of processes of decareration or former political regimes that have since been dismantled. But they also invite us to make connections with present systems and their continued use of practices such as solitary confinement and physical restraint. Indeed, Artières goes on to argue that the value of prison heritage lies as much in the role of the sites as producing knowledge [savoir] about those being held as it does in presenting us with a history of bodily constraint. This is of course a direct reference to the stakes of Michel Foucault’s Surveiller et punir but which goes unacknowledged. Interestingly, however, it perhaps does more to make a case for a return to Foucault’s work on institutional power than much recent scholarship on prison tourism and heritage which offers a lacklustre, uncritical reading of Foucault which does little to advance his scholarship or develop an adequate conceptual framework for thinking about the role of the prison museum in contemporary society.

Artière’s concludes his interview by insisting that the prison must be considered as part of France’s (but, I imagine, this also applies globally) “Grande Histoire” rather than being considered as an exceptional, marginal history. In the context of his earlier comments this is significant because it implies he considers penal heritage as having the potential to engage visitors in more general debates around the persistence and future of prison as a response to illegal activity. The idea that incarceration cannot be seen as separate to the wider socioeconomic structures defining the history of capitalism and colonialism seems incredibly important and urgent. At the same time, I cannot help but notice how this idea of “Grande Histoire” seems at odds with other attempts to explore the impact of incarceration outside of the grand narratives of its inception and even the stories of criminal geniuses, political heroes and falsely accused yet resourceful escapees that frame most historic sites of incarceration. It is this framing that Chamoiseau contests in his evocation of the traces-mémoires in relation to the ruins of the bagne on the Îles du Salut and the Camp de la Transportation at Saint Laurent du Maroni. More and ongoing work is needed, perhaps, to bring these positions, that of Artières and of Chamoiseau, together in such a way that not only provides a richer retelling of the history of prison and penal colonies but a retelling that is predicated on a future which ceases to take imprisonment as a given.

Beyond ‘grey’
Pursuing the notion of ‘patrimoine gris’, I decided to find out if the term had any purchase beyond Artières’ use of the expression. Some cursory googling suggested that it is not an established term but I did find a reference to ‘tourisme gris’ in a 2011 article “Le patrimoine, c’est un truc pour les vieux…” by André Suchet et Michel Raspaud. Suchet and Raspaud translate ‘tourism gris’ directly from the English ‘grey tourism’ referring to the growing senior citizen market for tourism organised around museums and heritage sites over above beach and adventure tourism.

The article focused on the case of the Vallée d’Abondance in the Northern Alps where poor ski seasons led to a shift in focus towards cultural heritage. The article concludes that this strategy is risky since the economic benefits are highly limited and the cultural heritage is not necessarily valued by the local population themselves. Their main point of reference for the term ‘grey tourism’ is the work of Ashworth and Tunbridge (2005) who use the term in relation to a shifting agenda in Malta during the 2000s.

Artières’ use of the term ‘gris’ is both situated within an understanding of heritage or ‘patrimoine’ as a form of ‘grey tourism’ but also implies a different almost oppositional and certainly more specific use. It also might be argued that prison tourism is a key form of cultural heritage that appeals to a wider age demographic due to being a form of ‘dark tourism’. Dark tourism does not translate well into French but taken in this sense, we might also read ‘gris’ as suggesting a shadowy history yet one that is lighter (indeed prison museums often engage in a humour not found in museums associated with genocide or atrocity) than is found or represented at other sites of suffering.

But what if we take this notion of ‘grey’ heritage less as a metonym for grey-haired baby boomers enjoying their retirement amongst the ruins of civilization or even as a philosophical (and frequently moralizing) concept which positions it on an imagined spectrum of darkness and instead think more about the prison as a form of ‘grey’ architecture? To reduce penal heritage to the greyness of the crumbling architectural structures of former prisons, cells and dungeons is to reduce prison to a lack of colour, to play into an aesthetic which is all too familiar but which allows us to remain all too distant. It is to encourage a lack of imagination similar to the one which edits out the sounds and smells of prison life. Yet even when the stripy uniforms and coloured bedsheets have been cleared away and the cheap municipal paint job peeled and faded, the prison is still a site of enormous colour.

The yellow sandstone on Cockatoo Island

At Saint Laurent du Maroni, the Camp de la Transportation was painted once every four years frequently in a bright shade of pink. Today there is a strip on display which shows as many layers as could be successfully excavated. 12 out of a possible 24 or 25.

It is the red bricks and not the grey cell walls (although these exist too) that have become metonym for the bagne in Saint Laurent. Their presence in front of other buildings throughout the town marks the continuity between the quartier pénitentiaire and the quartier administratif. Elsewhere such as Cockatoo Island in Sydney, the prison cells are defined not by a ‘greyness’ but the light yellow of the sandstone that was mined on site.

Liberes relegues
Camp de la Transportation. Saint Laurent du Maroni. The pink plaster was redone for the film L’Affaire Seznec

This is not to romanticize the presence of colour. There is no doubt that the regular sight of pink plaster at Saint Laurent was as depressing as that of grey concrete. This coupled with the implacable greenness of the forest and the brutal cruelty of the blue sky above. The synthesis of natural and built environment which plays out so visibly in the ruins at sites like Ile Saint Joseph in French Guiana and Prony Village in New Caledonia was just as much an integral part of the penal colony during its operation.

Prony Village

The biggest irony of all in defining penal heritage as ‘gris’ perhaps comes with the repatriation of the last batches of bagnards in 1952 and 1953. While there was little reason to stay in Saint Laurent, many found the grey, cold skies and buildings of France difficult to adjust too. As Danielle Donet-Vincent writes in La fin du bagne citing an account from M. Durand of the Armée du Salut:

‘[L]es libérés arrivaient le plus souvent avec leur chapeau de paille, une chemise ou une maigre veste. Tous avaient froid. Beaucoup de ceux qui débarquaient en hiver regardaient le paysage, consternés: “Mais qu’est-ce qu’il s’est passé ici?…tout est noir… il n’y a plus de feuilles aux arbres… Il n’y a eu le feu partout?… Ces homes qui sortaient de la moiteur équatoriale, de la luxuriance des forets qui conjugaient tous les tons de vert, du soleil qui faisait chanter chaque écaille des ailes des “morphos”, chaque battement d’aile des oiseaux-mouches, ne se souvenaient plus des hivers dénudant les arbres, du ciel bas et du froid.’


Artières, Philippe (ed.), La Révolte de la prison de Nancy. 15 janvier 1972 (Paris: Le Point du Jour, 2013).

Artières, Philippe, ‘Entretien avec Philippe Artières’ in ‘Le Patrimoine de l’enfermement’, Monumental: Revue scientifique et technique des monuments historiques, Semestriel 1 (2018).

Ashworth, Gregory J. and John E. Tunbridge, ‘Moving from blue to grey tourism: reinventing Malta’, Tourism Recreation Research 30,:1 (2005) pp. 45-54.

Chamoiseau, Patrick and Rodolphe Hammadi, Guyane: Traces Mémoires du Bagne (Paris: Editions du Patrimoine Centre des monuments nationaux, 1994).

Donet-Vincent, Danielle, La Fin du Bagne: 1923-1953 (Éditions Ouest-France, 1992).

Forsdick, Charles, ‘Postcolonialising the Bagne’, French Studies 72:2 (2018), 237-255.

Foucault, Michel, Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison (Paris: Gallimard, 1975).

Suchet, André and Michel Raspaud, ‘“Le patrimoine, c’est un truc pour les vieux…”’, Mondes du Tourisme [En ligne], 4 | 2011, mis en ligne le 30 septembre 2015, consulté le 30 septembre 2016. URL :