Cartes postales du bagne

Delicate ruins

5 July 2018
The Vestiges at Port Boisé

Having been disappointed several times in our search for ruins over the past week or so, we didn’t expect to find anything beyond a trail. As it turned out there are also vestiges from one of the camps annexed to Prony. The ruins are well signposted from the road and also have their own Itinéraire Bagne panel. There are three main buildings still intact on the primary site which also includes parts of the perimeter wall.Slightly north of the main site of the vestiges, there seems to be a family living in a building that was once perhaps the Maison du chef. The ruins have been cleared and made as safe as possible but in a way that gives the appearance of casual abandonment.

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The main vegetation in two of the buildings consists of smaller weeds including tiny delicate pink and purple flowers (am yet to identify) something also present at Ile des Pins but here it is clear that larger more structurally damaging plants and trees have been discouraged. This creates a different and perhaps calmer sense of nature reclaiming the site than more dramatic examples found on Ile Saint Joseph, Prony village and Ile des Pins. Of course both are cultivated and carefully maintained.

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In a number of places, structures have been ‘casually’ propped up

What comes into focus as a result are the large window and door frames further enlarged by the erosion of the brick work around them. They are reminiscent of the frames found especially in Rodolphe Hammadi’s photos of the vestiges of the bagne in French Guiana but there is something less sinister, less disturbing about the structures and their ruination. There is a gentle breeze and birds are singing. In the distance a small child is whining at his parents.

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Erosion revealing building processes

I’ve tried to think about why this. Perhaps it is the climate. Perhaps the more visible signs of maintenance and clearance of vegetation. The buildings in their arrested decay seem to exhibit a care for the past. The erosion doesn’t so much imply disrepair but allows you to see how the buildings were constructed. The foundations are also visible giving a more complete sense of the building process. The buildings have been carefully presented here in order to demonstrate pride in the convict labour that built them rather than shame in the system that demanded convicts to build their own accommodation along with the administrative buildings that would serve in the management and determination of their longterm fates.

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Extension to the ‘vestige’ complete with door number

Attached to one of the former buildings is a small more recently built extension. This also makes me think of the Chamoiseau-Hammadi project. Chamoiseau dismisses the squat that was still there when he visited or had recently been evicted to make way for restorations and preservation. His preference seems to have been for a presentation of the bagne as an abandoned site bearing near imperceptible traces of the lives that once inhabited and encountered it. Here at Port Boisé it is clear someone was living or working there quite recently. The door has a number as if mail was delivered there. Perhaps it was a squat or a caretaker’s accommodation. It is odd to see it continue to exist after the conservation initiatives have been put in place rather than erased and forgotten. SF

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In search of the Chemin des Bagnards

5 July 2018

On our first day in New Caledonia we went on a tour of Prony village with a local guide. Prony was one of the forest camps belonging to the penal colony.

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On the final day of our trip we retraced some of the route, negotiating somewhat more carefully the tiny bridges and oversized potholes in our little hire car than our guide had in his 4×4. However, rather than take the turn off to Prony we continued on the CR9 towards Port Boisé located at the South of the mainland. This is key nickel mining territory and the soil is a deep red. We passed a processing plant which temporarily interrupted the wilderness of the area, a wilderness that is really on perceived since the landscape is scarred by the roads and mines cut into the hills, before arriving at a vista with views out onto the coast. We then began our descent down towards the ocean.

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Before getting to the coast we spotted a brown heritage sign indicating ‘Vestiges du Bagne’. See part 2 ‘Delicate Ruins’ on this.

The Chemin des Bagnards is a nice trail which takes about 90 minutes depending on how much you stop. It starts at the Kanua Tera Ecolodge where you can also park and ends up at the mouth of the river at a point known as ‘Trou bleu’. You can continue across the river via stepping stones and assume a second trail which takes you all the way the the campsite. The trail is the route that was used by the bagnards as part of their work in and around Port Boisé, an annex camp to Prony. Forestry was developed within the penal colony in order to remove the need for imports of wood from Australia and New Zealand. Although the vestiges that can be seen on the trail are limited, ruins of a low wall, remains of a bridge, for example, these lay emphasis to the infrastructure that supported the bagne’s operation which was at the same time created and maintained by convict labour.

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Walking the trail which runs along the coast does little to evoke the trials of convict labour or the quotidian physical labour involved in logging. It is hard to imagine the alienation of being exiled here or the suffering introduced by forced labour. But instead one thing we might glean from this is the mobility of the bagne. Although the penal colony is often conceived as a network of sites and operations, the sites in themselves often seem disconnected or self-contained especially in their posthumous representation. Even where there are multiple buildings and vestiges to visit within a space such as on Île Nou these are encountered collectively as a ‘historic site’. The trail offers a greater sense of the movement and displacement of bagnards within the penal colony and beyond their initial journey from France and other colonies. SF

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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.

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.

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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.’

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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

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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.

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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.

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