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.


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.

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.

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.

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


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.


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.


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.


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


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:
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.

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

Hyde Park Barracks

15 July 2018

En route to New Caledonia for the next phase of site visits, I spent a couple of days in Sydney where I managed to visit both Cockatoo Island and Hyde Park Barracks. Built between 1817 and 1819 and designed by convict-architect Francis Greenway, around 50,000 convicts were thought to have passed through the barracks during the operation of the penal colony. Between 1848 and 1887, the building was used the Female Immigration Depot and subsequently by local government and the courts until the end of the 1970s.

Since 2010, the museum has been part of the UNESCO world heritage convict sites which incorporate 11 sites including Cockatoo Island. The history of the site as museum is far longer, dating from the end of the 1970s. Embedded in the museum is the presentation of its evolution to museum including reference at various to the politics of preservation and presentation at stake. In this respect, it seems to offer a model of ‘best practice’ for convict history as well as self-reflexivity in terms of the political and social function of a ‘museum’. As one panel informs visitors:

‘Everything you see is part of the history of this place. From the limewashed walls of the original convict dormitory to the galvanised iron duct to aircondition the modern museum. From the lowly rat who saved many possessions to the lofty wig that donned the judge in session.’

One of the core narratives running through the museum and especially in the room which reconstructs life for the immigrant women housed there between 1848 and 1887, is the role of archaeology in elucidating the everyday life of the site. This is not just taken for granted in the display of excavated objects. As well as a large exhibition focused on the excavation work and the objects found, individual objects and sets of objects are displayed within the women’s dormitory but framed with explanations as to what each object might tell us about various aspects of life at the Barracks. Nit combs found under the floorboards of the dormitories, for example, are used as evidence of both unsanitary conditions and attempts on the part of the women staying there to maintain hygiene. Seeds also found in the floorboards suggest eating in the dormitories as well as the mess but also give indications of a more varied diet than official records might suggest.


Downstairs in the museum but also at points throughout such as the stairwells, there is a concerted attempt to show different layers of history through the stripping away of paintwork and plaster. Interestingly, the extensive archaeological excavations taking place in the 1980s which yielded over 85,000 different items and fragments were only possible as a result of extensive renovations being carried out some of which might now be seen as working counter to preservation and conservation initiatives. I find this particularly interesting as a point of comparison with different sites in French Guiana related to the Administration Pénitentiaire where archaeological excavations have been very limited either due to lack of recognition or the fragility of remaining structures.

Layers of history at Hyde Park Barracks

Use and Abuse

The museum refers on several occasions to notion of ‘use and abuse’ that defined the convict system. This is perhaps one of most direct critiques I have ever seen in a prison museum that wasn’t a former site of political detention. But it is unclear how we should understand ‘use’ here. Does this imply a utopian ideal that was corrupted yet ultimately redeemed by the ‘successful’ colonial development built off the back of the convict system? Should we read it as critical of the idea of individuals as a means to an end, bodies as unpaid labour? Or does use refer to ‘useful’ here?

Elsewhere there is a more clear agenda set out as to the purpose of the museum within wider political/social agenda. There is a brief reference to the need to draw on history to understand contemporary context yet the space offers no real possibility for this except via the idea of valorisation convict contribution towards colonial development and removing the shame of this past for descendants of convicts. I found myself asking various questions about this: What about contemporary forms of detention? Immigration? What about the lack of options presented to those claiming refugee status? The ongoing use of islands as sites of incarceration and detention? Nauru? (see, for example, the recent Guardian opinion piece on this) Despite its larger claims, there is a limit to the self-reflexivity of the site in this respect.

Reimagining the space

In addition to the physical objects, historical maps and paintings and reconstructions of the living spaces, the museum has also commissioned artists to produce different interpretations of the convicts themselves. In one of the upstairs room, the space features a series of convict ‘shadows’, black life-sized cut outs with the stories of each convict represented etched onto their torsos. The same room features a ‘soundscape’ based on archival material reproduced as spoken word, noises associated with the space but also silences. The use of soundscapes at prison museums is a growing phenomenon. This one which shifted between different speakers in the room was quite hard to make out particularly when other visitors came into the room with their personal audioguides blaring.


One of the most enduring images of the Barracks was, for me, a photograph entitled ‘Flogged Back’ which was commissioned by the Historic Houses Trust NSW but is undated and has no information of the photographer. Underneath the photograph are a series of accounts of floggings given out to different convicts for various infractions. The visual presentation of direct, premeditated violence meted out by the penal authorities rather than the usual accounts of suffering produced through labour and deprivation is unusual both here and elsewhere. There is something both Christ-like and eroticised about this image. Although it is unlike anything else presented in the museum, it also highlights the redemptive discourse of convict labour once presented by the penal system itself and now reproduced by the museum in its affirmation of the role of convicts in the development of present-day Australia.


Cockatoo Island

14 July 2018

En route to New Caledonia for the next series of site visits, I stopped off in Sydney for a couple of days. I managed to visit a couple of sites, Cockatoo Island and Hyde Park Barracks which form part of the UNESCO world heritage Convict Sites. As such they are important examples of multi-sited penal heritage and as a result of their UNESCO status suggest various forms of ‘best practice’ in terms of accessibility, legibility and so on. There is work being done in both New Caledonia and French Guiana to produce a multi-sited concept of penal heritage and to use this as a basis for applying for UNESCO world heritage status. This is far more advanced in New Caledonia with the Itinéraire Bagne (a series of panels marking former convict sites at various sites across the South Province including Île des Pins). In French Guiana work is still being done to locate, map and document the various vestiges along the Maroni river which indicate the different camps and satellite operations organised around the Camp de la Transportation in Saint Laurent du Maroni and the Camp de la Rélégation at Saint Jean. Consequently, the sites in Sydney seem to be very useful in identifying different agendas and levels of community-led interest in convict heritage.

En route to Cockatoo Island

A short ferry hop from the Sydney Harbour terminal, Cockatoo Island was once home to convict labour. Like prison islands elsewhere, it was a site where those caught re-offending were sent. It was established in 1839 to deal with overcrowding on Norfolk Island. A prison within the penal colony. Convicts mined the sandstone which was used for building in Sydney as well as building the administrative buildings on the island itself. Later, after the closure of the penal settlement in 1869, the island is renamed Biloela (aboriginal for black or white cockatoo) in order to forget its convict history. It is used for shipbuilding but between 1871 and 1888 it also housed a reform school for girls. An orphanage for 500 boys was housed in an old ship docked on the island between 1871 and 1911. The island became a prison once more in 1888-1908. Today it’s possible to explore the old dockyard buildings as well as a small number of excavated cells only discovered in 2009, a year before the site acquired UNESCO status. You can also camp on the island.


There is an aesthetic of rust which dominates the island’s buildings and which inserts an important layer of history between the island’s use as a prison and its museification. Its  use as a reform school provides an interesting example of the link between education and incarceration that emerged with the 19th century notion of discipline. Similarly, the ship-orphanage cannot but evoke the earlier prison hulks which were a common feature in convict transportation. For me these also provide an important reminder of how the closure of one form of imprisonment often leads to different forms of detention or containment.

Dog Leg Tunnel through the sandstone

Given the proximity to Sydney harbour, doesn’t have the same sense of isolation as other prison islands. It is also a space that is quickly and cheaply accessed by regular ferries. While this does not necessarily mean it is visited by a wide range of local and tourist visitors, it does suggest a space that has the potential to be more embedded in community life and events (as indeed its brochure suggests – the Sydney Biennale was held there for the first time in 2008) than many former prison islands elsewhere which have since become luxury resorts only accessible by private boats or airplane. Its accessibility (together with its empty warehouses and rust aesthetic) also explain why it has been used for various film and tv shows including X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and Unbroken (2014).



Peripheral vision

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Editing the photos I took on my first visit to Ile St Joseph, I’m glad – in spite of the pressure of having a backlog of editing to do – to have had some time between taking them and now editing. These weren’t easy pictures to take. We keep using the phrase ‘documenting’ and I keep wondering about what it is that I am documenting. I am making documents, in one sense, photographs about which I will be able to claim ‘this shows the ruins at Ile St Joseph on 10 June 2018, this is how they were on that day, on that afternoon, at the moment I stood in that place’. But the thing I am wondering about primarily is what my role is, what do I have to offer to other people by having been in this place and taken photographs? Mainly, the answer should be, my skill at taking photos – fine. Not everyone has a feeling for composition. Fine. But what did I see, and what relationship is there between what I saw and the ‘documents’ I am in the process of making? I am thinking about light and about sadness. I am aware of an idea I have of ‘good photography’ or a good single photograph. And I’m not interested in simply knee-jerk reacting against that and saying it’s a tyranny (of what, anyway). A good photograph – what does this involve? Composition – where your verticals are, are you using symmetry, is there one main subject of the photograph or do you have two or three, which elements in the photograph get to be whole and which will be cut off at the edges of the frame? Have you balanced your dark and light bits or do you want more darkness or lightness to predominate – and why? People, expressions and movement – not applicable here. Colour – range, balance. How did you see the colours? How vivid were they when you looked? If you looked at noon or 1pm, where they perhaps rather bleached out, not much contrast, do you find yourself reaching for the ‘dehaze’ slider in your photo editing software and thinking ‘this is more like what I saw’? Yes, yes and yes. And I don’t want to follow this to an overly pedantic end – but I saw all of this through my glasses and the longer I am photographing in the muggy sweaty heat, the more sweat is present on my face, the more traces and droplets get smeared onto my glasses from my face by pressing the viewfinder up to my glasses, I must pause and locate in my bag a clean cloth (none of my clothing will serve, it is no longer clean) and the more I find myself wondering how things were for the shortsighted among the prisoners here, what could they see? My task is to use an extremely complex and expensive device, that feels very alien here, to record the light that exists in this place, this place where the light is sometimes so stark in the heat that it is hard to see the edges of the tree canopy, or the walls, I squint a lot and wonder how much to turn down the highlights and turn up the shadows, how much to ‘dehaze’. I pause to clean all the glass surfaces between my eyes and the ruins, and resume.

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 #1. Fort Balaguier Part 3

5 April 2018 – Musée Balaguier, La Seyne-sur-Mer, France

Read Part 1. “Ceinture de Fer” here

Read Part 2. The Doctor and the “plan” here

Part 3. The Chapel

The Musée Balaguier is an unusual site for a prison museum in that, despite operating as a fort, it has never been used for detention. Its link to the bagne lies instead to the proximity of the Fort to Toulon, one of the original dockyard prisons. As mentioned in an earlier post, the museum’s collection of objects from both French Guiana and New Caledonia is largely a result of doctors working in France’s colonies retiring to the South of France producing a neat circularity.

The Chapel which houses the exhibition on the bagne

The Fort’s main tower houses temporary exhibitions often linked to the region itself. The small chapel located in the grounds of the fort is where the permanent exhibition on the bagnes is located although the museum frequently loans its objects to other museums and galleries. The chapel is cool and dark and immediately creates an aura. Although the dark and musty interior is perhaps reminiscent of the interior of a stone prison cell, this effect is complicated by the evocation of the sacred space of organized religion still present in the tiny stained glass porthole and stone altar. The objects carefully crafted by convicts appear almost as sacred relics with the reproduction of leg irons used to restrain convicts at night suggesting a quasi-religious level of suffering and thus the potential for redemption.

Wooden matchboxes in the form of clogs (similar to those issued by the A.P.) made by convicts


Église Saint-Joseph, Iracoubo

The chapel as prison museum seems to constitute the apotheosis of the ongoing relationship between Church and State in matters of punishment. And this at a time when other state institutions were forcibly decoupled from the Catholic Church in France. Elsewhere the church has provided a different form of repository for convict art. Having once stolen artwork from the cathedral in Rouen, replacing it with forgeries, Francis Lagrange (also known as Flag) was later put to work painting frescoes in the chapel on Île Royale. Similarly, the church (Église Saint-Joseph) in the small town of Iracoubo (which now functions as a border control despite being an hour and half drive from French Guiana’s river border with Suriname – more on this later) features elaborate frescoes by another lesser-known convict, Pierre Huguet.

Can we read this in terms of an acknowledgment of redemption via artistic creativity fostered by the priests and chaplains assigned to French Guiana? This marks a notable shift from the disciplinary mechanisms found in the religious and penal institutions of 19th century England and France (as delineated in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish).

Lincoln prison museum



Or, and this is perhaps a more cynical reading, is this redirection of ‘creativity’ towards authorized sites and activities not only a means of circumventing the convict’s use of his skill or talent within the Système D but at the same time an indication of the investment of the penal administration and its chaplaincy in this system? A complicated (and slightly confused) question and one that seems to pose itself in the contemporary context of offender art as creative labour and the appropriation of this by different organisations. SF




Épailly, Eugène, Francis Lagrange: Bagnard, faussaire génial (1994).

Foucault, Michel, Surveiller et punir (Paris: Gallimard, 1975).

Musée Balaguier – Exhibition Catalogues

 Les Artistes du bagne. Chefs d’œuvre de la debrouille (1748-1953). March 2010.

Nouvelle Calédonie. Le Bagne oublié. November 2012
Photographs by Marinette Delanné. Text by Julien Gomez-Estienne and Franck Sénateur.

Museum website:

Site visit #1. Fort Balaguer Part 2

5 April 2018 – Musée Balaguier, La Seyne-sur-Mer, France

Read Part 1. “Ceinture de fer” here

Part 2. The Doctor and the “plan”

Visites du Bagne-365

The Fort Balaguier became a national monument in the 1970s and it is at this point that another ring can be added to the circular history of the bagne. We were shown around the museum by its curator, Julien Gomez-Estienne. Julien explained how many of the items in the collection came from the personal collections belonging to doctors working in the maritime service and posted in the colonies. French Guiana was often a first posting for junior medics whereas Toulon became an area to which many former maritime doctors retired no doubt keen to retain proximity to the sea and its promise of adventure. The 1970s and 1980s it seems were a big period of discovery (in attics and trunks) of forgotten objects and photographs associated with the penal colonies. These were often sold or donated by families not quite sure what to make of them.

The role of the doctors in the production, acquisition and circulation of these souvenirs du bagne is interesting and merits further exploration. To what extent should we think of doctors as amongst the earliest ‘tourists’ to the bagne? Stationed in the penal colony the doctor’s visit is temporary and he would have enjoyed a sense of freedom not experienced by either the convicts or the penal administration responsible for them. In his memoir, Albert Clarac who was posted in French Guiana twice, describes how on first arrival in Cayenne he was treated as a minor celebrity by the local non-convict population keen to make use of his services. While initially reluctant to practice civilian medicine, Clarac recounts the necessity of this extra work given the inflated cost of living in Cayenne. Even doctors, it seems, were not exempt from the Système D [D for Débrouille] in the penal colony.

Nevertheless, a doctor’s account either oral or photographic was considered to be more objective and disinterested than that of either guard or bagnard. Yet we should perhaps think more carefully about this assumption. How, for example, might we draw comparisons between the photogrqphs taken by doctors based in the penal colony, albeit usually for recreational purposes, with Jean-Martin Charcot’s invasive and ultimately abusive use of photography in La Salpêtrière framed as it were by an unshakeable belief in the scientific rigour of the photographic method and its ability to diagnose, educate and ultimately cure? (See Didi-Huberman’s critique of Jean-Martin Charcot in Invention de l’hystérie) Yet perhaps it is less in terms of any claim to objectively document the bagne and its inhabitants that we should think about the role of the doctor here. Rather, it is the temporary, transitory relationship he has with the bagne, the knowledge of his imminent departure and the opportunities to commission and collect bagnard-made trinkets which allow for the spectacle of colonial punishment to be more widely transmitted and consumed.

Amongst the many artworks in its collection produced in either French Guiana or New Caledonia, Musée Balaguier has a series of original cartoons produced by L.K which featured alongside Albert Londres’ reports in Le Petit Parisien (subsequently reproduced as Au Bagne). A favourite for me is the image of the doctor retrieving a ‘plan’. It is very interesting to see these images in their original format and consequently recontextualised away from their best-known framing as small black and white images accompanying newspaper articles (as above). The images are larger than one expects – around A4 size and the artist has used a range of different colours (as also reproduced in the exhibition catalogue Les artistes du bagne). Londres claimed that L.K. was a convict but Julien suggested that it was more likely to have been a doctor or a guard keen to remain anonymous. Firstly, the artist has access to decent materials including different colours. Secondly, they seem to have access to sites from which bagnards would have been excluded. Another interesting aspect of these images is that some of them (including that of the doctor and the plan) appear in multiple versions each with different captions. There are, Julien told us, at least three different versions of the doctor and the plan. I think these multiple versions (in a similar way to the different versions of Londres’ reporting) affirm the double sense of légende [legend and caption] to borrow from Didi-Huberman that defines the bagne and its representation. SF

Read Part 3. The Chapel here


Clarac, Albert, Mémoires d’un médecin de la marine et des colonies. 1854-1934 (Vincennes: Service historique de la marine, 1994)

Didi-Huberman, Georges, Invention de l’hystérie: Charcot et l’iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière (Paris: Éditions Macula, 1982).

Londres, Albert, Au Bagne (Paris: Albin Michel, 1923)

[NB. Londres’ accounts originally appeared in Le Petit Parisien before being reproduced on book form for which there have been numerous editions.]

 Musée Balaguier – Exhibition Catalogues

 Les Artistes du bagne. Chefs d’œuvre de la debrouille (1748-1953). March 2010.

Nouvelle Calédonie. Le Bagne oublié. November 2012
Photographs by Marinette Delanné. Text by Julien Gomez-Estienne and Franck Sénateur.

Museum website: