Cartes postales du bagne

Site visit #7. Saint Laurent du Maroni Pt3

Part 3. Guess who

La Ville en chantier exhibition

Case 12, Camp de la Transportation, 22 June 2018

Saint Laurent du Maroni did not exist as a colonial town before the arrival of the Administration Penitentiaire. This is, of course, not to imply an absence of life or community but rather better understand the legacy of the bagne on the area’s present-day infrastructure. As will be discussed in several posts about SLM, the Camp de la Transportation is a complex site which perhaps provides a starting point for understanding penal heritage as multi-sited not exceptional. The Camp de la Transportation is a hub for multiple different community-led activities which exist both separately from but also draw on the site’s history. This is especially clear in the history of the library.

Another example is the ‘La Ville en chantier’ exhibition located in Case 12. The exhibition is located on the two floors of the Case, one of the former dormitories where convicts sent out to work in and around SLM and neighbouring forest camps would return to sleep at night. The exhibition charts the evolution of the town and the surrounding area from before the arrival of the A.P. until (almost) present day (2011). The exhibition uses a range of different but low-fi techniques to visualise the space including giant floor maps and scale models (more on this from CR).

My attention was drawn to a customised ‘Guess Who’ game. Instead of people, each card featured a different building. We had been discussing how different activities and indeed games might constitute a way to explain the multisited and complex nature of the bagne to different audiences. I’ve been toying with the idea of a Top Trumps style card game of famous and less famous convicts, guards, doctors and other individuals associated with the history of the penal colony in French Guiana. I’ve also been thinking a bit about a board game charting the journey of the bagnards from deportation to repatriation via failed escapes, réclusion and doublage. This draws on conversations I’ve had with various colleagues in French Studies around colonial board games. However, the idea of Guess Who didn’t occur to me and yet now seems like a great way to engage people of different ages both local and visitors from elsewhere in thinking about architecture and looking more closely at buildings one might pass by or take for granted. The type of questions one might ask one’s opponent would vary according to your collective knowledge and thus range from the basic visual markers shown on the photographs to more complex historical and personal references. If we have time to revisit the exhibition before we leave French Guiana at the end of next week then I will challenge CR to a game!

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 #6. Maison d’arrêt

14 June 2018
rue François Arago, Cayenne

Last year I stayed in Cayenne and happened to come past the former maison d’arrêt while the new murals were being painted. The old prison which existed alongside the A.P. but operated separately. It was built in 1821 and so pre-dates the Administration Pénitentiaire. A new larger prison opened in Remire-Montjoly in 1998 but the old Maison d’Arrêt continued to operate for a while afterwards. The renovation project is part of an apprenticeship scheme for under 25s and there’s a short article is France-Guyane available here.


The maison d’arrêt is an interesting bit of standalone penal heritage in a town that had erased most traces of its history within the penal colony. This isn’t to say it did not interact with the bagne as bagnards released from imprisonment but obliged to stay in French Guiana as part of the doublage system often ended up there after committing various crimes (often related to the abject poverty they experienced since the A.P. no longer bore any responsibility towards them). It is thus important as part of the overlapping parallel and extended history of incarceration in French Guiana. The prison at Rémire-Montjoly has been subjected to severe criticism for its overcrowding and violence. In 2016, the Observatoire International des Prisons (OIP) wrote a scathing report on the prison, characterising it in terms of ‘un climat de violence permanent’. Plans for a new prison at Saint Laurent du Maroni are currently underway. Where there are intense debates in both SLM and Cayenne around the project for the mine d’or, there seems to be little to no discussion about the construction of a new prison. I cannot help but see a link between the two projects. I hope to write more on this later.


Site visit #4. Îles du Salut

10 June 2018

Restricted Access. Some reflections.

En route to the Îles du Salut

Tourism is often presented as a means of galvanising a community through economic development and, where tangible heritage is concerned, preservation and conservation initiatives. But tourism can also be divisive and maintain existing social inequalities. Tourism posited as heritage – natural, cultural, tangible, intangible, whatever… can often only be accessed by the elite, wealthy visitor with the time and money to do so.

I have been thinking a lot about these things following my third visit to the Îles du Salut last Sunday. Perhaps this attests to a three visit rule. The first visit I was simply excited to finally visit a space, or multiple spaces, that have been so heavily mythologized in the cultural and popular history of the penal colony. But there was not enough time especially on Île Saint Joseph and I left with the sense of having missed a lot of stuff. On the second trip I redressed that in part but I also learned more about the difficulties of managing penal heritage at sites like Île Royale and the futility and meaninglessness of seeking an exhaustive experience of the space. On the third trip almost a year since I made the last visit, the weather was less conducive to extensive exploration of the space. But things on Île Royale had also changed again. The chapel, which had been covered in scaffolding the year before, was now open again. The small museum housed in the restored Director’s House was also open where it was closed on my previous visit. These changes made the visit worthwhile from a documentary perspective but the main conclusions I have drawn concern the major limitations of a site like the Îles du Salut for both a critical engagement with the ruins of a former penal system and, at the same time, for sustained community engagement with the space. I also wonder the extent to which this might apply to other island sites once housing prisons that have since been turned into luxury resorts for wealthy tourists from elsewhere? Is this something that can be challenged?

The chapel on Île Royale with a new coat of paint

Prison as island or island as prison perpetuates the idea of prison as an exceptional space which has little interaction with the everyday spaces occupied and traversed by the rest of society. If exile and abandonment is the overriding ideology of such spaces, there is also an obfuscation of the infrastructures and economies which link such spaces (even when located at a remove) to the mainland. To what extent does visiting a former prison island allow us to bracket out the idea of imprisonment as something exceptional and, especially in the case of the Îles du Salut, extreme rather than routine, banal, ubiquitous?

Access to the Îles du Salut is mainly by catamaran. There are two main tour operators that go there on a daily basis. The return trip is around €50. However, it is also possible to charter an entire boat for the day which costs about €1500. On previous visits I have observed school groups who have done overnight trips to Île Royale. There is an auberge at the top of Île Royale where it is possible to get a room. There are also spaces where you can hang hammocks although camping is prohibited on the island. On my first and third trips, the tour group was almost exclusively white and there were only a couple of children. Half of the thirty visitors on the first trip were a group of young men aged between 25 and 35 and possibly stationed at the army base in Kourou. There was a different ethnic mix of visitors on the second trip which I took in early July 2017 and a couple of families on board the catamaran had children and small babies. All this really shows is that the demographic can vary significantly from trip to trip. However, speaking to people based in both Cayenne and Saint Laurent du Maroni, I have got the impression that the islands are a site visited exceptionally rather than regularly or even annually especially for people living in Saint Laurent.

Large cruise ships no longer visit the islands. There is no access to Île du Diable due to the condition of the coastline. There is a helicopter landing pad on Île Royale but I have not come across private helicopter tours presently operating. This therefore seems to be primarily for CNES activities. The Centre National des Études Spatiales took over jurisdiction of the islands in the 1960s when the original kineotheodolite telescope was installed (replaced in 1995 by a cinetelescope). It is from Île Royale that the CSG (Centre Spatial Guyanais) rocket launches which occur roughly once a month are watched and recorded. As the rockets pass directly over the islands, they are evacuated for launches.

Welcome sign on Île Saint Joseph

There is no longer a jetty on Île Saint Joseph. This means access is either by dinghy or swimming from the catamaran. Not all tour operators will take you there and my overall impression is that access especially to Saint Joseph will become increasingly limited in future, reserved for the military barracks and the CNES operations based there. SF

sketches 3.

Bagne des Annamites, Montsinéry-Tonnegrande
9 June 2018

bagne des annamites sketch map
Bagne des Annamites

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

Site Visit #3. Bagne des Annamites

Bagne des Annamites, Montsinéry-Tonnegrande
9 June 2018

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

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Entrance to the Bagne des Annamites. Photo: Claire Reddleman

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

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Track remains. Bagne des Annamites. Photo: Claire Reddleman

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

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toilettes du bagne. photo: Claire Reddleman

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

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

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

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

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