Cartes postales du bagne

L’art du voyager

Next week I am visiting Saint Martin de Ré where convicts from mainland France were held immediately before their departure for French Guiana aboard La Martinière. While it has become a pleasant port town and popular tourist destination, Saint Martin not only bears the scars of Vauban’s ‘Ceinture de fer’ in the form of foreboding ramparts and gates but also continues to operate a prison which houses inmates undertaking lengthy sentences.

Saint Martin de Ré twinned with Saint Laurent du Maroni

The OIP (2013) reports that with 460 places, Saint Martin is the largest Maison Centrale in France with sentences averaging 18 years. Despite its centrality, the presence of the prison seems to go largely unnoticed by most of the tourists visiting Saint Martin despite the fact it is possible to cycle right past its front gates. For me, the site acts as an important and generally overlooked reminder that the end of the bagne saw many convicts returned to France’s Maison Centrales to finish up their sentences.

Overlooking the roofs of Saint Martin. It is possible to make out the Maison Centrale in the distance

However, while the connection between Saint Martin and French Guiana has long been severed, limited to the story of transportation recounted in the small Musée Ernest Cognacq, a new link between those currently incarcerated at Saint Martin and the administrative centre of the bagne, Saint Laurent du Maroni, has recently been created. On display in the reception area of the Centre d’Interprétation de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine (CIAP) located within the former Camp de la Transportation at Saint Laurent, is a small art exhibition entitled ‘L’art du voyager au travers de la peinture.’

CIAP, Camp de la Transportation, Saint Laurent du Maroni

The exhibition features artworks produced by inmates in Saint Martin which create a connection with French Guiana. Each piece features a scene from French Guiana’s landscape. At the centre of each canvas is a photograph which the inmates, who have never been to French Guiana, expand outwards to create a larger scene. The project draws upon the therapeutic role played by nature and its artistic reproduction of particular importance to those whose imprisonment limits their direct engagement with the natural environment.

A selection of canvases from the ‘L’Art du voyager project

At the same time, the project seems to have a wider symbolic value in shifting the position of French Guiana from common conceptions of the department as peripheral in order to highlight its central importance in terms of its biodiversity and location as part of the Amazon (the world’s lungs). Moreover, a new connection is forged with emphasizes French Guiana as a starting point for creative inspiration rather than the end point it once represented for those housed in Saint Martin. It is thus all the more moving that the canvases are now on display in the former Camp de la Transportation emphasizing the complex and sensitive ways in which former sites of punishment can offer a meaningful space for engaging with contemporary experiences of incarceration.

SF

Aerial Views of the Camp de la Transportation

Guest post by Ross Smith @gutterbal

Representations of space involve multiple approaches and perspectives. An approach might emphasize the individual, personal investment and significance of a particular space. Alternatively, space could be framed as exotic, casting a desirable light on far off places. Another perspective, as presented her, is the aerial view. 

The 2013 graphic novel, Cayenne, Matricule 51793 by Blanco and Perrin, tells the story of a bagnard dreaming of freedom and attempting to flee from prison, a similar story to many graphic novels coming from the Hexagon. When the protagonist finds himself at Saint-Laurent, we are given an aerial view of the camp, almost cartographic in its presentation. While the decision to present the camp from this perspective is not necessarily new or surprising, it does pose certain questions about how stories are being told.

Aerial view of the Camp de la Transportation in Blanco and Perrin, Cayenne (2013)

Whilst in the archive at the Camp du Transportation, I was lucky enough to find a document which detailed an archeological dig which took place at the site also in 2013. The file, as one would assume, detailed things found in the dig, the nature of soil, how deep they dug, and what their research entailed. The figure which was of interest however, was an aerial view plan of the site showing the location of barracks and buildings for their dig. The plan showed, in a scientific and detached way, the layout of the camp and some of its key characteristics. 

Inrap (2013)

The aerial view, used in these different contexts, raises some interesting questions. My first response was to see its use in Cayenne, not as an objective, quasi-scientific portrayal of the camp as a space in which history took place and events took place rather than in terms of the sensational events and encounters that are often fetishized in prison narratives. However, this almost Lévi-Straussian approach to the space feels to limit the importance of the space of the camp, and deny or gloss over what actually happened there. This then leads to my second reflection, which is that an aerial depiction of space much like a map or plan can also show all that a space encapsulates. In this sense, it zooms out from the story of the bagnard with the matricule 51793, and allows for an understanding of the space viewed at a remove. Much like that of the archeological document, it is necessary to see the space as a large colonial project, so while his story is important – it was not the only one which can be told from this space. 

A third reading of this space, is emphasised by the title of the novel. There is not a representation of the space of Cayenne in this manner in the graphic novel, and it is in Saint-Laurent that character lives, attempts escape, and ultimately dies, yet the title still bears the name of Cayenne. Therefore, this aerial documentation is not merely an important tool in emphasizing how an individual bagnard is part a network of stories: it is also draws our attention to how the bagne was not just Cayenne (for French people) or Devil’s Island (for Americans). After the bagne began its operation in 1852, Saint Laurent du Maroni was conceived as a town focused around the penal administration unlike Cayenne.

Whilst these are just the beginnings of a wider project involving graphic novels and the bagne, I think immediately it is clear that uses of space in comic images play an important role in how we understand the bagne which also draw upon and create links with forms of scientific diagram, plan or map as used in fields such as archaeology. RS

References

Blanco, Stéphane and Laurent Perrin, Cayenne, Matricule 51793 (Paris: Aubin, 2013).

Inrap, Guyane, Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, Camp de la Transportation (Grand Sud-Ouest: octobre 2013).

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!

Site visit #7. Saint Laurent du Maroni Pt2

Part 2. The musée du bagne

21 June 2018

The museum at the Camp de la Transportation in Saint Laurent du Maroni is housed in a small yellow building on the edge of the Camp. Divided into three distinct parts, the building once housed multiple operations – the salle anthropométrique where bagnards were photographed, fingerprinted and had their skulls measured plus other distinguishing features noted; the main kitchen and the camp’s chapel.

Where the guided tours of the camp, which provide exclusive access to the Quartier de la réclusion, are aimed at giving visitors insight into the organisation, life and especially suffering of the bagnards undergoing extra punishment in the prison within the prison, the museum does something else quite interesting in its mapping of its exhibition onto the historic spaces of the building.

For example, the museum does not reconstruct the original operations as is common in prison museums. However, the salle anthropométrique provides a series of exhibits, displays and text which focus on the arrival and processing of the bagnards including a walk of mug shots and display cases featuring a colour meter and skull-measuring device. In the corner of the room there are full length display cases featuring uniform belonging to the director and a guard. These seem to frame or reaffirm the surveillance implemented by the anthropometric documentation of the bagnards.

However, most striking in the display is the large photograph of bagnards still dressed in metropolitan clothing heading with kit bags down a road in France on their way to being transported. At the centre of the photo, which takes up the entire space of the display wall and is the first thing you encounter on entering the museum, a young, smartly dressed black man has turned to meet the gaze of the photographer. He seems to challenge this gaze and moreover the idea that this is a spectacle for public consumption. He doesn’t so much force one to look away but he does seem to be asking that we think about why exactly we are looking. It is only after meeting his gaze that we then encounter the display of mug shots presented on the reverse side of the display wall. This set up seems to demand a different engagement than the often ad-hoc poorly explained mug shots found in other prison museums.

The kitchen constitutes the main part of the museum. The original fire place is still visible but the story of the bagne is told via 4 display tables each with a single object:

1. Bell

2. Plan

3. Guillotine Cigar Cutter

4. Coconuts engraved by convicts

Cloth banners hang from the ceiling featuring photographic prints of bagnards and the heavily tattooed libérés discovered by photographer Dominique Darbois on her visit to French Guiana in the late 1950s in search of the Tumuc Humac. The room feels spacious and uncluttered yet there is a remarkable amount of information offered by the displays.

The Chapel

Where the main area of the museum focuses on key themes including ‘Evasion’ and ‘Surveiller et Punir’, the chapel takes as its theme questions of charity, humanity and salvation embodied in particular by the story of the closure of the bagne and the work of the Armée du Salut (namely Charles Péan) alongside the reports of Albert Londres that drew widespread public attention to the horrors of the penal colony during the 1920s. The chapel also addresses the problem of the abject poverty which was the general experience of released convicts forces to stay in French Guiana under the system of doublage.

The final panel, which in a sense concluded the museum exhibition, describes the repatriation of former bagnards once the bagne closed. A final convoy of 132 bagnards were repatriates in 1953. Testimony from the last surviving bagnard, Ali Belhouts, given as part of an interview in 2005, two years before his death, provides a moving account of the indelible mark left by the bagne.

Belhouts was repatriated to Algeria in 1952

“Tous les soirs, je rêve de Cayenne, tous les soirs, je suis à Cayenne, quand j’y pense, j’ai le vertige, j’y ai passé ma vie.”

It is the deliberate ambiguity, the affective experience of remembering evoked in this final statement that offers, I think, an appropriate conclusion to the museum narrative. An absence of closure which is somehow also a form of closure.

The vestiges of the distillery

Saint Maurice

A good friend of mine from Saint Laurent du Maroni visited the site at Saint Maurice in Summer 2017. This is the former site of a distillery (initially a sugar refinery before producing tafia and then rum) set up by the Administration Pénitentiaire in Saint Laurent du Maroni. These are the images she took and kindly sent to me. They demonstrate the scope of the site including the remains of the former caserne des surveillants which was discovered relatively intact. Given the proximity of the site to a residential area on the outskirts of Saint Laurent du Maroni, it is surprising (at least to me) that the site remained abandoned and unacknowledged for so long. Since these images were taken and the archaeological work completed, the site has been rendered inaccessible (and as I have heard potentially dangerous) by the planned construction work for the future shopping centre. SF

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Saint Maurice. Remains of former caserne des surveillants. Photo courtesy of Manon Plasschaert

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Foundations from the former distillery site at Saint Maurice. Photo courtesy of Manon Plasschaert

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Objects discovered during archaeological work at Saint Maurice. Photo courtesy of Manon Plasschaert

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A close-up of the vestiges of the former guards quarters at Saint Maurice. Photo courtesy of Manon Plasschaert

For further information on Saint Maurice (in French) see:

Details of the archaeological work carried out by Inrap:
https://www.inrap.fr/route-des-chutes-voltaire-11826

Article in Une Saison en Guyane on the discovery of the site by Arnauld Heuret in 2016:
http://www.une-saison-en-guyane.com/article/histoire/la-distillerie-des-bagnards-en-sursis/