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


site visit #11. Sparouine

27 June 2018

On our way back to Saint Laurent du Maroni from Apatou and the Camp de la Forestière, we turned off down a side road to the small hamlet of Sparouine. This is one of the former but lesser known sites located along the Maroni river where vestiges of the penal colony are still visible.

Our guide Manon has family in Sparouine and she also spent a year living in the hamlet. Although the ruins are not hidden and easy to locate on the river bank and although everybody knows about the bagne, it is still possible to forget that they are there. I had expected them to be located in the forest in accordance with an aesthetics of ruins based on some of the other sites we have seen where the vestiges have been abandoned.

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.

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:

Article in Une Saison en Guyane on the discovery of the site by Arnauld Heuret in 2016:

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

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.