The French Overseas Penal Colonies, 1854-1952
Publication Year: 2006
An understanding of modern France is not complete without an examination of this institution, which existed for more than a century and imprisoned more than one hundred thousand people. Stephen A. Toth invites readers to experience the prisons firsthand. Through a careful analysis of criminal case files, administrative records, and prisoner biographies, Toth reconstructs life in the penal colonies and examines how the social sciences, tropical medicine, and sensational journalism evaluated and exploited the inmates’ experiences. In exploring the disjuncture between the real and the imagined, he moves beyond mythic characterizations of the penal colonies to reveal how power, discipline, and punishment were construed and enforced in these prison outposts.
Published by: University of Nebraska Press
This book would not have been completed without the generosity of many people whom it gives me great pleasure to acknowledge. The late William B. Cohen was a kind and generous man who eagerly shared his invaluable insight into the French colonial world. His personal example of hard work helped me understand how a scholar practices his craft. I also owe a ...
For most people, the French overseas penal colonies typically call to mind the motion picture Papillon, based on the best-selling eponymous novel of former convict Henri Charrière and so named for the butterfly tattooed on his chest. Even today, long after its theatrical premiere in 1973, images of a defiant and determined Steve McQueen running through the jungle and ...
1. Back to the Future: France and the Penal Colonization
By the mid-nineteenth century the banishment of political prisoners overseas had long been the policy, if not the actual practice, of penal administration in France. During the Revolution, dissidents were deported to the territorial holding of Louisiana, where they were not incarcerated in any way upon their arrival but simply required to live in a designated area for a ...
2. The Desire to Deport: The Recidivist of Fin de Siècle France
Like their predecessors in the first half of the century, fin de siècle commentators would also locate a source of disorder in the prison system and in French society. However, it was no longer the felonious criminal but rather the petty recidivist who served as the dominant figure in the cultural imaginary. Despite the fact that the attempt to rid France of its most ...
3. Life in the Penal Colony: The View from Above and Below
In the initial days of penal colony settlement, each encampment had only a skeletal staff, and the camp commandant had broad, sweeping powers over day-to-day activities. He was to oversee the procurement of all material provisions, the construction of all buildings, the matriculation of all condamnés, and the management of "all the employees and agents who are in charge of ...
4. The Lords of Discipline: The French Penal Colony Service
In her 1937 book Bagne, Parisian attorney Mireille Maroger found "the brutality, ignorance, and . . . dishonesty" of penal colony guards to be quite "obvious," but what impressed her most was "their villainy, their malicious hatreds, and the dread they inspire."1 French poet and novelist Francis Carco characterized these men similarly: "Tanned, bilious, quick tempered and ...
5. The Battle over the Bagnard: Tropical Medicine in the Bagne
According to Foucault, power is dispersed throughout modern society by various processes of surveillance, discipline, individualization, and normalization. Not coincidentally, these processes are integral to the practice of medicine. At the close of the eighteenth century Foucault sees the birth of a medical discourse that was part and parcel of a "disciplinary strategy ...
6. The Not-So-Fatal Shore: The Criminological Conception of the Fin de Siècle Bagne
In his doctoral thesis, Édouard Teisseire, a Toulouse attorney, described what he believed to be the major shortcoming of the overseas bagnes of French Guiana and New Caledonia. According to Teisseire, although "the general public believes that men condemned to the colonies are in leg irons, under the constant watch of guards, engaged in the most painful work, and pass hours ...
7. The Bagne Obscura: Representational Crisis and the Twentieth Century
Traditionally the intellectual province of French criminologists and legal theorists, the bagne became the imaginative preoccupation of a worldwide audience during the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, with the rise of what we today would call "investigative journalism"along with a spate of mass-market memoirs and novelsthe French penal colonies moved out of professional ...
In the last years of its life, the bagne came under attack not only from the press but from colonial and government officials as well. One former administrator summed it up best by remarking that "transportation is economically an absurdity, from the colonial point of view it is a scandal, and morally it is a crime."1 As historian Gordon Wright has pointed out, the ...