We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Beyond Papillon

The French Overseas Penal Colonies, 1854-1952

Stephen A. Toth

Publication Year: 2006

For French criminologists and colonialists of the mid-nineteenth century, the penal colonies of Guiana and New Caledonia seemed to satisfy two needs, namely, to incarcerate a growing number of criminals and to supply manpower for these developing colonies. But were these two goals not contradictory? Was the primary purpose of the penal colonies to punish or to colonize? In the prisons, inmates found means of subversion, guards resisted militaristic discipline, and camp commanders fought physicians for authority. Back in the metropole, journalistic exposés catered to the public’s fascination with the penal colonies’ horror and exoticism.

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

Series: France Overseas: Studies in Empire and Decolonization Series


pdf iconDownload PDF (39.2 KB)
pp. v


pdf iconDownload PDF (42.2 KB)
pp. vii

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (45.0 KB)
pp. ix-x

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 ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (74.9 KB)
pp. xi-xvii

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 ...

read more

1. Back to the Future: France and the Penal Colonization

pdf iconDownload PDF (257.3 KB)
pp. 1-20

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 ...

read more

2. The Desire to Deport: The Recidivist of Fin de Siècle France

pdf iconDownload PDF (141.4 KB)
pp. 21-38

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 ...

read more

3. Life in the Penal Colony: The View from Above and Below

pdf iconDownload PDF (708.9 KB)
pp. 39-58

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 ...

read more

4. The Lords of Discipline: The French Penal Colony Service

pdf iconDownload PDF (177.2 KB)
pp. 59-82

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 ...

read more

5. The Battle over the Bagnard: Tropical Medicine in the Bagne

pdf iconDownload PDF (152.7 KB)
pp. 83-100

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 ...

read more

6. The Not-So-Fatal Shore: The Criminological Conception of the Fin de Siècle Bagne

pdf iconDownload PDF (154.9 KB)
pp. 101-120

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 ...

read more

7. The Bagne Obscura: Representational Crisis and the Twentieth Century

pdf iconDownload PDF (196.7 KB)
pp. 121-146

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 novels—the French penal colonies moved out of professional ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (77.0 KB)
pp. 147-154

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 ...


pdf iconDownload PDF (187.1 KB)
pp. 155-184


pdf iconDownload PDF (154.5 KB)
pp. 185-206


pdf iconDownload PDF (90.8 KB)
pp. 207-212

E-ISBN-13: 9780803256422
E-ISBN-10: 0803256426

Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: France Overseas: Studies in Empire and Decolonization Series