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  • Beyond Papillon: The French Overseas Penal Colonies, 1852–1954
  • Jeremy D. Popkin
Beyond Papillon: The French Overseas Penal Colonies, 1852–1954. By Stephen A. Toth (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2006) 212 pp. $35.00

France established its first durable penal colony in 1854, just as Britain was preparing to abandon its own experiment with overseas transportation of convicts. The British experience provoked Robert Hughes's best-selling volume, The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding (New York, 1986). The prison colonies in French Guiana and New Caledonia may have inspired a few shocking tales, such as the romanticized novel mentioned in Toth's title (but not discussed in his text), but their story hardly merits the appelation "epic." Indeed, the question that remains at the end of Toth's work is exactly what his confusing conflation of institutional, medical, and cultural history reveals. Toth himself asks, "Does the history of the bagne lie beyond our intelligibility?" The answer suggested by his book is inconclusive (151).

Ignoring the French Directory's shipment of political prisoners to French Guiana during the 1790s, Toth starts his study with the establishment [End Page 603] of a penal colony for common-law criminals there in 1854; deportations to New Caledonia began in 1864. As in the case of the British settlement at Botany Bay, overseas penal colonies were envisaged as a humane alternative to the death penalty and a mechanism for regenerating criminals by transplanting them from a corrupting urban environment to a natural setting where they could both redeem themselves through agricultural labor and contribute to national strength by creating prosperous French settlements. French penologists envisaged something like Foucault's panoptical institution, wherein the prisoners were continuously under the surveillance of inflexible and determined guardians.1 The reality was something else, although Toth finds it hard to capture it precisely. Prisoner mortality was so high during the early years of the French Guianese establishment that deportation was virtually a death sentence; in 1867, the government decided to send prisoners only to the healthier environment of the Pacific (Toth does not say when this decision was reversed).

In response to alternating surges in domestic public opinion, prisoners were sometimes treated with horrifying brutality, giving rise to scandals that led to efforts to make conditions more humane but also threatened to undermine discipline. By the 1880s, when the notion that criminality had a genetic basis took hold, hope of rehabilitating the prisoners had largely been abandoned. In any event, the underpaid and poorly trained guards were never able to exert effective control over the inmates, who developed their own "pervasive culture of prisoner resistance" marked by defiant tattoos, gambling, violence, and rampant homosexuality (58). Prison doctors tried to improve health conditions by applying new findings about tropical diseases gained after the 1880s, but they faced stubborn resistance from penal administrators; living conditions in the bagnes did not improve significantly until the 1930s.

Periodic journalistic exposés affected France's image around the world, but often had little to do with reality. The remote penal colonies occasionally occupied a large place in French debates, but the number of prisoners was always small (Toth does not give comprehensive statistics, but he estimates that 100,000 convicts were deported over the century of the colonies' existence). The penal colonies' existence exposed certain contradictions in the Third Republic's ostensibly democratic and progressive project, but Toth ends without explaining what they tell us about the larger French society of their day.

Jeremy D. Popkin
University of Kentucky


1. See Michel Foucault (trans. Alan Sheridan), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York, 1975), 195–228.



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