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  • Empire and Underworld: Captivity in French Guiana by Miranda Frances Spieler
  • Rebecca Hartkopf Schloss
Empire and Underworld: Captivity in French Guiana By Miranda Frances Spieler. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012. 296pp. $49.95 (cloth and e-book).

Over the past decade, scholarship on France’s Atlantic world empire has expanded chronologically and geographically, but little has been written (let alone in English) on France’s colonization on the northern coast of South America. Miranda Spieler’s thoroughly researched, sophisticated monograph on the history of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French Guiana, Empire and Underworld: Captivity in French Guiana, is thus a welcome addition to this growing field. Inspired by Marc Bloch’s notion of the “unwritten trace,” Spieler mines the scant documents on the period (which are spread out among multiple archives on two different continents) both to show how law created French Guiana as an experimental zone where marginal groups could be stripped of their legal identities and to restore visibility to some of those legal nonpersons.1 Drawing on fragments of codes, treatises, debates, and parliamentary records related to the colony’s multiple exiled groups—political enemies, convicts, freed slaves, and Maroons (descendants of fugitive slaves living in the colony’s forests)—Spieler undertakes an eight-chapter “thought experiment,” considering French Guiana both as “a place in France” and in South America (p. 4). In so doing, she seeks not only to determine how law enabled and masked the use of violence in this colonial space, but also to illustrate the complex legal relationship that fused and separated metropolitan France and its colonies.

Chapters 1, 2, and 3 focus on the language and expression of legal exception and legal unity in metropolitan France and French Guiana from the outset of the French Revolution in 1789 until 1802, when Napoleon Bonaparte reestablished slavery in the French empire. Chapter 1 explores how political authorities defined and managed “counterrevolutionaries” before, during, and after the period of the French Revolution know as the Terror (1793–1794). Through the punishment of civic degradation, Spieler contends, Revolutionary leaders denied citizenship to their political enemies—former aristocrats, recidivist ex-convicts, and priests who refused to take a civic oath— and justified their removal, via deportation rather than the guillotine, to physical spaces beyond national boundaries. Chapter 2 examines [End Page 893] how Revolutionary authorities understood the relationship between metropolitan and colonial territories like French Guiana. Based on an examination of the 1791 slave revolution in Saint Domingue and French constitutions throughout the 1790s, Spieler questions current scholarship that casts “revolutionary France as an inclusive transatlantic polity” (p. 39) arguing instead that Revolutionary authorities specifically worked to keep metropolitan and colonial law separate, before 1794 so they could maintain slavery, and afterward so they could deny newly emancipated people citizenship. Chapter 3 shifts to French Guiana to explore how marginal groups and political authorities in the colony employed the concept of legal unity to, on the one hand, claim universal French civil rights and, on the other hand, to wield and justify new forms of coercive violence in an exceptional local environment. Although slaves, freed people, and deported counterrevolutionaries hoped to inherit the benefits of liberty, equality, and brotherhood emanating from Paris, Spieler argues that by refusing to apply metropolitan French laws after 1802, French Guianese authorities ultimately implemented an even more violent form of slavery that transformed people into real estate.

Chapters 4 and 5 examine how French officials normalized and then built on the Revolution’s extraordinary repressive measures to identify and punish political enemies and criminals between 1802 and 1848. Chapter 4 argues that the Napoleonic Civil Code adapted the Revolutionary idea of civic degradation to deny civil rights to criminals (via civil death) and to political enemies (by denying them French nationality). Although Napoleon hoped to systematically deport criminals, when it proved impractical to create an overseas penal colony, Napoleonic and subsequent state authorities created a form of internal deportation, reviving an Old Regime system of navy work prisons (bagnes) in French port cities and a system of surveillance and residential assignment that created “forbidden zones” for ex-convicts (forçats libérés). Napoleonic officials also subjected political enemies...


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