Neither Myth nor Monolith: The Bagne in Fin-De-Siecle France

By Toth, Stephen A. | Journal of European Studies, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Neither Myth nor Monolith: The Bagne in Fin-De-Siecle France


Toth, Stephen A., Journal of European Studies


In his these pour le doctorat, Edouard Teisseire, a Toulouse attorney, described what he believed to be the major shortcoming of the late nineteenth-century French policy of transporting convicted criminals to bagnes (overseas penal colonies in Guyana or New Caledonia), where sentences of hard labour were served, often in perpetuity. 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 whose hours and days pass in incredible suffering ... this is a false idea and far from the truth.' For these individuals 'adventurous spirit is pleased by the prospect of exile in a far away land under an unknown sky, and thus the idea of punishment disappears and is replaced by a passage across the seas ... they leave without regret a country where they have no material interests to hold them, no bonds of family, for a land where they lie about in hammocks ... and nap in the cool shade. When they do work, they have a daily lunch hour, where they smoke and drink their wine and tafia' (a moonshine rum made from sugar cane). Thus, 'transportation is a very sweet punishment that has attracted the interest of our worst criminals ... All want a new life at the expense of the state'.[1]

Many of Teisseire's more distinguished and better-known colleagues held similar opinions. For instance, Henri Joly, an esteemed member of the law faculty at Paris, characterized those sentenced to Guyana as 'living like foxes in a henhouse. One begins to be convinced that transportation is a penalty that punishes little, but is very expensive for those of us who pay to inflict it.'[2] The famed French jurist Gabriel Tarde agreed: 'The penal colony is an Eldorado for the worst criminals. In sum, it will not intimidate any more than prolonged incarceration in the metropole.'[3] Even the prominent penitentiary reformer Charles Lucas believed the prospect of a lifetime spent in the penal colonies to be 'attractive to the adventurous spirit of the condemned ... Transportation produces an envy of sorts ... because it provides the conditions of material well-being in transportes.'[4]

Such assessments were not, however, limited to criminal theorists who never ventured outside France. Many local administrators and inspectors of the Ministry of the Marine, which oversaw the penal-colonial operation, were also dissatisfied with the bagnes. Their words - inscribed in not only administrative and legal texts of the day, but in the internal memoranda and correspondence of penal-colonial officials as well - call attention to an apparent discontinuity in the history of the French penal colonies, which, to date, has attracted little attention from historians.[5] Given that the unhealthy living conditions in the overseas colonies had long been known,[6] and that a sentence to hard labour in such an establishment was considered the most serious punishment after the death penalty in the French penal code, how does one account for depictions of the bagne as an attractive destination for rest and relaxation? In answer to this question, I approach the penal colony as an ideological construct whose various representations are testament to the schizophrenic nature of the entire project. Indeed, penal transportation was a hotly contested issue in fin-de-siecle France, drawing into its nexus a host of ideological oppositions: reform versus deterrence; colonization versus punishment; retribution versus rehabilitation; from which contemporaries fashioned their respective positions on the practice. As such, their mediations are not anomalous, but constitutive of the competing and often conflicting demands at the epistemological core of penal colonization, that, by the close of the nineteenth century, would lead to the demise of the practice.

I.

The banishment of citizens to overseas colonies had long been a policy of penal administration in France. …

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