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Stephen A. Toth, Beyond Papillon. The French overseas penal colonies, 1854-1952

Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2006, 212 pp., ISBN 08032 4449 5
Pieter Spierenburg
p. 153-155
Référence(s) :

Stephen A. Toth, Beyond Papillon. The French overseas penal colonies, 1854-1952, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2006, 212 pp., ISBN 08032 4449 5.

Texte intégral

1Within the history of punishment, transportation has been a relatively understudied phenomenon. As is generally known, the practice was especially characteristic for the early modern period, although Britain continued it until the mid-nineteenth century. The French were exceptional to the extent that their principal period of transportation started about that time and lasted for another hundred years. Shipments of convicts to French Guiana were halted in 1938 and the penal colony was dismantled in 1952. The other penal colony (or colonies, as there were several establishments in both regions), that of New Caledonia, had been discontinued a little earlier. For readers unfamiliar with the geography of these places: New Caledonia is a Pacific island roughly half way between New Guinea and New Zealand; French Guiana is on the North-East coast of South America between Brazil and Suriname. (Although in French it is spelled with a y, in English, as Webster confirms, with an i, except when the reference is to former British Guyana). The principal penal establishment was in the West of the country along the Maroni (or Marowijne) river. The French word bagne, originally designating the home port of the galleys, then referring to the labor camps which replaced them, finally came to mean penal colony.

2The general public knows about French transportation practices mainly through the book by Henri Charrière and the subsequent film with Steve McQueen. Toth capitalizes on it with his title and the butterfly which adorns the title page. Then he quickly dismisses Papillon as largely fictional – probably rightly so, since, as this reviewer learned not long ago, the famous scene of Papillon’s escape from Devil’s Island was shot at Maui. One of the few modern scholarly studies of French transportation is by Michel Pierre (La terre de la grande punition, Ramsay, 1982), which deals with Guiana only. Scholars and students who do not read French depended primarily on a few chapters in Gordon Wright’s Between the guillotine and liberty (Oxford UP, 1983). Therefore, the appearance of Toth’s book is welcome indeed. Readers of CHS may remember that he already published an article on the colonies’ guards (The lords of discipline, CHS 2003, 2; here the spelling is Guyana). Much of the material returns, under the same title, as chapter 4 of his book. Strangely enough, Toth mentions two other journal articles in his acknowledgment section, but not the one in CHS.

3Apart from making use of the penalty of transportation in such a recent period, within Europe the French were exceptional as well in clinging to public executions until 1939. Is there a structural explanation for both practices? To my knowledge, no scholar has offered one and neither does Toth pose the question. He does explain, right from the outset, for which reasons the French embarked upon the adventure of penal colonization. After the defeat of Napoleon I the French had lost practically all their overseas colonies and the prestige of the navy, when compared to the army, was at its lowest point. Penal colonization might help give France a new empire and strengthen the position of the supervising Navy. Whereas the British relinquished transportation in the 1840s and 50s because they considered the practice too costly and lacking the purposes of both rehabilitation and deterrence, France began to adopt it. In 1860 or so it would not have required superhuman intelligence to predict that the French experiment would equally fail, yet the bagnes remained in existence.

4This state of affairs invites a discussion of Michel Foucault’s views. Toth cites David Garland’s critique of Foucault in which Garland emphasizes that some elements of the penal system do not function as and are not even designed in the first place as techniques of control. However, Toth does not dismiss the French philosopher entirely. In the chapter on medicine in the bagne, for example, he draws inspiration from Foucault’s work about doctors and the medical gaze. But the picture of a relative absence of control prevails. Rather than serving as specimens of pouvoir-savoir, the history of both bagnes was marred by tensions, power conflicts and contrasting images. From the start a major tension was visible between the goals of populating and cultivating the land on the one hand and punishment and deterrence on the other. Another contradiction concerned the image of the bagnes. Not only the hard work to be done there but also the frequency of tropical diseases would seem to guarantee that the principle of less eligibility reigned, but the French public, far away from the colonies, was not so sure. Many compared the bagnes, in particular the «tropical paradise» of New Caledonia, to vacation resorts where convicts loved to retire from their criminal career.

5Toth’s chapter about internal life, especially the perspective from below, offers fascinating reading. We hear about faking disease, gambling, escape plans, strong men cherishing their mômes, illegal tattoos and violence among convicts. Much of this, to be sure, was already dealt with in Michel Pierre’s book. I found it particularly intriguing to read about the so-called plan: a cylindrical aluminium tube that a convict inserted into his butt to safeguard his valuables or contraband. Yet, I have my doubts about the reliability of the entire picture. Elements such as the prevalence of homosexual unions are consistent with what we know about male penal communities everywhere, but what about details such as nightly transvestite shows with convicts known as «la Marquise» and «la Tigresse»? To what extent did the reporters exaggerate and beautify their stories? Toth bases his picture primarily on published memoirs of ex-bagnards and information from visitors, without a discussion of the reliability of these works.

6As it happens, Toth inadvertently raised my suspicion by calling one of his principal sources, Aage Krarup-Nielsen, a Dutch convict. I promised myself that I would eat my hat if it turned out to be true that a person with such a name was Dutch (and not Danish). In the second of two passages in which Toth labels him this way, he has him charging his «fellow convicts» a dollar and a quarter for the fabrication of a plan. Wikipedia ([​wiki/​Aage_Krarup_Nielsen]; accessed Aug. 8, 2008) identifies Aage Krarup Nielsen as a travel writer and lists no less than twenty-four books about all parts of the world that he published between 1921 and 1958. This information is easily confirmed by a look in the Dutch Central Catalogue, which lists twenty-eight of his books, in Danish and in Dutch, German and English translations. The book that Toth cites, published in New Jersey in 1938, originally appeared in Copenhagen in 1933. Krarup Nielsen continued publishing, about such exotic regions as New Guinea, in occupied Denmark during the Second World War. Obviously, if he ever really visited the countries he wrote about, the visit must have been rather superficial. Moreover, travel writers often simply copy details from each other.

7My second critical remark concerns the prevalence of escape. It is connected to the previous theme, since Toth closes chapter 3 by saying that the officials were indifferent to the casinos and transvestite shows in the comfortable certainty that they would at least keep the bagnards in their camp. Escape was nearly impossible, as a prisoner would either have to turn to the jungle, which would soon overcome him, or try to reach Suriname on a raft. This information is repeated in chapter 7. In between, however, we read that the colonial authorities of Suriname were concerned about the many escaped convicts in their country and that the Dutch ambassador wrote a letter of complaint to Guiana’s governor. Let me finish on a positive note: the entire chapter 7 again offers fascinating reading. It deals with the increasingly international interest in the Guiana penal colony during the 1920s and 30s. In this period, most journalists painted a brutal picture of the bagne. It prompted the French government to launch a counter-offensive, paying a journalist couple from Trinidad to publish favorable reports under fake names. Thus, Papillon and Krarup Nielsen indirectly triumphed, with fact and fiction inextricably interwoven. Toth concludes: «... the doors of the public imagination were now opened wide and the fate of the institution was henceforth sealed» (145).

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Pieter Spierenburg, « Stephen A. Toth, Beyond Papillon. The French overseas penal colonies, 1854-1952 », Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies, Vol. 13, n°1 | 2009, 153-155.

Référence électronique

Pieter Spierenburg, « Stephen A. Toth, Beyond Papillon. The French overseas penal colonies, 1854-1952 », Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies [En ligne], Vol. 13, n°1 | 2009, mis en ligne le 25 mars 2009, consulté le 04 décembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Pieter Spierenburg

Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam,

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