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Beyond Papillon: The French Overseas Penal Colonies, 1854-1952

Beyond Papillon: The French Overseas Penal Colonies, 1854-1952

by Stephen A. Toth


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803217980
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska Paperback
Publication date: 09/28/2006
Series: France Overseas: Studies in Empire and Decolonization Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Stephen A. Toth is an assistant professor of history at Arizona State University’s West campus.

Read an Excerpt

Beyond Papillon

The French Overseas Penal Colonies, 1854-1952

By Stephen A. Toth

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2006

University of Nebraska Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8032-4449-5

Chapter One

Back to the Future

France and Penal Colonization

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
specified length of time. Indeed, most of those exiled were later pardoned
and repatriated. Although deportation for political offenses was an official
part of the Napoleonic Code of 1810, it was something of a dead letter, as
a suitable overseas replacement for the former American territory could
never be found.

The event that impelled the French state to reevaluate its position on penal
colonization was the Revolution of 1848. To forestall continued political
unrest and to lessen the burden on a penal system charged with housing the
twelve thousand June Days insurgents sentenced to prison terms by Louis
Napoleon's hastily convened tribunals, the president issued an emergency
decree to transport these individuals to a "fortified enclosure" outside continental
France. Although a number of possible locales were discussed, including
Senegal, Madagascar, and even the arctic Kerguelen Islands, it was
eventually decided that the insurgents be relocated to Algeria.

Not until 1854 was legislation passed that formally established the South
American territory of French Guiana as a destination for common-law criminals
convicted of felonies. Heretofore they had typically served as galériens
(oarsmen) on the galleys, which, given the brutal conditions aboard these
vessels, was akin to a death sentence. Advances in design that allowed for
more efficient sailing, however, made the ships and the convicts necessary
for their propulsion obsolete, and the management and maintenance of
the convicts who endured years of arduous rowing was turned over to the
Ministry of the Marine.

In 1748 the government's Mediterranean galley fleet was decommissioned,
and prisoners were sentenced to travaux forcés (hard labor) in such port
cities as Toulon, Brest, and Rochefort. The vast majority of prisoners were
sent to Toulon, where they were paired together in chains on board the old
galleys moored as hulks in the harbor until they had rotted away, at which
time the prisoners were placed on pontoons. At the other locales, men were
housed in shore prisons. The latter were not jails with cells but barracks-like
structures where inmates were chained to their tolards (long wooden planks)
at night. These crowded, dirty, and disease-ridden quarters were the site of
"violence, trafficking, and sexual deprivation," as there was "no efficient
supervision" of the men.

In the ports, the prisoners helped build, repair (attending to masts and
ropes), and provision ships. Convicts typically worked twelve to thirteen
hours a day for a wage of ten to fifteen centimes, which they spent on extra
food and wine. Those possessing some mechanical skill had the opportunity
to engage in more delicate tasks, such as joinery, drilling, and the caulking
of ships, but most were "needed to carry heavy loads, turn wheels, drive
pumps, and pull cables." The prison population in the dockyards was about
fifty-four hundred in 1789, not including the forçats libérés, those freed at the
end of their prison term. Whatever their original offense, it was generally
agreed that those who completed their sentences were a significant source
of crime and disorder in the port towns. Indeed, local officials complained
of escapes and the frequent theft of tools and materials that were resold by
prisoners to free workers.

Moreover, statistics compiled in the Compte générale de l'administration
de la justice criminelle
-the first government-sanctioned retrospective study
of crime-seemed to indicate that France experienced an unprecedented
wave of crime during the first half of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the
twelve years between 1825 and 1837 saw a 39 percent growth in the number
of criminal offenses and reported investigated crimes. As official crime statistics
also pointed to a dramatic increase in the percentage of those accused
of both repeat felonies (15.5 percent from 1826-30 to 26.2 percent in 1846-50)
and misdemeanors (3 percent from 1826-30 to 17 percent by 1846-50),
concern arose over the apparent emergence of a permanent criminal class.
Individuals such as the famed prison inspector Louis Mathurin Moreau-Christophe
characterized the figures as "a symptom of an active perversity;
the indication of an imminent social peril."

This discourse was rooted in a profound demographic shift that swept
poor and uneducated workers out of the rural countryside and into the
streets of Paris and other urban areas in search of employment and a better
life. Indeed, during the nineteenth century the number of people living in
urban areas in France almost tripled. According to historical sociologist A.
R. Gillis, "urban France (considered as a settlement of at least 2,000 people)
contained just over six million people in 1821, which was about twenty percent
of the total population. By 1900, almost sixteen million people lived in
urban areas, or forty-one percent of the population." Moreover, inadequate
measures taken by municipal and state authorities regarding sanitary living
conditions exacerbated an already unhealthy lifestyle. This not only
made poverty and social dislocation more visible but led social theorists to
attribute the "moral decay" of the new social class to the urban environment.
The expanding problem of crime signified the deleterious effect of the city
on individual morality.

Thus a widespread perception arose that it was in the burgeoning urban
centers of nineteenth-century France where "irreligion, ignorance, selfishness,
the contagion of example ... all the vices of man are rampant.... [I]n
the confused mixing of social classes, and the overturning of all ideas of
subordination and duty, one sees immorality, prostitution, and poverty in
our cities." Viscount Louis Hermann Brétignières de Courteilles, a prominent
philanthropist and penal reformer, agreed: "There are signs of malaise
and ferment in the heart of the city where ... pauperism has increased
because of heavy industry. . . . [A]ttacks on property also continue to multiply,
and there is a continual and sustained increase in misdemeanors and

Social theorists did not believe crime to be absent from provincial France,
but they regarded the crimes committed by the denizens of urban and rural
areas as qualitatively different. In general, they viewed the criminal activity
of the countryside as less dangerous and premeditated than that of the city.
Journalist and penal reformer Léon Faucher explained this difference as
one of environment: "Two different types of condemned criminals can be
distinguished: the people of the city and those of the countryside; the precocious
crime that grows in the cities as in a hothouse, and the occasional,
almost childlike crime that occurs in the open air, and in the freedom of
the fields." Faucher's opinions on crime and punishment are crucial for the
history of the penal colonies, as the Chamber of Deputies appointed him in
1848 to examine the problem of recidivism, and he would serve as minister
of the interior in 1849 and again in the spring and summer of 1851.

Recidivism was also perceived as a quintessentially urban phenomenon.
In this regard the prominent penal theorist Benjamin Appert remarked:
"Why are recidivists more numerous among condamnés from the large cities
than the countryside? ... [T]here is a shameful culture of vice and the
practice of all types of dissolution and debauchery in the large cities. It is in
this impure cesspool of society that exist almost all the criminals who are
terrifying society with their misdeeds."

Given such perceptions, many penal reformers advocated "colonizing
the interior of the country with ex-convicts." Utilizing a very broad definition
of industrial worker and a much narrower one for agricultural laborer,
Charles Lucas, the inspector general of French prisons, hypothesized
that although there were two agricultural workers for every one individual
employed in the city in 1700, this ratio had been completely reversed by
1830. While Lucas's conclusion was erroneous, given that the height of rural
under-population did not occur until the 1840s, commentators nevertheless
suggested that former prisoners be sent to undeveloped rural areas of
southern and southwestern France, where they would be given land and
equipment to begin new lives as subsistence farmers.

Commissioned by the French government to examine the penal system
of the United States, Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville issued
a report that examined the relative merits of the Auburn and Pennsylvania
modes of imprisonment. While opposed to the principle of penal colonization,
the authors were nonetheless enamored with the idea of replacing
the police surveillance to which newly released prisoners were subjected
with terms of service in agricultural colonies. "If such colonies were established,"
argued the famed penal theorists, "no idler could complain of not
finding labor; the beggars, vagrants, paupers, and all the released convicts
whose number continues to increase, and continues to threaten the safety
of individuals and the tranquility of society could find a place where they
would contribute to the wealth of this country by their labor." According to
physician and penal reformer Michel Louis François Huerne de Pommeuse,
such labor would "regenerate both physically and morally; the criminal
would thus reenter society as a useful member, instead of being debased
and a burden.... olonization transforms generations of criminals into
veritable citizens.... [I]t attacks crime at its roots."

This notion of "internal penal colonization" was also based on the apparent
success of an auxiliary penal institution that emerged during the
1840s: the Mettray agricultural colony for delinquent boys. Established on
a thousand-acre estate in the Indre-et-Loire by Frédéric Demetz, a young Parisian
magistrate, the colony was structured around small "families" of forty
or so inmates, each family living in a separate house with a "guard-father"
who was responsible for their own agricultural production and upbringing.
The goal of the institution was the rehabilitation of criminal youths
through agricultural work and military discipline in a "family" setting. As
its rehabilitative success became public-at government inquests, Demetz
claimed that Mettray had a recidivism rate of 14 percent, in comparison to 75
percent for state penitentiaries for children-it spawned the establishment
of fifty other agricultural colonies during the 1840s and eventually led to the
passage of legislation in 1850 that made the private agricultural colony the
most common form of incarceration for juvenile criminals in France. By
1853, half of the minors under correctional care lived in agricultural colonies,
giving these institutions a quasi-monopoly during the Second Empire.


Excerpted from Beyond Papillon
by Stephen A. Toth
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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