Deportation and Penal Servitude in Guyane
During the Revolution and in the nineteenth century, Guyane’s history as a site of punishment stood in contradiction with the internal history of the colony.
In 1794 and 1848, the metropolitan government abolished slavery in French colonies. Thousands of former slaves, in Guyane as elsewhere, became French citizens. These episodes of deliverance coincided, however, with the selection of Guyane as a site of punitive exile. During the 1790s and again in 1852, the metropolitan government chose the colony as a detention site for undesirables, whom the law stripped of freedom together with civic and civil rights.
In August 1792, the revolutionary legislature designated Guyane as a site of deportation for priests who refused to swear oaths to the New Regime. Most so-called deportees never left France, however. They were crammed into prisons, or massacred–as in Nantes during the Terror. The persecution of the clergy, which peaked in 1794, resumed under the regime of the Directory (1795-1799). In 1798, approximately 300 priests were deported to Guyane. Fearing their influence, the colonial government sent them to an isolated bog, where they lacked basic necessities. Survivors were repatriated during the Consulate.
In September 1797, the army put down a royalist coup and dispatched a handful of the chief conspirators to Guyane. These deportees included François de Barbé-Marbois, a former colonial official who became counselor of state under Napoleon; in 1803, he negotiated the sale of Louisiana to the United States.
British convict settlements in Australia became the object of searing criticism in the the early nineteenth century. Writers including Jeremy Bentham attacked what they saw as the unwholesome mixing together of convicts and regular settlers in New South Wales. In France, all people who proposed overseas convict schemes took scope of those criticisms; their plans promised to seal off convicts from colonial society.
After his December 1851 coup d’état , Louis-Napoleon toppled the Second Republic by a campaign of repression––mass arrests, imprisonment and deportation of political opponents. In all, 329 French political prisoners were deported to French Guyane during the Second Empire. The convict administration separated them from ordinary convicts and assigned to islands off the coast of Cayenne. Nonetheless, socialist deportees in Guyane struggled to establish their distinctiveness; some were denied amnesty in 1859 and thus confounded with felons; others had trouble claiming the indemnity paid, under the Third Republic, to political victims of Napoleon III. Socialist opponents of the Second Empire protested the martyrdom of deported comrades in Guyane without mentioning the plight of ordinary convicts. Despite the invisibility of Guyane’s penal colony in republican memory, more than 20,000 hard labor convicts were transported there between the coup d’etat of Louis Napoleon and the fall of his regime (1870).
The penal colony began in 1852 as a project of the Navy, which administered the nineteenth-century colonial empire, with the exception of Algeria. Convicts in Guyane were subject to special maritime courts, special laws, and corporal punishments that were modeled on the regime of galley slaves and later of convicts in the work camps or bagnes in French ports during the Old Regime. During the 1850s, the navy emptied the inmates of these naval prisons into Guyane.
Penitentiaries in Guyane began as offshoots of the bagnes in metropolitan France. Nonetheless, a central feature of Guyane’s convict system broke with the past history of criminal punishment. Under the 1852 decree that founded Guyane’s convict system (made permanent by an 1854 law), convicts to hard labor for a period of up to seven years were obliged to remain, for an equal number of years, in Guyane after their sentences expired. Men sentenced to more than seven years were obliged to remain in the colony for life. This law helped to assure that men whose sentences expired would remain under the power of Guyane’s penitentiary administration. They were called libérés but were far from free. They had their own matricule numbers and remained under the jurisdiction of the special maritime court.
The history of convict transportation to Guyane needs to situated within the broad history of the French colonial empire. Thousands of colonial subjects were transported to Guyane for political and common crimes. During the early twentieth century, Guyane became an infamous site in the Southeast Asian anticolonial struggle. Beginning in 1930, Indochinese militant communists were sent, as inmates, to a special area in Guyane, le territoire d’Inini, which fell under the direct authority of the Indochinese colonial government.
The history of convict transportation also needs to be integrated into the history of Guianese colonial society. At the time of the first convicts’ arrival, Guyane was distinct from the Antilles. Emancipation had led to the prompt ruin of the colony’s plantations–which had never flourished. Elections in 1849 had also revealed the powerlessness of whites to control the vote. The end of slavery stripped Guyane’s tiny white elite of its social and political ascendancy. Local officials would seek to use the new convict system as a way of reasserting control over freed slaves. Prisons sprung up during the 1850s in regions that were otherwise home to independent black communities–on the Comté River and near the Mana and Maroni Rivers.
It was not only the founding of the penal colony, but also the empowerment of Guyane’s African and African-descended peasantry, which led the government of Napoleon III to rule Guyane differently than the Antilles. In 1854, the colony was placed under the so-called “regime of decrees.” This mode of rule did not apply to the other vieilles colonies–Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Réunion. The “regime of decrees”’ was a mode of rule that otherwise applied to French territories in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. Rule by decree magnified the discretionary authority of the executive branch, allowed administrators to rule without legislative oversight, and licensed practices that would have been be illegal in France.
Who were the Africans in Guyane at the time of the first convicts’ arrival? Many Africans wound up in the colony in the 1820s by way of the illegal slave trade. During these same years, the French Navy chose Guyane as a depository for all captives seized near the African coast aboard illegal ships by French sea patrols. Finally, Guyane was home to the Boni or Aluku. They were among several tribal groups in the region descended from fugitive slaves from Surinam; while waging war on the Dutch in the eighteenth century, the Boni/Aluku took refuge in Guyane, outside France’s colonial slave society. They lived on an affluent of the Maroni River.
The Navy stopped sending European convicts to Guyane during the 1870s, while Europeans–especially Algerians–poured into the colony. The disgorging of Frenchmen into Guyane resumed in 1885, with the passage of a law inaugurating a new form of punitive exile relégation. As a measure of social defence, relegation enabled the government to move the bodies of repeat offenders out of the country and group them at a convenient distance from French citizens; it is no surprise that Guyane’s own citizens, who felt ignored and besmirched by the use of the colony for rélégués, vituperated against this law. Relegation applied not only to recidivists living in metropolitan France but also to residents of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Réunion, and Guyane itself. Relegation was designed to scoop up chronic delinquents. It was the frequency of a man’s crimes, not the gravity of those crimes, that defined the rélégué. Historians of punishment in metropolitan France view this law as a break with the past. Viewed from Guyane, however, the new law extended from and amplified an existing practice. Well before 1885, convicts completed their judicial sentences there only to find themselves enclosed within the penal system as ex-convicts or so-called libérés. The relégués were another category of libérés; they were distinct, however, because their repeated offenses need not be felonies. Through the new law, more than 20,000 recidivists were dispatched to Guyane after the expiration of their final judicial prison term in France, the Antilles, or Réunion. In all, more than 70,000 people (of diverse penal category) wound up in Guyane’s penal colonies between 1852 and 1945.
The awakening of moral conscience against the penal colony began in 1923 with the articles of Albert Londres, a former war correspondent, in Le Petit Parisien. Londres’s depiction of the convicts’ abuse and dereliction under the tyranny of middle managers–penal bureaucrats–ignited calls for an end to the system. In 1938, the French government stopped sending convicts to Guyane. Survivors were repatriated after the Second World War.
Published in june 2023
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