>"Le Bagne"

"Le Bagne"
The French penal colony in Guyana
"The most infamous prison in history" - "this most dreaded of all prisons"
- Crime Magazine -
Home Page Remarkable phenomenon
The French "bagne" or penal colony was the penitentiary where Jean Darchambaux, the carter in Le charretier de "La Providence" was sent to for the murder of his aunt.
"Le bagne" is mentioned quite a lot in Simenon's work, especially in the Maigret-stories. In the early years of Maigret's practice many of the offenders exposed by the commissioner will be sent to it to serve their sentence.
Because many readers may not have an accurate idea of what "Le Bagne" really was it could be helpful to give this remarkable phenomenon in criminal history some attention.
Crime and punishment
In each discussion about crime and punishment opinions are probably as many-sided as there are participants in the debate. From a stringent and harsh policy and assent with the principle of capital punishment to the liberal point of view in which rehabilitation and treatment are the main concern.
Rarely emotive influences like retaliation and indignation can be left out of this type of conversation. Very often some basic criminological arguments are disregarded:
- There is no immediate connection between the rigorousness of punishment and the severity of crimes committed. To clarify this, in countries that have no death penalty there is not more heavy crime than in countries that have capital punishment, on the contrary. In other words relentless penalties do not seem to discourage offenders.
- The more a prison system matches up with customary society circumstances, the lower the degree of recidivism with released inmates. An inhuman prison regime can be a cause of more crime.
- The harsh punishment of relatively small crimes, in many cases, has a reverse effect. It leads to an increased social and psychological estrangement from conventional morals and habitual values.

Nobody denies that crime should be punished!
The extent of punishment however should be relative to the crime, according to fair judicial and human standards.
Fair standards and human jurisdiction lacked in a high degree in the French penitentiary system at the end of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century.
La nuit du
La guinguette
à deux sous
Les larmes
de bougie
"Le Bagne" was a consequence of the French revolution (1789 - 1794). Opponents of the successive political authorities in this turbulent phase in French history in many cases ended under the "Guillotine".
If not killed they were deported to the French overseas territories in Guyana on the Atlantic coast of South-America. Also a lot of Catholic priests who refused to pledge loyalty to the civil authorities would be expelled to this tropical nightmare. So, at first "Le Bagne" in Guyana was a penitentiary for political convicts. After the revolution up to 1799 most of these alleged malefactors were set free and "Le Bagne" was abandoned.
In those times common law offenders were confined in penal colonies in France.
But, in 1850, Prince Louis Napoléon stated:
Vente à la
La maison
du juge
Mon ami
Maigret à
L'Auberge aux
"6000 convicts in our penal colonies are an enormous burden for our budgets. As these felons become more and more immoral, they soon will be a real threat to society. It seems possible to me to transform the penalty of hard labor into a more effective, more moralistic, less forgiving and more human punishment by using it in advantage of the development of the French colonies."
Le notaire de
M.Gallet, décédé
Le charretier de
"La Providence"
The Guillotine
Chez les
The French Revolution already showed the way how to execute this plan. The ruins of "Le Bagne" in French Guyana were restored and on March 31st 1852 the first ship with 298 inmates departs for the colony.
From then on, until 1938, 70.000 delinquents (among them 530 woman) were sent to "Le Bagne" in Guyana. The last convicts stayed there until 1953.
The sinister and inhuman conditions in this penal colony still throw a shadow over the collective memory of the French and the penal system in France still has a problem to discard itself of the reminiscence of this painful past.
From 1852 until 1938 few things changed in the procedure and in the way the prisoners were treated.
For more information on localities got to the Travel Log After their conviction the condemned were brought to a local prison from where they would be gathered to be transported in special jail-trains to the Île-de-Ré, an island a few hundred meters out of the West-coast of France, nearby La Rochelle.
The convoying of these condemned was not a priority for the railroad companies. So, the voyage sometimes lasted several days, the prisoners locked up in cages with little supplies, no heating in winter, no fresh air in summer.
Arrived in the citadel of St Martin-de-Ré, very often bushed and at the end of their strength, they were placed in groups in large cells. Now they would be nourished suitably, in order to support the agonizing voyage that was to come.

Twice a year, in December and in July, the convicts embarked on "La Loire" or on "La Martinière", specially adapted prison-ships for the transport to Guyana.
The march from the citadel to the harbor must have been a noteworthy event, almost a gloomy ceremony.
Journalists, friends and family members who wanted to cast for a swift moment their loved ones and the inevitable inquisitive spectators, traveled to the Île-de-Ré to witness it.
As a journalist, in 1933, Simenon describes this occasion in "Une 'première' à l'Île-de -Ré"
"Everything is ready. The crowds are shaped. Snooping spectators leave their homes.
One senses, I don't know why, that it will really start now. The officials turn up and, along a small road, bounded by greenery, which is secured by splendid looking Senegalese guards, they walk with small steps towards the Citadel of Saint Martin,

The officials march in front.
There are only three hundred meters to cross. The road is covered with fallen leaves. Only at the end of the road, near to the quay, the fascinated crowd is gathered closely together. Nobody speaks.
The group makes the muffled but powerful sound of a moving herd.
- Here they are!
The first ranks of convicts extricate into one line and the men engage on the footbridge of Le Coligny...
Davin's mother is two hundred meters away, all alone, on a small bridge.
Mouvault's mistress has pulled herself on a wall...
"Le Bagne" - 2
The prisoners leave the Citadelle on Île-de-Ré
"The convicts? They pass by, without gazing at anything, without seeing anything, with rigid faces, their eyes motionless."
From:'Une première' à Île-de-Ré, 1933. In: Simenon - Mes apprentissages,Omnibus,2001. Translation: G.de Croock
The prisoners on their way from the citadelle on the Île-de-Ré to the ship that will bring them to Guyana Embarkment of the prisoners
Heavy garded prisoners are brought to the prison-ship on small boats "La Martinière" the prison-ship that transports the prisoners to Guyana
After a long voyage, three weeks or more, in cages, suffering of sea sickness and bad hygiene, the humid tropical heat finally announces the arrival of the condemned at their destination: Saint Laurent-du-Maroni.
The prisoners pass a medical examination, get their camp-uniform and are subdivided.
There are three major categories:
The political convicts go to Île-du-Diable (Island of the devil).
The "relègués" (relegated) stay in Saint Laurent. They are criminals who have already served their sentences for consecutive crimes in prisons in France. Being regarded incorrigible they are expelled to the colony. The "relègués" relish a relative autonomy. They have some duties but are free to move about in the settlement of Saint Laurent.
Some are not even restricted to the settlement but can go wherever they want in the colony of Guyana. They have no toiling obligations but are supposed to provide for themselves. It is obvious this will create a new problem. With no employment opportunities in this primordial society they almost all turn to questionable resources for their provisioning.
The "forçats", the largest group, the convicts sentenced to hard labor, go to about 20 different labor camps on the territory of Guyana.
They are sent to the principal sites of Cayenne or Kourou or to Charvein or Godebert. These last two camps are notorious. They are reserved for the most dangerous and hardened criminals. The inmates are treated as animals, nude, without any right to speak, under the supervision of sadistic wardens; they are bound to the most excruciating hard labor. Very few of them survived.
"Le Bagne" - 2
The Île-du-Diable
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"Le Bagne" - 2
Prison-camps on the French Guyana territory