Briony Neilson – ‘Moral Rubbish in Close Proximity’: International Debates on French Penal Colonization in the Late Nineteenth Century


Event Dates: 13 – 16 September 2015
College Court Conference Centre
Knighton Road,
Leicester LE2 3UF

The Carceral Archipelago: Transnational Circulations in Global Perspective, 1415-1960

Briony Neilson (Sydney/ Monash) – ‘Moral Rubbish in Close Proximity’: International Debates on French Penal Colonization in the Late Nineteenth Century

Among the international community of penologists in the late nineteenth century, France had the dubious honour of being one of the few countries in Europe still to be actively practising convict transportation. In defence of the practice, which many observers considered outdated and immoral, French advocates explicitly distanced themselves from other transportation models, claiming that theirs reflected distinctly modern and rational principles. For all penologists commenting on penal transportation in the second half of the nineteenth century, the primary point of reference was Britain’s defunct experiment in Australia. The results of that experiment proved decidedly flexible—what some saw as a successful project and a ringing endorsement of the utility of the practice, others read as a failure and a warning against attempting anything similar. As the Australian colonies looked to cast off any remaining residue of the convict past, penologists throughout the Western world engaged in a debate on the morality, utility and viability of convict transportation, questioning the extent to which it was consistent with the Western codes of civilization to whose existence they were ideologically committed. The physical proximity of France’s penal colony in New Caledonia to Australian shores was a constant and literal reminder of the past from which the Australian colonies wished to escape. Drawing on the records of French and international penal reform organizations, this paper will examine the legacy of the British experiment and the ambiguities of the French practice of penal colonization. At its core penal colonization possessed multiple points of ambiguity and tension: inclusion versus exclusion, punishment versus rehabilitation, convict versus free, distance versus proximity, penal versus colonial. As this paper will seek to explore, rather than acting in opposition to the project of penal colonization, these points of tension were in various respects paradoxically crucial to its long-term sustainability as a method of addressing crime.


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