Marie Houllemare – An Experimental Penal Colony in the French Caribbean: The Fort-Royal ‘niggers chain’ (Martinique, 1764-1790)

 

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

Marie Houllemare (Amiens) – An Experimental Penal Colony in the French Caribbean: The Fort-Royal ‘niggers chain’ (Martinique, 1764-1790)

Since the middle of the 16th century, when Jacques Cartier took convicts with him in his expeditions, overseas deportation was used several times by the French authorities to develop its American settlements. But other convicts were brought back from colonies to serve their sentence in France when the galleys were abandoned in favour of penal colonies in Toulon (1748) and Rochefort (1766).

The opening of “bagnes” also had an impact in the process of conviction in the overseas colonies. In 1763, the king gave his assent to officials of the French Caribbean willing to commute death penalty, in some cases, to lifelong forced labour. Beginning in 1764, some convicted slaves and then runaway soldiers were gathered in the Fort Royal prison, in the capital of Martinique. This paper will study the so called “niggers chain” and the later “military chain” that brought together new kind of forced workers, right in the middle of a slavery society. By using letters, official reports about the poor state of the Fort Royal “bagne”, as well as a few maps and plans, it will try to understand how slaves and “free” convicts were to live together in this small penal colony. Some were brought from other colonies, French Guyana for instance, which explains that this Martiniquan prison could be described as the “cachot general des colonies” in 1790. The tensions and fears this concentration of convicts generated finally led to the abolition of the “bagne” by the general assembly of Martinique in 1790.

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