New Caledonia
The Penal Colony
Aa Aa Aa
By Lorraine Paterson

Introducing the Bagne

The history of the penal colony (bagne) of New Caledonia is interwoven with that of another, more infamous French penal colony: French Guiana.  Established as a healthier alternative to French Guiana, especially for French prisoners, its very location off the coast of Australia suggested New Caledonia could be France’s answer to Botany Bay in combining both a penal and a settler colony.  The impetus for penal transportation of French prisoners from metropolitan France had its roots in the eighteenth century.  After being moved from their initial penal servitude as oarsmen on ships, prisoners worked in naval dockyards eventually considered sites of criminal activities.  Inspired by British models of deportation to Australia, the French decided that criminals could be reformed through work in French colonies.  It was these ideas, which led to the 1854 law on penal transportation.  The initial location for prisoners was French Guiana but the high mortality rate meant New Caledonia was opened in 1863 as an alternative site initially for French prisoners.

Seventy-five convoys brought convicts of various categories to New Caledonia between 1864 and 1897.  Overall, 29,603 men and 1,012 women in all legal categories arrived in New Caledonia.  Between 1867 and 1887, all hard-labour metropolitan French prisoners were sent to New Caledonia only.

The Journey

On 9 May 1864, 248 men disembarked from the ship, Ephigénie.  The prisoners’ voyage to New Caledonia lasted between 80 and 140 days and similar to French Guiana, prisoners were confined in cages of between 80 and 100 people on specially designed ships.  Only an hour a day of exercise was allowed and rations were very limited meaning that on arrival, prisoners could be suffering from illnesses such as beriberi.  On arrival in New Caledonia, the ships docked at a quarantine island, Ile de Freycinet, where the prisoners were checked for disease before the convicts could proceed.

Categories of Prisoners: Transportés

The vast majority of the prisoners sent to New Caledonia were “forçats,” i.e., common-law prisoners convicted of crimes such as theft and murder.  Penal transportation laws of 1854 meant any male prisoners aged over 16 and sentenced to over 8 years were forbidden to return to France.  Prisoners convicted of sentences of less than 8 years were to endure “doublage,” which made residence in New Caledonia compulsory for a period equal to the duration of their sentence.  Then known as “libérés,” they were still not free from the confines of the penal colony.  This meant New Caledonia was a society of not just prisoners under sentence but also prisoners under a form of parole.

Within New Caledonia, there were a variety of penal sites to which prisoners might be sent depending on their sentence, penal category and behavioural reports.  The centre of the penal administration was at Ile Nou, or Nouville, just across from Noumea where prisoners requiring more surveillance were often incarcerated.  The prison on Ile Nou was spread over 451 hectares and had a farm, hospital and workshops.  As many as 3,000 prisoners slept in dormitories making shoes, clothing and other goods to support the prison population, as well as being used in public works like logging and road-building.  Generally prisoners had to wear prison clothes: grey jumpers with red stripes for transportés and blue outfits for relegués.  Recalcitrant convicts were sent to Camp Brun on Nouville, often referred to as “L’abattoir de Nouville,” “the slaughter-house,” where “incos” (incorrigibles) were put to hard manual labour and violence or small dungeons, known as “cachot noirs” were used.  A prisoner might be placed in these cramped, solitary cells for days or weeks at a time with little exercise outside; they were also not allowed to speak and given no written materials.

Other prisoners were sent to agricultural penitentiaries at Ourail, Canala and Bourail, where they grew tobacco, quinquilla and sugar cane or extracted coconut oil.

Private companies in New Caledonia could ask to have prisoners put at their disposal.  In 1866, Governor Guillain created the category “assignés,” prisoners known for their good behaviour who would then be assigned to work for private interests.  Nickel was discovered in New Caledonia in 1875 and this changed both the literal and labour landscape of the island.  By the end of the nineteenth century there was an acute need for colonial labour in the expanding nickel mines and other colonial commercial enterprises in New Caledonia.  This work could be extremely arduous and the guards were often known for their drunkenness.

The best employment was being a convict house servant – a so-called “garçon de famille” who had access to money for the market and provisions in the home.  As the British traveller George Griffith noted: “It is in fact, the fashion in New Caledonia to have murderers for servants.  People preferred to have murderers in their houses because the assassins are reliable. They are the aristocrats of the place.  They don’t condescend to smaller crimes.”

As well as being domestic servants, another more lenient penal position was as a gardener or part of the musical group of the penal colony who would play in a bandstand in the centre of Noumea on a regular basis.  Some domestic servants were able to make crafts to sell in the market or act as the intermediary for others who wanted to do so.  This was illegal until 1886 when the penal administration realised there was potential interest in “convict crafts.” Some prisoners took desperate measures in order to try and move to a lighter position. Self-mutilation was not uncommon and the thumb was the limb most usually removed as no prisoner lacking a limb was assigned to hard labour.

Most of these prisoners were male.  Before the repeat offender law of 1885, transportation to a penal colony was optional for women.  Under French law, women convicted of certain crimes were given a choice of where to spend their sentences and very few women opted to leave France.

Repeat Offenders (Relegués)

With the recidivist law of 1885, it was not the severity of the crime but its repetition that meant a prisoner could be sentenced to life in a penal colony. Prisoners convicted of a combination of at seven least crimes, with at least two sentences longer than three months, could be reassigned as recidivists although the presiding magistrate made the ultimate decision.  Crimes most recidivists were convicted of were vagrancy, begging and prostitution.

Exemptions were given to those under 21 years old and over 60 years old. The recidivists were not meant to actually participate in the agricultural concessions but instead just serve as labour.  Their re-socialisation process was meant to be within the civil society of the colonies.  Technically they were not prisoners and were free to seek employment where they wanted, but in practice there was little work available with such a large group of convict labour circulating.  They were banned from Noumea and often lived a nomadic life trying to eke out a living on farms or mines.  Each had to carry his or her little book, the “livret du relegué,” which was essentially a passport.  Unless they had been granted the status of “relegué individual,” which allowed them live to Noumea, there were only certain areas they were allowed to dwell in.  Many of these little books are preserved in the archive in Aix-en-Provence with not a single entry under “employment,” a poignant reminder of how many of them failed to find any employment whatsoever.  Alcoholism was a big problem within the “relegués” and they often sold alcohol to the indigenous Kanak population to make money, creating many other social problems.

Political Exiles “Deportés”

For many in France, New Caledonia became synonymous with political exile because it was the site of exile of the Parisian Communards.  After “La Commune” uprising (the Paris Commune was a brief socialist, reformist, state in Paris from 26 March to 30 May 1871), many of the participants, the so-called “communards” were exiled to New Caledonia.  Overall about 3,859 communards were exiled to New Caledonia after a new deportation law was enacted on 23 March 1872.  It made an island off the main island of New Caledonia (the Grand Terre) the Isle of Pines, a place of “simple deportation.”  Ducos could hold up to 750 prisoners within a fortification.  Technically all political prisoners could not be made to work and so they spent their time on the Isle of Pines practicing their former professions while wearing their own clothes.

Most Communards were sent to Isle of Pines but a few of the more “dangerous” ones were incarcerated on the Ducos peninsula, across the harbour from Noumea.  Among the more famous of these prisoners was Henri de Rochefort, a newspaper editor who was a member of parliament in 1869.  Rochefort escaped to Australia in 1874 and then travelled to the United States campaigning for the release of his fellow prisoners in New Caledonia. Escape was very difficult from New Caledonia but many prisoners dreamed of “la belle,” prison shorthand for  “la belle liberté” which usually meant trying to smuggle yourself on to a cargo ship heading to Australia.

Another well-known deportee, who did not manage to escape was the feminist and anarchist Louise Michel, who was imprisoned at Ducos; when she was later moved to the Isle of Pines she collected Kanak folk tales and taught informal classes to the local people.

The “communards” were pardoned on March 3, 1879 and almost all of them returned to France.     From 1871 France exiled Algerian Kabyles prisoners who had fought against the French colonial conquest of Algeria, as well as other prisoners from the Maghreb.  They mainly settled in the Nessadiou valley near Bourail, where today there is still an Arab cemetery.

Attempts to Make a Settler Colony

As both a penal and settler colony, endless debates ensued over how land in New Caledonia should be allocated between free settlers and penal concession holders.

Noumea itself was meant to be a settler town for government officials and free settlers only.  Very few freed convicts had the opportunity to get land concessions because

the administration gave preference to convicts still under sentence because it had greater control over them.  There were attempts to introduce women from the same

national backgrounds as the prisoners in an attempt to encourage settlers.  However, governor-general Charles Guillian made it an almost personal quest to arrange for all female prisoners to be sent to New Caledonia instead of French Guiana from 1869.  Unlike some other colonial contexts, Governor Guillian was not concerned about métis being born and saw them as strengthening the community.  Between 1870 and 1895, 800 marriages took place in New Caledonia in which at least one partner was a prisoner.

On arrival in New Caledonia, female prisoners were placed under the supervision of the Catholic sisters in the convent Saint Joseph of Cluny. While in the convent, women would sew, assist with laundry, and repair the clothes of the penal administrators.

The procedure for the selection of a wife was highly regulated.  Freed men wanting to find a wife would go to the convent with a group of other ex-prisoners.  In the slang of the colony, they went there to “faire paddock” – i.e. going to the cattle pen.

After being introduced to the available women, they would state a preference.  If the woman also expressed interest, a meeting would be arranged in a kiosk structure, built between the convent and the prison.  Under strict supervision, the couples were allowed to converse and discuss a potential union.  As the British traveller Griffiths noted, “Along a path, which cuts the only approach to the kiosk, a guard marched, revolver on hip and eye on the kiosk ready to respond to any warning sign from the Mother Superior.”

Observers said that the maximum meetings usually required to negotiate a marriage was three!  Just long enough to establish any assets the other might have (e.g., animals or mosquito nets) and whether the prospective spouse seemed healthy or not; syphilis and T.B. were rampant amongst the prison population of New Caledonia.  Group marriages were held at a time decided by the penal administration.

These ex-prisoners and their spouses could apply for land concessions near the town of Bourail on the Grand Terre (largest island) in New Caledonia and the centre of the penitentiary service.  Bourail was planned as a commune of penal settlers on small but numerous plots of land.  Concessionaires were given five years to make a success of their land and after that the authorities would requisition it, if they decided it was a failure.

Land ended up being one of the most contentious issues between the Kanaks and the prison authority.  The 1878 Melanesian or Great Rebellion in New Caledonia was a violent 6-month conflict over land tenure between the Kanaks and the French, which resulted in the deaths of 1,400 Kanaks and 200 immigrants and settlers.

The End of Transportation

From 1875, the penal colony administration was a powerful entity in its own right – administered completely separately from the settler colony of New Caledonia.  The Director of the Penitentiary Administration was independent of the Governor of New Caledonia and accountable just to the Minister of Colonies and the President of the French Republic.  However in the 1880s, the popular press in France started to describe New Caledonia as a paradise for prisoners and too lenient on them.  By 1887, transportation to French Guiana for French men had been restarted.  Colonial officials in New Caledonia themselves suggested that the “dirty tap water” of transportation be turned off at the end of the nineteenth century.  Officials in New Caledonia wanted to end transportation to make the island an attractive destination for free migrants without the constant spectre of a penal colony.  Therefore, the transport of French common-law prisoners to New Caledonia ceased in 1897.  The idea of New Caledonia as a settler colony was largely a failure.  In 1897 at the end of prisoner transportation, there were only 1,700 penal settlers.  By 1908 the penal population of New Caledonia and the settler population were basically the same – approximately 12,500.  When it was officially closed in 1922, the penal colony still had 2,310 prisoners.

New Caledonia Today

The nickel mines of New Caledonia still thrive today and France continues to administer New Caledonia as a “special collectivity,” however this is considered by most to be a step on the path to eventual independence.  The beautiful beaches and scenic resorts of New Caledonia belie the history of penal labour and imprisoned lives.  Instead the high-end tourism attracts visitors mainly from metropolitan France, Australia or Japan.  Traces of the bagne remain, however.  Although the Isle of Pines has exclusive hotels on it, the graveyard of the Communards can still be visited.  The University of New Caledonia is now built on the former site of the prison in Nouville and is fascinating example of the ways in which former penal buildings can be transformed to new uses.

Remembering the Penal Past

Recently, New Caledonian tourism has made an effort to incorporate former penal sites into travel itineraries.

Since 1975, l’Association Témoignage d’Un Passé, has strived to preserve remains of the past in New Caledonia.  In 2013, a new prison museum opened as an introductory museum in the entire history of the prison as a whole in New Caledonia.  It is based in the bakery of the penal colony and has exhibits on all the prison administration staff (supervisors, native police, medical and religious personnel) some of whom still have descendants in New Caledonia.  It incorporates the other nationalities of the penal colony: Algerians, Moroccans, Kanaks and Vietnamese.

An itinerary to visit sites connected to the penal colony. has also been compiled.

Further Reading

Louis-Jose Barbançon, L’Archipel des Forçats: Historie du Bagne du Nouvelle Calédonie, 1863-1931 (Nord-Pas Du Calais: Presse Universitaires du Septentrion, 2003).

Colin Forster. “Unwilling Migrants from Britain and France.”  In Coerced and Free Migration: Global Perspectives. Edited by David Eltis, 259-291.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

George Griffith, In an Unknown Prison Land: An account of convicts and colonists in New Caledonia with jottings out and home (London: Hutchinson and Co, 1901).

Odile Krakovitch, Les Femmes Bagnardes (Paris: Perrin, 1998).

Jacqueline Senes, La Vie Quotidienne en Nouvelle Caledonie de 1850 a nos jours. (Paris: Hachette, 1985).

Stephen A. Toth, Beyond Papillon: The French overseas penal colonies 1854-1952 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Pres, 2006).