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Manuscript plan of the infamous St. Laurent penal colony in French Guiana, 1859.

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 Map of the infamous St. Laurent penal colony in French Guiana



Plan de l'établissement penitentiaire de St Laurent.

French Guyana, [1859].

Pen, ink and watercolour on tracing paper. 40,5 x 30,5 cm. Scale 1:10,000.


The earliest recorded map of the penal colony or “bagne” in Saint-Laurent du Maroni in French Guiana, at the border with Surinam. This prison complex was made famous by the book and film Papillon and is also known as the Green Hell. 
This manuscript plan shows the first buildings and planned expansion of the complex in 1859. 
Before that there existed only a tiny village there. After the 1848 abolition of slavery colonies lost their purpose and in 1854 Louis Napoleon decreed for the establishment of a penal colonies there, because the prisons in French were overcrowded. For this purpose a center of peninteniary administration and primary place of detention was plannen in 1857 and openend in 1859. This “Camp de la Transportation” was the place where convicts would first arrive.
The present plan is the earliest map of that area that we could find and is unrecorded. It is not dated but shows a few buildings that were already finished and other proposed places for buildings to be construced in 1859, such as a church ("emplacement probable de l'eglise"). So the map has to 1859. The eraliest other map that we traced are from 1868 (Collection MUCEM, FRANOM_COL_H54_001) and 1872 (Coll. Archives territoriales de Guyane, Cote 1Fi57). These show a significantly enlarged and developed complex.
The cartographer used tracing paper to draw the plan of the complex over an existing map of the area. It is a small miracle that the map has survived because the material is so fragile and the place where it was made was extremely humid. Tracing paper is very sensitive to humidity. This see through paper was used for planning things that were not yet there. The very brittle and yellowed tracing paper (known as papier végétal in French) was used since the early 19th century.
All in all this is, despite the damages, a highly important colonial manuscript map.

The penal colony was developed under the direction of commodore Laurent Baudin and it was named after him. Large walls were not needed; the river and jungle served as a natural prison. The conditions in French Guiana were poor, for “bagnards” (prisoners) and officials alike, and the mortality rate as a result high. It is commonly perceived that the prisoners were white French men, but Merle 2019 describes that “far from constituting a homogeneous category, the entity of the “convict” is fragmented according to administrative categorizations which organize social relations inside and outside camp walls. One such category, based on race, remains understudied. Depending on the year, between 20% and 60% of convicts transported to French Guiana were from France’s North African colonies and categorized as Arabs.”

Condition: Due to the brittle nature of the tracing paper it has some significant tears/cracks and a piece lacking at the center, though fortunately this part showed mainly the water of the river.


Coquet, Marine. "Totalisation carcérale en terre coloniale : la carcéralisation à Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni (xixe-xxe siècles)", in: Cultures & Conflits, 90, 2013, pp. 59-76.

Donet-Vincent D., De soleil et de silences, histoire des bagnes de Guyane, Paris, La Boutique de l’Histoire, 2003.

Merle, Isabelle & Coquet, Marine. (2019). "The Penal World in the French Empire: A Comparative Study of French Transportation and its Legacy in Guyana and New Caledonia", in: The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 47, pp. 247-274.

Toth, Stephen A. Beyond Papillon, The French Overseas Penal Colonies, 1854-1952. Lincoln & London, University of Nebraska Press, 2006.


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