Although there are little remnants of the forced labour camps known as the Bagne in Toulon, their history remains a fascinating and integral part of the city’s identity. The Toulon Bagne were established in 1748 and abandoned in 1873. The French penitentiary system which was managed by the Navy built labour camps in Toulon, Brest and Rochefort before moving overseas.
Not all convicts were hardened criminals and yet murderers and political dissidents alike where forced to march on foot and chained to a prison mate from cities as far as Paris to Toulon where they were either labelled TF (travaux forces) or TP (travaux perpetutité). They became forced labourers for a designated time frame or forever.
Notorious French authors were aghast at the concept of these camps which had convicts living and sleeping on abandoned galleys until they built themselves their prison accommodations, rife with rats and parasites, at the arsenal in the port of Toulon. Balzac, Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo, who based his fictional character Jean Valjean as a prisoner from the Bagne in Les Miserables, were among the many who spoke up against this form of incarceration. As public outcry grew, the French built penitentiaries in the overseas colonies of Guiana and New Caledonia, far from the public eye. These remained functional until 1952.
Henri Charrière, who was convicted of murder in 1931, wrote his memoir Papillon (it means butterfly) in 1969. Incarcerated in French Guiana (bordering Brazil and Suriname) he finally managed to escape and many years later he wrote his memoir that became a French bestseller. Papillon was translated into English just a year later. Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen played in the screen adaptation of the movie that was nominated for an Oscar in 1974.
Visiting Toulon again recently I stumbled upon the ledger of the Bagne detailing the crime, identity and sentencing of each prisoner. The registrar is in impeccable condition and is worth viewing at the Musée de la Marine in downtown Toulon. www.musee-marine.fr