The Bagne prison colony

From 1748 to 1873 Toulon was the site of a brutal prison colony called Le Bagne Portuaire de Toulon. An exhibition on this prison colony was shown at the Naval Museum in Toulon (Musée National de la Marine) in 2012/2013.

The prisoners, known as bagnards or forçats, wore bright red coats and were kept chained to their beds at night — their beds being slabs of wood on a boat or in a prison building — or chained together in pairs while doing forced labor during the daytime.

Model of a galley

The original reason for these prison camps was that strong men were needed to row the galleys. In the museum there are some models of galleys, like this one which had sixty oars. If there were five men on each oar, that would make three hundred men that were needed just to row this one ship.

Model of a galley with sails

Here is another model of a galley, this one with fifty oars and with its sails unfurled. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the galleys were gradually phased out in favor of sailing ships which had more space for cargo and cannons. The old galleys were then kept in the harbor and were used as very uncomfortable sleeping quarters for the prisoners.

Forçats

On one of the narrow streets in the Old Town of Toulon there is a cut-out sculpture of two forçats, who must have been a common sight in Toulon during the 125 years when the prison colony was located here. One of the two-dimensional prisoners in the sculpture is chained by a three-dimensional chain to a three-dimensional metal ball. This simple memorial to the forçats was installed by a local art gallery, the Galerie St. Louis at 12 Place du Globe, 83000 Toulon.

Les Misérables

In October 1839 the French author Victor Hugo visited Toulon to observe the bagne, because he wanted to describe it in a novel he was planning to write. The novel was Les Misérables, which grew to be eighteen hundred pages long and was an immediate popular success when it was finally published twenty-three years later.

The protagonist, Jean Valjean, spent a total of nineteen years at hard labor in the bagne of Toulon as a forçat, and for the rest of his life was in danger of being recaptured and sent back to the prison.

After seeing Toulon and the bagne in 1839, Victor Hugo wrote that the prisoners had been turned into frightening creatures who evoked fear when they were in chains and horror when they were freed. “The forçat was a sort of demon created by the law.”

My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2018.

See more posts on Toulon, France.
See more posts on the author Victor Hugo.

4 thoughts on “The Bagne prison colony”

  1. Les Mesirables is my favourite musical and I have a number of times now attempted to read the book but not yet got beyond a few pages.. time does not allow right now! Some day I will read it. I do wonder how I will find it having seen the musical so many times.

    1. I’ve only seen the musical once. What spoiled it for me was the totally inadequate sound system in the London theatre. It sounded like a pocket radio, not like a live performance.

  2. A horrifying place and a completely terrifying environment. I have never seen the musical Les Miserables (Lex has) but I have seen the film in black and white. I don’t think either has completely conveyed the horrific circumstances of the actual prison. Good that it is gone!

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