Most visitors sunning themselves, snorkelling and otherwise enjoying themselves on Kuto Beach would be totally oblivious to the fact that most 19th century visitors to the Ile des Pins spent their time here locked up in cells with no opportunity to enjoy the island and its beaches as today’s visitors do. They would be oblivious to the fact that the island’s main colonial prison was a short distance from the beach.
France’s initial and primary interest in New Caledonia was its ability to be used as a penal colony – in the same way as Australia came in handy for the British. The stunningly beautiful islands of New Caledonia were dumping grounds for France’s undesirables.
While convicts were spread out across various of the islands there was a particular concentration on the Ile des Pins where this prison was built in 1870/71. While today the prison is a ruin, in large part overrun in vines and ferns, in it’s day thousands of French convicts where held here until the served their custodial sentences and returned to France or were released into the local community, as most were. While prisoners here and elsewhere, the convicts provided a steady supply of free labour for the construction of roads and public buildings. Notre-Dame de l’Assomption Church in the island’s main village of Vao was built by convicts. Sun tanning, snorkelling and drinking cocktails were not part of prison life in the New Caledonia. Prisoners barely had enough to eat here and conditions were less than salubrious.
In March 1871, post the Franco-Prussian War, a populist government known as the Commune was set up in Paris. Adolphe Thiers, the recently elected head of the new monarchist republic which had based itself in Versailles, soon brought the Commune to an end. In addition to the tens of thousands who were killed in the street, imprisoned or later executed, upwards of 4,000 were deported to New Caledonia, many for the hideous crimes of moral deprivation or the lack of belief in God. The majority of these deportees were incarcerated in this prison (newly built for them) on the Ile des Pins and here they remained until granted an amnesty in 1880. While the Communards left, the island continued as a penal colony until 1912, deportation itself having ceased in 1897.
Unfortunately, our island tour only permitted us to see the prison ruins from the bus as we returned to Kuto/ Kanumera. I understand most tours actually stop here for a short time. Perhaps we had over indulged at our previous stop, Queen Hortense’s Cave, where we certainly spent a lot longer than the 20 or so minutes allocated for that stop.
It wasn’t actually until I was researching this review that I realised that the ruins are an easy walk from the Hotel Kou-Bugny (on Kuto Beach) where I later had a drink and enjoyed the beach prior to returning to our cruise ship. Had I realised this at the time I would have returned to the ruins for a closer look at them and also visited the nearby Deportee’s Cemetery, where around 260 deportees were laid to rest. I refer to the cemetery in my separate review of the Notre-Dame de l’Assomption Church in Vao. Specifically, the absence of any form of religious markings on the cemetery headstones was a calculated expression of the convicts’ disdain for the Catholic church.
Speaking of the church, it, or rather the local convent, had an important secular role to play in the lives of convicts. As my reader may know or suspect, the majority of convicts on the island were men with only a small number women convicts sent here. Female convicts were held in the convent under the watchful eye of the mother superior. When freed, the male convict in search of a wife could go and try his luck at the convent. Locally this ritual was referred to as “faire paddock” or ‘going to the cattle pen’.
Enough! I have digressed, again!
The prison ruins are open 24/7 and there is no entry fee.
This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries based on my trip to Ile des Pins, New Caledonia. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Kanumera Bay-Stunning – or to start the loop at the beginning go to my introductory entry – No Hurries, No Worries.