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May 2011

Colonial Penal Colonies - Les Bagnes Coloniaux


During a period of just one hundred years, from 1852 to 1953, France sent more than 100,000 convicts to overseas penal colonies, primarily to French Guiana and New Caledonia, Guyane française and Nouvelle Calédonie. Branded, beaten and in chains, men and women were loaded onto boats and sent away to sweltering climes. Their crimes were often poverty-related, and surely there were some who were purely evil, but many were political prisoners, or simply those who had fallen afoul of the powerful. If one of your French ancestors dropped out of sight during those one hundred years, he or she may have been sent abroad as a convict.

To enable our readers to learn more about grievous conditions in French penal institutions generally, we offer here, (with thanks to the Internet Archive) a link to the illustrated edition of Maurice Alhoy's 1845 book "Les Bagnes : Histoire, Types, Mœrs, Mystères", from which the image above is taken. The same site also offers a three-part interview by Criminocorpus with one Emile Demaret, who had been a guard at a colonial prison:

Part One : The prisoner "Canard"

Part Two :  "Seznec"

Part Three : "le Bal du dimanche"

Now the Archives nationales d'outre-mer (ANOM) in Aix-en-Provence, have made available online, not the convict files themselves (which have not been filmed or scanned), but the index to them on their online search system, IREL. Finding the database of bagnards from the main page is a headache. Its correct title is Base de Données des Dossiers Individuels de Condamnés au Bagne. Click on the link to go directly to the page from which one can search the index, by the prisoner's name and alias. We tried the alias "Bob" and among the results was one Robert Yung, condemned in 1862 and sent to French Guiana, where he died four years later. His matriculation number and the reference number are also given. With these, the next time one toodles to Aix, one may request Bob's file.

Genealogy often brings abandoned and lost souls to light. This is a nice addition to such recoveries.

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Compagnie des Indes Archives Are Online

Compagnie des Indes

The truly exciting news was announced at the Archives nationales on Tuesday that the archives of the Compagnie des Indes are now available online. Not a few people in Louisiana and Mississippi today are descended from people who sailed from France to la Louisiane on ships of the Compagnie des Indes

For quite a while, volunteer members of the Association des Amis du Service historique de la Défense à Lorient have been transcribing and indexing the records of the Compagnie des Indes. Lorient, being much dedicated to it, also has a superb Museum of the Compagnie des Indes. It is the online access to detailed records, however, that is so exciting.

The site is maintained by the Mémoire des Hommes, the same site that offers the online site of those who died in the First World War, Morts Pour la France. For the Compagnie des Indes, there are five pages, in French:

  • Orientations historiques - a couple of brief paragraphs with three PDF downloads: two  essays by René Estienne: "Lorient et les Compagnies des Indes 1666-1794" and "Les archives des compagnies commerciales et la traite : l'exemple de la Compagnie des Indes", and by Alain Morgat : "Traite atlantique, cartographie et navigation".
  • Archives du port de Lorient- a brief explanation of how the port was created specifically for the shipyards of the Compagnie des Indes, and of the miraculous survival of the archives through World War Two. There are links to the sub-series lists of the archives.
  • Armament des navires - an explanation of the archives on the fitting out of ships and another essay by René Estienne : "Les Armements au long cours de la deuxième Compagnie des Indes (1717-1773)" then a wonderful ability to search by the ship name and get its entire history, including crew, passengers and log books, where these survive.
  • Equipages et passagers - graciously apologising for having "only" 111,000 names, and not all of those on all of the lists, the site offers here what will surely thrill many genealogists in Louisiana, Pondicherry, Martinique and other locales. The search form requires either a first or last name, during any stretch between the years 1720 to 1770, and then brings up a list of results with name, age, nationality, rank and pay, notes, ship, years of the voyage. The original records are not online in most cases.
  • Cartes nautiques - the search form allows one to access the data of over 470 plates from five atlases of nautical maps.



©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Documenting a Journey Across the Atlantic - From Both Sides

Sailing ship small


Our grandmother was something of an academic at heart and always taught us to "go to the source" when researching. The burgeoning plethora of databases and websites of scanned documents is making possible some very entertaining discoveries of sources, allowing for some dotting of genealogical is . We give here a detailed example.

We have been hunting a chap named Raymond Lafon, who arrived in New Orleans in 1839. We went first to, where a broad search gave a man of that name, aged 28, arriving in 1820, which makes him too old for our man who should have been born in France in about 1817. It also brings up a Louisiana naturalisation record of 1852 for a Raymond Lafon/Lafond who arrived in June, 1839, probably our man, but no help as to his ship, passage, or port of departure. 

We did another general search on "R Lafon" and this time, he appeared, in the "New Orleans Passenger Lists, 1820-1945": 

R. Lafon 1839

 He arrive on the 28th of May, 1839 on the Avenir from Bordeaux. Looking at the original record (ALWAYS advised) :

L'Avenir May 1839

He appears last on the list and we get the added information that he is twenty-two years old and a merchant. Thank you, Ancestry. We have his time of arrival as May/June, 1839, the name of the ship as the Avenir and the port of departure as Bordeaux.

Turning to French resources, we find that the genealogy association, Amitiés Généalogiques Bordelaises, has made an index to all of the passports issued at the port of Bordeaux from 1793 to 1858. They no longer sell this index, and their site sends one to where it can be referenced online, the dreaded géné Type "Lafon" in the search box, scroll down to "Passeports-Enregistrements-Embarquements" and click on the passports of 1793-1858, and there is the reference on the third page of results. Click on "visualisez" to see the information and you hit a mini-seam of precious metal, for it gives his:

  • height (1 meter 70 cm)
  • eye colour (light brown)
  • hair colour (light brown)
  • face shape (oval)
  • nose shape (with a bump)
  • chin shape (round)
  • age (22)
  • profession (mistakenly entered as Bordeaux, but he is a baker)
  • residence (mistakenly entered as baker, but it is Bordeaux)
  • country of origin (France, the department of Gironde)
  • town of origin (Sauternes)
  • date of departure (20th March, 1839)
  • destination (New Orleans)
  • signature
  • notes (he is going there to practice his profession)

One can do better yet. The Departmental Archives of Gironde have scanned and put online all of the passports covered by this index. On their page, click on "Archives en ligne". The passports in the column on the left are from 1800 to 1889. When we type in the search boxes just 1839 and Lafon, we get nothing. No idea why. So we revert to 1839 and get all 739 passports issued that year. With the "find" command of the keyboard, we search for Lafon, and there he is, number 72. Click on that to get the actual record, which does not confuse his residence with his profession and adds the information of his

  • street address in Bordeaux (rue Ste. Catherine, no. 52)
  • forehead shape (average)
  • mouth shape (average)
  • skin colour (brown, here meaning swarthy)
  • beard (skimpy)
  • eyebrows (light brown)

  R. Lafon copy

We now know what our man looked like, what his work was and, most preciously in French genealogy, where he was from. We could then carry on to view the civil registrations for Sauternes, on the same website, and look for his birth. As to why he left that town, the name of which also graces one of the loveliest wines of France, no document will likely show.

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

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The Institute of France - l'Institut de France

Institute de France dome 2

If your ancestor were an academic of some stature, an artist, a scientist, architect, philosopher, or some such, he or she may have been elected to the Institut de France. The Institute incorporates a number of academies:

  • The French Academy
  • The Academy of Belles-Lettres
  • The Academy of Sciences
  • The Academy of Fine Art
  • The Academy of Ethics and Political Science 

Membership to these academies is for life and the numbers limited.  The Académie française, the French Academy, was established in 1635 before the idea of a population explosion was ever mooted, and has only forty places. Your ancestor may have been eligible but, if no member died soon enough to make a place available, not elected. Perhaps unfairly, a person may be a member of more than one of the academies, thus occupying more than one of the precious spaces.

Institut Archives 2

We have been researching a member and had occasion to visit the archives and chat with the archivist of the Institute. We entered and sighed. No matter the massive, beautiful and historic building, no matter the prestige, the archives were in the same tumbledown neglect as in so many other places. Nevertheless, the archivist was most helpful and kindly pulled the membership file we sought. It was a fine trove of detail on the man's life and work, well worth the trip there. 

To find a file on a member, write or e-mail the archivist with the full name and, if at all possible, the correct Academy and the date of election to it. He will verify if there is a file or not. Then, it is necessary to visit the archives to photograph the file, for photocopying and scanning are not permitted.


Archives de l'Institut de France

23 Quai Conti

75270 Paris Cedex 06

tel: (+33) 01 44 41 4 41

Métro: Louvre-Rivoli

Hours open: 14.00 to 17.30, Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays


©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

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Paris Marriages in the 1860s

Paris - Hotel de Ville - small

This is a small but very helpful resource. For nine years, the city of Paris published a weekly listing of all the marriages which took place at each of the arrondissement mairies, (the city halls of each of the borroughs of Paris). L'Indicateur de Mariages was published from December of 1861 through January of 1869. It gives a simple listing of the marriages, in order of the arrondissement numbers, with the names of the couple, their professions and their addresses. Each issue is usually four pages long. In 1868, it began to include the banlieus, the suburbs, and some notices from other cities, in a very small way. All 363 issues are available to view for free on Gallica.

L'Indicateur des Mariages

(Click on the image to see a larger version.)

In truth, there is nothing here that cannot be found by searching the tables décennales, the ten-year indices, on the website of the Archives de Paris (the link is also in the column to the left on this page). It is merely an easier presentation to read, which can be a relief at times.

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

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