The new year has begun oddly here in France. Many are down with the stomach flu, le gastro, and many others with serious chest colds, le flu. Night temperatures drop to ten degrees below zero, Centigrade, and jump to twenty-five degrees during bright, sunny days. The fruit trees are quite dizzy trying to get it right, some blooming, some remaining dormant, others still with last autumn's withered bounty adorning their branches.
We have been directed to a website that exhibits something of a similar dizziness. Le Bibliothèque numérique du Centre de recherche bretonne et celtique (CRBC), the Digital Library of the Centre of Breton and Celtic Research, has digitised and put online a strange collection of whatever pleases the librarians, it would seem. Among the collections of song competition entries and sheet music are the first nineteen registers of forced labour and penal colony prisoners in Brest, the forçats and bagnards.
By way of background, we have discussed the penal colonies here, and researching the detailed files on individual bagnards in the Archives nationales d'outre-mer here. We have reported on the ANOM representative's discussion of the penal colony files here and, lastly, one of our favourite websites, Criminocorpus, has put together a most impressive study guide on the subject here.
If this be your field of study, whether for a doctoral thesis or to find that criminal ancestor, these newly digitised registers could be of help, but it will not be a piece of cake. These registers are from the archives of the Service historique de la défense branch at Brest. A couple are correspondence ledgers, being mostly copies of letters to superiors, noting arrivals and departures. The rest have full paragraphs about the prisoners, giving a lovely amount of detail, including parents' names, place of birth, physical description, the crime for which condemned and the length of the sentence to be served.
Isaac Liecthy [possibly a Mennonite, for that surname was quite common among the members of that sect in France] for example, prisoner number 40,079, was the son of Christ Liecthy and Marie Coline [?] and the husband of Anne Marguerite Meunier. He was a goldsmith, aged twenty-eight years, and was born near Neufchatel. He was five feet one inch tall, with dark brown hair and beard, brown eyes, a large and long nose that bent a bit to the right, a round chin, a high forehead with a scar. He had been condemned in Lons le Saunier, on the 17th of pluviôse, Year V, for stealing from the inn where he was staying, and was to serve eight years. [Register number 2018, page 295]
You would need to know that the person you are researching passed through Brest -- rather than via another port -- on his or her way to a penal colony, and you would need to know approximately when. Then, you would simply have to hunker down and start reading the registers. Mostly, they are from the eighteenth century, with just the last two volumes, numbers 2018 and 2019, containing entries from the early nineteenth century. Some entries have only the name and no detail at all. The penmanship is a delight to read, so why not try your luck?
©2017 Anne Morddel