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