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ASU professor publishes up-close look at French penal colonies of 19th and 20th centuries

November 17, 2006


Stephen Toth, an assistant professor of modern European history in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University’s West campus, has authored Beyond Papillon: The French Overseas Penal Colonies, 1854-1952, published by the University of Nebraska as part of its “France Overseas” series.

The book, which began as Toth’s doctoral dissertation at Indiana University, is based on extensive archival research and invites the reader to experience the infamous prisons firsthand.


“I think readers will be surprised to learn that prisoners fashioned their own unique experiences and identities within the confines of the penal colonies,” says Toth, whose research on the history of crime and punishment in the French colonial world has appeared in a wide variety of scholarly journals. 

Through a careful analysis of criminal case files, administrative records, and prisoner biographies, Toth reconstructs life in the penal colonies and examines how the social sciences, tropical medicine, and sensational journalism evaluated and exploited the inmates’ experiences.

“Media accounts of the time mischaracterized conditions in the penal colonies,” says Toth, who gathered information for his book from the Centre d’Archives d’Outre Mer in Aix-en-Provence. The Centre is the official state repository for all documents related to the French overseas penal colonies.

“Media were accustomed to nineteenth century reports and descriptions of the South American (French penal) colony as fetid and disease-ridden when in fact conditions had improved considerably by the interwar period. Most of the reports were deliberately sensationalized and fictionalized in order to stimulate reader interest.”

In exploring the disjuncture between the real and the imagined, Toth moves beyond mythic characterizations of the penal colonies to reveal how power, discipline and punishment were construed and enforced in these prison outposts.

“Harsh punishment was not the intent of the French state,” Toth notes. “Indeed, the French penal colonies were based on a utopian or Rousseauian notion of the regenerative powers of agrarian life. The colonies were seen, at least initially, not as sites of final retribution or even punishment, but as a more humane alternative to the penitentiary which had also come into existence around this same point in time.”

Toth is currently at work on a second book project, for which he was the recipient of an American Philosophical Society summer travel grant in 2006, tentatively titled Rural Redemption: The Mettray Agricultural Colony for Delinquent Boys.