Visiting the penal colony (prison) at Nouville with Alain Fort, a Heritage guide is like reliving an important part of the history of New Caledonia.
The Caledonian penal colony was established in 1863 in order to overcome the problems caused by the climate and dangerous animals encountered at the Cayenne galleys. The first "shipped" common-law prisoners, arrived on May 9, 1864 and were settled on l’île Nou – i.e. the NouIsland. For 33 years, 75 convoys brought about 21,000 convicts sentenced to penal servitude (hard labour). These convicts have been instrumental in building the penal colony but also in banking up the bays of Noumea and in the construction of large buildings. After eight-year sentence and another eight working the land made available to the “free men” by the Penitentiary Administration, they were free to return to France, or to continue to work on the piece of land, which sometimes became their property.
For most prisoners, going to the penal colony was proposed as a way of "making amends”. They were selected based on their professional or artistic skills. At the end of their sentence, every effort was made so that the convicts would not return to their homeland; the prison administration was ready thou to finance the trip of their extended family to come and settle in New Caledonia.
Among the inmates, the « déportés » or the « communards » - i.e. political prisoners from the Commune of Paris (1871), experienced the horrors of prison; other 3,000 of them were simply sent to the penal colony on the Ile des Pins - Isle of Pines with no obligation to work, and 900 others including Louise MICHEL « la vierge rouge » - (i.e. "the red virgin") of the Commune, were held in the fortified building of Ducos. Finally, 324 Communards considered arsonists or criminals were sentenced to forced labour. All were released in 1880.
It was at the same time that the political prisoners of the kabyle rebellion in Algeria, arrived. Sent first to the Ile des Pins (Isle of Pines), they were moved to Nessadiou, near Bourail and pardoned in 1895.
The « relégués » - i.e. "the banished ones" were recidivist petty criminals and prostitutes, which also populated the penal colony of New Caledonia. Often sentenced to hard labour they were incorporated afterwards into the local society, including the women that were pressed into marrying.
Governor Feillet put an end to the deportation in 1897 (« fermeture du robinet d’eau sale » - i.e. ”Closing the dirty water tap”), but the penal colony was closed only in 1922 and the official decree for its dissolution was issued only in 1933.