Bagne of Toulon

The Bagne of Toulon was the notorious prison in Toulon, France, made famous as the place of imprisonment of the fictional Jean Valjean, the hero of Les Misérables, the novel by Victor Hugo. It was opened in 1748 and closed in 1873.

French prison
A Bagnard, or prisoner in the Bagne of Toulon, early 19th century. (Source: Museum of Fort Balaguier)

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The bagne was created by an ordinance of King Louis XV on September 27, 1748 to house the convicts who had previously been sentenced to row the galleys of the French Mediterranean fleet. The decree stated, in article 11, “All the galleys in the port will be disarmed, and the chiourmes (the ancient term for the convict galley rowers) will be kept on land in the bagnes, guarded halls, or other places which will be designated for their confinement.” [1] The name ‘bagne’ came from the Italian word bagno (giving bagnio in English), or “bath”, the name of a prison in Rome which had formerly been a Roman bath.[2] Other authors point to a prison in Livorno.[3]

Since the 15th century, French prisoners had been sentenced to serve on the galleys, sometimes even for minor crimes. The galleys were long, narrow craft with cannon mounted on the bow and a high, ornamentally-decorated deck at the stern. Unlike sailing ships, they could operate when there was no wind. They were a force used only on the Mediterranean, where the sea was relatively calm, and were entirely independent of the Navy, with their own Grand Admiral. The galleys were used both for military missions and for ceremonial travel, for example carrying the Cardinal de Guise from France to Rome for the election of a new Pope after the death of Pope Paul IV in 1559. By the 18th century, changes in naval tactics and weapons had made the galleys obsolete, and the galleys were decommissioned, However, prisoners sentenced to forced labor continued to be sent to the south of France.[2][4]

The Bagne of Toulon in the mid-19th century (from Histoire des Baignes depuis leurs creations jusqu’a nos jours by Pierre Zaccone, Paris (1869)

The galleys were originally based in Marseille. In 1749, with the new decree, the galley fleet was transferred to Toulon, to the port and arsenal of the French Mediterranean fleet. By the end of the 18th century there were about 3,000 prisoners in the Bagne. The convicts lived on the galleys, and then on larger prison ships, where the sanitary and health facilities were deplorable. Because of the poor health of the prisoners, in 1777 a hospital for the prisoners was installed in a casemate of the southeast rampart of the Darse Vauban, the immense naval port begun by Vauban during the reign of Louis XIV. The bagne was placed next to the first dry dock on the Mediterranean, built between 1774 and 1779. In 1797 a new building was constructed on the west quay of the Darse Vauban. It was two hundred meters long and two stories high, with towers with pyramid-shaped roofs at either end. The hospital occupied the first floor, a chapel for the prisoners was placed in the north end, and the rest of the building was occupied by the administration of the prison.

In the beginning, able-bodied prisoners lived in the casements of the ramparts or on prison ships. In 1814 they were transferred to a building on shore, 115 meters long, which was perpendicular to the hospital, located on the southwest quay, between the Darse Vauban and the entrance to the old port.[5] Even after the construction of the new building, some prisoners continued to be held on ships when there was no place on land.[2]

Docked next to the Bagne, at the entrance of the old port, was a decommissioned French ship, called L’Amiral. It had formerly been the frigate Muiron, which transported Napoleon Bonaparte from Egypt to France in 1799. It now had only a single mast. It fired a cannon every morning and evening, the signal to open and close the gates of the arsenal and to move the heavy chains which blocked the entrances to inner ports. If a prisoner escaped from the bagne, the Amiral fired a cannon, and hoisted a yellow flag, which remained until the prisoner was recaptured.[4]

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