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Jean-Yves Mollier

Dreyfus at the penal colony, or: how political prisoners are broken

Le Temps des médias n°15, automne 2010, p. 180-191.


When Alfred Dreyfus was condemned to transportation in a fortress outside the continental territory, a sentence which he accomplished on Devil’s Island (île du Diable) in French Guyana, a land known as "the dry guillotine", the event had a strong impact on the international public opinion at the end of the nineteenth century. The case even came to symbolize the iniquity of raison d’état which blindly struck an innocent victim. Beyond the personal case of the man who unwittingly became the hero of the Dreyfus Affair, this paper retraces the history of political transportation from the aftermath of the French Revolution to the present time. Whoever the victims of the political repression were, from the Republicans imprisoned in the Mont-Saint-Michel blockhouses before 1830, to their fellow prisoners transported to Belle-Ile-en-Mer in 1848-1849, to those deported to the Marquesas Islands, Guyana, Algeria or New Caledonia between 1851 and 1876, the aim of the condemnation was the same: to scare the prisoners, to destroy their morale and to quell any desire their partisans might have had to imitate them. Dreyfus escaped the death penalty because it was suppressed in 1848, though his transportation to that sinister place off Guyana was deliberately intended to bring about his death. The press were right in describing the horrors of the penal colony, even if they assimilated it wrongly with the hard labor imposed on common law criminals. This paper will focus on the influence of the media in creating a collective imagination of imprisonment.

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