Bagne of Toulon

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

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


The bagne was created by an ordinance of King Louis XV in 1748 to house the convicts who had previously been sentenced to row the galleys of the French Mediterranean fleet.[1] The name 'bagne' came from the Italian word bagno, or bath, the name of a prison in Rome which had formerly been a Roman bath.

Since the 15th century, French prisoners had been sentenced to serve on the galleys, sometimes even for minor crimes. By the eighteenth century, cannons and changes in modern naval warfare had made the galleys obsolete, and the use of galleys for punishment was stopped. The prisoners were first transferred to a group of ships tied up at the arsenal and port of Toulon, which were called the "bagne flottant" (the floating prison.) Then, new buildings were constructed on the shore in the Arsenal, between the Nouvelle Darse (new port) and Vieille Darse (old port.) Other bagnes were created in Brest and Rochefort.

Though there were no more galleys being built, prisoners continued to be sent to Toulon. The convicts were used for digging earth and construction work, both in the Arsenal and in the town. They also provided labor for the big treadmills used in spinning ropes in the Corderie, or rope factory, of the Arsenal.

The costumes of the prisoners consisted of a white shirt, yellow trousers, red vest and smock and a cap which had different colors depending on the sentence duration. Those sentenced to life imprisonment wore green caps, all the others red caps. Because of the similarity to the Phrygian cap, these were abolished for a short time during the French revolution. Before the French Revolution and again after 1810, the prisoners were also branded on the shoulder with a hot iron, using the letters TF (travaux forcés, hard labour) and TFP (travaux forcés à perpétuité, hard labour for life). One of their feet, typically the right one, was encircled with a ring of iron attached to a short chain, so that they could be immobilized. The most hardened criminals were chained two on two. An iron ball attached to the leg was used as a punishment for some times in the late 18th century, as was flogging with a tarred or knotted rope. These punishments were made less severe as the years passed.

Charity box for the bagne prisoners in the Old Town of Toulon

The diet of the prisoners consisted of a small amount of meat and a ration of wine for the workers, and a large amount of dried vegetables, particularly beans. The prisoners used the word 'gourgane' (the word for 'beans' in the provençal language) to refer to the guards.

Since the sanitary conditions of the prison were extremely poor, a hospital was built within the prison in 1777 in the casemates of the southeast rampart of the Darse Vauban, and later additional buildings were added adjoining the rampart. In 1897 the hospital was moved to a much larger building, 200 meters long, which was built on the west quay of the Vieille Darse or old port, called the Grand Rang. This building had a very large ground floor with a vaulted ceiling with three bays. The hospital occupied the upper floor. Two square towers with pyramid-shaped roofs were built at the north and south ends of the building. The rest of the building was occupied by administrative offices.

The healthy prisoners were originally housed along the west quay, where the hospital was eventually built. In 1814, they were moved to another building 115 meters long, oriented east-west, perpendicular to the hospital, which had been built in 1783 on the southwest quay of the Old Port, between the chain which blocked the entrance to the port and the Grand Rang. Next to this building a ship was moored, called the Amiral, which guarded the entrance to the port and fired a cannon shot each morning and each evening.

In 1836 the Bagne held 4,305 prisoners, of which 1,193 were sentenced to life imprisonment; 173 to more than twenty years imprisonment; 382 to terms between sixteen and twenty years; 387 to terms between eleven and fifteen years; 1469 to terms of between five and ten years; and 700 to terms of less than five years.[2]

A few of the bagnards, or prisoners, were well-known, notably a famous imposter named Coignard, who pretended to be the Count of St. Helena, and Eugène François Vidocq (23 July 1775 – 11 May 1857) a French criminal who later became the first director of Sûreté Nationale and one of the first modern private investigators, and who may have been the model for both Javert and Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.

At the beginning of the Second Empire of Napoleon III (Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte), the government decided to close the prisons at the naval ports, which were considered undesirable and expensive to run. It was therefore decided to replace the so-called "bagnes métropolitains", the prisons within cities, with transportation to French Guyana (with the central administration in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni and Devil's Island mainly used for political prisoners) and later also to Nouméa in French New Caledonia. The bagnes of Rochefort and Brest were closed in 1852 and 1858 respectively, but Toulon, the largest, took longer to empty.

By 1873, the bagne had become too expensive to operate, and the workers were too unskilled and required too many guards to be of practical use. The bagne was closed, and the buildings were used for various military purposes. They survived until 1944, when the bagne was almost entirely destroyed by an Allied bombing raid. All that remains today is a single small building and a fragment of wall, on the southeast side of the Darse Vauban.

Fictional Characters in the Bagne of Toulon[edit]

Besides Jean Valjean, several other characters in French literature spent time in the Bagne of Toulon:

Sources and references[edit]

Taken from the French-language Wikipedia article bagne de Toulon, and from the descriptive texts of the permanent exhibit on the bagne in Fort Balaguier. See also the very informative French-language site of Net Marine, the French Association for the diffusion by Internet of information about the French Navy.

  1. ^ Roumagnac 2001, p. 17.
  2. ^ site of Net Marine.


  • Roumagnac, Cyrille (2001). L'Arsenal de Toulon et la Royale. Alan Sutton. ISBN 978-2-84253-602-2. 
  • Vergé-Franceschi, Michel (2002). Toulon - Port Royal (1481-1789). Paris: Tallandier. ISBN 978-2-84734-001-3. 

External sources[edit]