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The effect of the letters: Internal monitoring and reinforced surveillance

The colonial administrative machinery in action

Because they were written documents, these letters acted as visible, material proof within the colonial administrative space. In some sense, using writing to protest is to use the administration’s own tools. Writing played a determining role in the establishment and affirmation of colonial power, setting it down on paper. The supposed effectiveness of this form of administration becomes tangible in its bureaucracy and red tape: reports, proposals, counter-proposals, administrative investigations, and so on (see for instance Hawkins 2002, Cerdeira 2018). Their use of letters allowed prisoners to make accusations and demands, and as these complaints were written and left material traces, the colonial authorities were obliged to investigate and deny their allegations.

The simple fact that the governor of Senegal received and read the demands written by the prisoners was enough to set the administrative machinery in motion. The governor launched an inquiry into the prisoners’ allegations, given that the claims could harm both the penal camp staff and the colonial administration more broadly. The prisoners’ complaints threw sand in the gears of the administration’s coercive machinery, and revealed the feebleness, and the failings, of its day-to-day surveillance. By revealing the dysfunctions of the colonial prison system, the letters obliged the authorities to increase surveillance, to investigate these allegations, and to explain them.

After the governor of Senegal read the letters, he sent them to the Cercle commander who had authority over the administrative district within which the penal camp was situated, calling on him to investigate. The governor asked the same series of questions for each of the letters in the corpus: Who was the actual author of the letter? Who was given the letter to mail? Where was it written? Above all, rather than taking an interest in the living and working conditions of the prisoners, the governor of Senegal wanted to understand how these letters had circumvented the camp’s censors.

Let us take the example of two letters written about five months apart by the same prisoner, Ibrahima Wade, on 27 April and 9 October 1938. Their content is identical. Wade mainly complains about repeated solitary confinement and the lack of food and clothing. Interestingly, he directly names the station chief of Kebemer and the director of penal camp C.[1] The governor’s first move was to order the Cercle commander to investigate the accusations. The inquiry' records show that the Cercle commander of Louga transferred the inquiry' to the station chief of Kebemer and the director of the penal camp, so that they could respond to the allegations. Based on their reports, the different actors accused by the prisoner felt they needed to explain themselves and present the truth as they saw it. For instance, without offering any real argument, the station chief of Kebemer tries to take apart Wade’s complaints by attacking the prisoner’s status and behaviour: ‘The prisoner Ibrahima Wade is a dangerous individual, a ringleader, and maybe even an anarchist; I know that he knows his rights, but he does not know his duties’.[2] Here, the station chief does not directly answer the accusations in the letter, but delegitimates them by attacking the prisoner personally. A noticeable discourse of justification appears in the inquiries carried out by the accused authorities, at different levels of the colonial hierarchy. Everyone involved had to deny the claims and disavow any responsibility:

I have the honour of informing you that the details reported in the letter by the prisoner Ibrahima Wade are nothing but lies. ... The same is true for the accusations in the other letter by the same prisoner ... and I am prepared to prove it.[2]

It seems that, by pointing out the dysfunctions and abuses to which the prisoners were subject, these letters described a reality that the governor of Senegal had not even suspected. The complaints produced surveillance, as they pushed the administration to determine the truth of the accusations.

Increased surveillance rather than improved living conditions

In March 1938, after the governor received the collective complaint letter described above, he ordered the Cercle commander responsible for the penal camp to investigate its author. At the end of the order, he added a request: ‘You should use this opportunity to examine in detail the possibility of reorganising the penal camp, something that seems necessary both to stop the prisoners escaping and to prevent such complaints in the future’.[4] The colonial authorities’ priority was not to act on the demands of the prisoners but instead to put a stop to their written complaints.

At the same time, a serious incident occurred in Louga: a prisoner from penal camp C, located close to the town, escaped and raped a European resident.[5] Previously, the penal camps had been managed remotely by the Cercle commander of the region in which they were located. This incident pushed the authorities to assign French gendarmes to the penal camps, appointing them as directors. The aim was primarily to minimise escapes, but also to monitor as far as possible the prisoners’ letters, particularly in penal camp C: ‘Not only would discipline be greatly beneficial, but it would also likely bring an end to the complaints, whether justified or not, that have been received at the Louga penal camp’.[2]

These measures were reinforced a few months later, in January 1939, with a local decree regulating penal camps. Article 29 of this legislation stated that ‘the correspondence of all prisoners must be read, both incoming and outgoing. Suspicious letters are to be passed on to the Cercle commander and/or the subdivision chief.[7]

Thus, rather than improving the living and working conditions of the prisoners, when the colonial authorities were put under pressure by particular situations

(escapes and rape), they increased camp surveillance, using this pressure as an opportunity to monitor prisoners’ letters more strictly in order to avoid any further complaints or demands that might harm the colonial authorities.

In this chapter, I have sought to broaden our understanding of prison reform in two ways. First, I have examined reform attempts ‘from below’, as manifest in a corpus of letters written by prisoners in Senegalese mobile penal camps. These complaints, as public transcripts, made it possible for prisoners both to protest their degrading living and working conditions and to demand substantial improvements in the day-to-day situation in the camps. These letters reveal the abuses and failures of the colonial prison system, both in the daily lives and working conditions of the prisoners, and in the surveillance measures in the camps. The letters are particularly interesting because they had a substantial effect on the colonial prison system.

Second, we have highlighted in this chapter that the colonial authorities were not passive in the face of these complaints, most of which landed on the desk of the governor of Senegal. However, the authorities did not comply with the prisoners’ demands for improvements in their living conditions - quite the opposite. Rather than ensuring a minimum set of essential rights for the prisoners, their priority was to increase surveillance and monitoring in the camps so as to avoid further complaints. We should bear in mind that the authorities did not see forced penal labour in the colonies as a punishment that was supposed to morally rehabilitate individuals, but rather as a way of minimising labour costs, as demonstrated by the creation of these mobile penal camps, which were used as an inexhaustible source of labour for roadworks across the colony.

More generally, these letters enable us to reflect upon power in the colonial context. Bypassing censorship, they reveal the difficulties that the colonial authorities had in countering the reactions of prisoners and, more broadly, they highlight the inertia of the colonial machinery, which was far from omnipotent and, in many cases, ineffective. In this context, the concept of power should not be understood as a univocal, binary system of domination and discipline, but rather as the result of multiple power relations among a range of actors: the governor of Senegal, the Cercle commander, the director of the prison camp, the prison guards and the prisoners. Once relations of domination were established, whether in prison or in colonial society, they were not maintained by their intrinsic force alone. The authorities were required to carry out ‘maintenance’ work if they were to reinforce, preserve, rebuild, and adjust their control. Colonial policies thus appear as responses to the attitudes of the African populations, just as the many different tricks and adaptations of the African populations were responses to everyday colonial constraints.

  • [1] ANS, 3F117, Complaint by prisoner Ibrahima Wade, Louga penal camp, 14 January 1939.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] ANS, 3F106, Cercle commander of Louga to the governor of Senegal, regarding the anonymous complaint by the inmates of the Louga penal camp, 19 March 1938.
  • [5] ANS, 3F117, Note for the secretary general on the Louga incidents, 9 March 1938.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Article 29. ANS, K237 (26), Acts of the council, decree on the regulation of the service andgovernance of penal camps, 7 January 1939.
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