Before Papillon: French Guiana and Deported Catholic Clergy

This post is a part of our “Faith in Revolution” series, which explores the ways that religious ideologies and communities shaped the revolutionary era. Check out the entire series.

By Erica Johnson Edwards

Book cover of Papillon by Henri Charrière.

Now an overseas department, French Guiana is over four thousand miles away from metropolitan France. Located in Northeastern South America, it borders Brazil, Suriname, and the Atlantic Ocean. Commonly known as the Devil’s Island in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Henri Charrière’s 1969 autobiographical novel Papillon widely popularized the history of French Guiana. However, subsequent popular perceptions of this notoriously harsh penal colony of France’s Second Empire have almost completely neglected its eighteenth-century origins. In recent years, historians Miranda Spieler and Allyson Delnore have explored the history of the penal colony during France’s first empire.[1] Still, topics such as the Civil Constitution of the Clergy of 1790 in French Guiana or the impact of the subsequent deportations to the penal colony of priests who were unwilling to take an oath to the Civil Constitution—known as refractory or non-juring priests—remain largely unaddressed. This post briefly examines the deportation of these priests both to and from French Guiana, offering an alternative to the existing historical narratives of the penal colony, which stress its secular nineteenth-century history.

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy was not well received by clerics in French Guiana. Only six of the seventeen priests took the oath to it.[2] Early after the decree, Guianese non-juring priests seemingly did not anticipate any turmoil. Mathieu Hérard, a Spiritan priest in Iracoubo, became the voice of the refractory priests. In 1791, he wrote, “I refused to take it [the oath]… and as there was no other priest to replace me, I was left peacefully in my post.”[3] Peace did not last long though. Refractory priests in French Guiana could not be expected to instruct the indigenous peoples of their duties to French society if they refused to adhere to the revolutionary principles. Deportation became an official form of punishment early in the French Revolution with the Penal Code of 1791. Article I of the Penal Code stated, “The punishments that will be pronounced against defendants found guilty by the jury, are capital punishment, irons, imprisonment, embarrassment, detention, deportation, civic degradation, the iron collar.”[4] Consequently, the Colonial Assembly declared that it would deport these priests to the United States or other French colonies and sent the decision to France for approval. In the meantime, the colony’s governor, Charles Guillaume Vial d’Alais, gave the priests the option to take the oath or be deported.[5] Hérard chose deportation from Guiana to Baltimore, Maryland. He arrived there with two other refractory priests, Charles Duhamel and John F. Moranvillé.[6] Guianese refractory priests were not the only ecclesiastics in danger of deportation; their clerical counterparts in France experienced similar consequences.

Although Pope Pius VI and Louis XVI rejected the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, negative consequences for refractory priests remaining in France worsened over the course of 1792. In May, the Legislative Assembly passed a legislation that required the deportation of any priest to Guiana at the request of twenty citizens, and appointed the gendarmerie to make arrests. Some priests took the oath to avoid the harsh punishment, though these acts led the laity to enforce the Civil Constitution in doubt of the sincerity of the oath. Exceptions from deportation remained available for those ecclesiastics over the age of sixty or with disabilities, but they were required to report to the administrative center of their department so they could be kept under surveillance.[7] In August, revised legislation required a six-citizen request, leading to a sentence of ten years imprisonment. The September Massacres of 1792, after the French learned that Verdun had fallen to the Prussians, were a preemptive reaction to fears of an invasion by counterrevolutionary powers. Revolutionaries executed approximately 1,200 previously imprisoned counterrevolutionaries, 240 of which were non-juring priests. By March 1793, all non-jurors were to be deported, without the need for any citizens’ requests.

In successive debates, representatives of various segments of society from French Guiana attempted to persuade the revolutionary governments to send deportees to the South American colony. Daniel Lescallier, governor of the colony between 1785 and 1788, made an argument for the rehabilitation of the refractory priests in advocating for the colonization of French Guiana.  Instead of imprisoning the criminals in France at the cost of French citizens, Lescallier believed deporting them to Guiana could be actually profitable. He proposed a portion of French Guiana as the location to establish a controlled environment where the political convicts could raise animals, cultivate crops, and make a living while remaining under custody of the state. He asserted the need to give the non-juring priests a “hope to return to society and the state of freedom,” but only after “several years of work.”[8] His tenure as a governor of the colony no doubt gave his argument some considerable clout, but he was not the only former resident of Guiana to advocate for the colony.

André Pomme, known as Pomme l’Américain, also envisioned a detailed plan to use the deported refractory priests for the benefit of France’s empire. As a former Guianese colonist, Pomme believed the deportees could be used to “contribute to the renewal of Guianese society” by raising animals for use in the Caribbean islands, and to purify “continental France.” His plan was rather specific. Pomme explained that December was the best time for deportation, because the rainy season was “the most favorable moment to acclimatize the Europeans [to Caribbean environments].” He also accounted for the potential female prisoners, as not all clerics in France were male. He proposed the use of colored gendarmerie in guarding the detained priests, as well as an increase in the Guianese garrison.[9] Pomme’s concepts for a penal colony were not unprecedented, as the French used similar methods in Louisiana, and the English in Botany Bay, Australia.[10]

On April 23, 1793, officials finally deported the first group of refractory priests to French Guiana. There are several possible explanations for the almost year-long delay. First, if a penal colony was intended to rehabilitate the priests for a return to society, Guiana needed to be stable. Guiana became as chaotic and disorderly as the metropole after news of the Revolution arrived. Without a Colonial Assembly that could report to France, anarchy would prevail.[11] France was also at war with other European powers when the Assembly passed the decrees for deportation, so it is possible the wars were more central to their political and financial decisions. The debates over the purpose of deportation certainly contributed to interruptions in carrying out the legislation. Finally, Louis XVI was executed in January 1793, only months before the first deportations. A shift in the political climate following his execution, and a new political leadership in the National Convention, helped to hinder the deportation project.

While historians of the French Revolution have highlighted the importance of religion during the revolution in France, less attention has been paid to the integral role of religious affiliation in France’s South American colony. A few years after the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1790, revolutionaries in France began to deport refractory priests to Guiana, hoping to rehabilitate the priests and enhance their colonizing project. At the same time, the Colonial Assembly in Guiana ordered the deportation of refractory priests from the colony to the United States and other French colonies to maintain order and guard the revolution. Clergy on both sides of the Atlantic engaged with revolutionary policies within their own contexts. This glimpse of revolutionary events in French Guiana offers a unique perspective of the French Revolutionary experience in an Atlantic context.

Erica Johnson Edwards is Assistant Professor of History at Francis Marion University. She is author of a monograph, Philanthropy and Race in the Haitian Revolution, part of the Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies Series (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

Title Image: Jacques Bellin (1703-72), Map of French Guiana and the island of Cayenne, 1763.

Further readings:

Benot, Yves. La Guyane sous la Révolution française, ou, L’impasse de la Révolution pacifique. Kourou, French Guiana: Ibis rouge éditions, 1997.

Delnore, Allyson Jayne. “Political Convictions: French Deportation Projects in the Age of Revolutions, 1789-1854.” Diss. University of Virginia, 2004.

Hyles, Joshua R. Guiana and the Shadows of Empire: Colonial and Cultural Negotiations at the Edge of the World. New York: Lexington Books, 2014.

Lowenthal, David. “Colonial Experiments in French Guiana, 1760-1800.” Hispanic  American Historical Review Vol. 32, No. 1 (February, 1952): pp. 22-43.

Spieler, Miranda Frances. Empire and Underworld: Captivity in French Guiana. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.


[1] Allyson Jayne Delnore, “Political Convictions:  French Deportation Projects in the Age of Revolutions, 1789-1854” (Diss. University of Virginia, 2004); and Miranda Frances Spieler, Empire and Underworld: Captivity in French Guiana (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

[2] H. Koren, Les Spiritans: Trois Siècles d’histoire religieuse et missionnaire:  histoire de la Congrégation du Saint-Esprit (Paris: Beauchesne, 1982), p. 125, 128.

[3] Monsieur Herard, 2 June 1791, quoted in Adolphe Cabon, “Le Clergé de la Guyane sous la Révolution,” Revue d’histoire des colonies vol. 37 (1950), p. 177.

[4] Gordon Wright, Between the Guillotine and Liberty: Two Centuries of the Crime Problem in France (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 30; Assemblée nationale constituante, Titre II, Article I, Décret concernant le code pénal du 25 septembre 1791 (Paris: Imprimeur nationale, 1791).

[5] “Aux prêtres réfractaires de la Guyane. Ordre de quitter la Guyane, s’ils persistent dans leur refus de prêter serment et dans la poursuite de leur apostolat,” 28 février 1793, C/14/70 F˚76v, Archives nationales d’outre mer [hereafter cited as ANOM]; Cabon, “Le Clergé de la Guyane sous la Révolution,” p. 181-182.

[6] St. Mary’s Seminary & University Archives in Baltimore holds papers for each of these Spiritan priests.

[7] Alfred Lallié, La Déportation des Prêtres Emprisonnes à Nantes, 8-15 Septembre 1792, Eugene Lafoyle, ed.  Revue de l’Ouest (Vannes: [np], 1888), p. 3.

[8] Daniel Lescallier, Exposé des moyens de mettre en valeur et d’administrer la guiane, orné de deux cartes (Paris, Buisson, 1791), p. 195.

[9]Pomme L’Américain au ministre, “Ils renouvellent leurs demandes précédentes, rappellent les conditions frauduleuses de la vente de l’habitation des Épiceries à La Fayette. Lieu de déportation des prêtres réfractaires. Possibilité de fonder un centre de culture florissant en leur adjoignant d’autres déportés. Construction de logements pour ceux-ci, pour les nègres de l’habitation de Saint-Régis (La Fayette) et du Montjoli (comte d’Orsay et Colincourt),” C/14/69 F˚98, ANOM.

[10] For more on these other penal colonies, see Thomas N. Ingersoll, Mammon and Manon in Early New Orleans:  The First Slave Society in the Deep South, 1718-1819 (Knoxville:  University of Tennessee Press, 1999), p. xxi, 11-12; and Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992), p. 5.

[11] “A la commission intermédiaire. Motifs de son retard à sanctionner l’arrêté concernant la déportation des prêtres réfractaires (insuffisance du délai accordé, incertitude sur les limites fixées). Danger de la déportation en Guyane de prêtres insermentés venant de France. Demande d’envoi du décret de la Convention nationale relatif à ceux-ci,” 1 avril 1793, C/14/70 F˚79, ANOM.

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