University of London Institute in Paris

9-11 rue de Constantine
75007 Paris

Dr Briony Neilson, 'The Penal Colony and the Bagne: Australia, New Caledonia and Histoire croisée'

Between 1787 and 1868 Britain sent more than 167,000 convicts to its penal settlements in Australia. Between 1864 and 1897 France dispatched 23,000 prisoners to the bagne in New Caledonia. Although there are obvious differences between the Australian penal experiment and the New Caledonian bagne, these two European settler colonies nevertheless share a closely intertwined history which to date has largely escaped scrutiny. From the moment France annexed New Caledonia in 1853, the Australian colonies were alive to the prospect of the French using the South Pacific islands as a penal colony. While the French liked to claim a shared heritage, insisting that their penal project in New Caledonia had been inspired by Britain's experiment in Australia, the Australian colonies emphatically denied any similarity with their French colonial neighbours. The middle decades of the nineteenth century marked a critical juncture for the Australian colonies, as free settlement began to replace the penal system that had been the foundation for British settlement in 1788. In the second half of the nineteenth century those colonies that had previously received convicts sought to cast off their own legacy as British penal colonies. This talk will look at the histoire croisée of Australia and New Caledonia, these geographically and ideologically proximate European settler colonies in the South Pacific, offering reflection on what the history and memory of penal colonisation might have to tell us about the mechanics of settler colonialism.


Dr Briony Neilson is a specialist in the history of nineteenth-century criminal justice in France and in the history of the New Caledonian bagne. She has a PhD in History from the University of Sydney and her work has appeared in various journals, including the International Review of Social History and Crime, History & Societies. She has lectured courses in History and Criminology at the University of Sydney, UNSW and ACU. In 2019–20 she is an invited researcher at the CNRS’s Centre pour les humanités numériques et l’histoire de la justice (Clamor) in Paris and from 2019 is Editor of French History & Civilization.