Review of Empire and Underworld: Captivity in French Guiana by Miranda Frances Spieler Harvard University Press

Empire and Underworld: Captivity in French Guiana. Miranda Frances Spieler. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012. ISBN: 9780674062870

Miranda Frances Spieler describes French Guiana as a place “where human traces on the land tended to vanish.” (2) In her monograph examining French Guiana’s colonial past from 1789–1871, Spieler attempts to recover those traces that have eluded perception by the naked eye and conventional historical imagination to make them evident as a part of our understanding of how distinctive legal configurations produced structures of coercive power and violence that acted upon a wide array of subjects who inhabited the colonial space. A subtle and sophisticated study of a complex historical process, Spieler’s book refocuses our way of seeing colonial space and suggests how the highly refined legal innovations of a modern state can be discerned beneath the surface of an apparent wilderness.

The French Revolution of 1789 introduced new ways of conceiving of the relationship between citizens and the state bound together in a social contract predicated on universal rights. Among the many contested ideas that emerged out of the Revolution, the dilemma of how the law could mediate conflicts between state power and individual rights serves as the springboard for Spieler’s analysis. Turbulent decades of political and social instability in France that stretched into the late nineteenth century prompted legal improvisations that were most often transposed from existing concepts and practices and distended as needed to provide techniques of control for authorities in French Guiana. Spieler thus arranges the book so that each of its eight chapters examines how specific challenges of defining the legal status and treatment of the various inhabitants of the colony were met as the tergiversation of events resonated in both directions across the Atlantic. Early chapters span the period from the beginning of the Revolution through the Napoleonic regime to explore how notions of legal status, jurisdiction, and geographic space were manipulated in reaction to concerns about émigrés, refractory priests, the enslaved and the emancipated, free people of color, white colonials, counterrevolutionaries, criminals, and others to generate such devices as civic degradation (the ceremonial removal of citizenship), legal interdiction (the suspension of all civil rights during a prison sentence), civil death (the forfeit of one’s nationality and loss of all civil rights for life) and surveillance meant to control the bodies of those who lay outside the legal—and often the physical—boundaries of the state. This means mentally collapsing the geography that divides colony from metropole, since the extraordinary measures devised in reaction against people regarded as dangerous in France became assimilated into the normal legal order directed at other categories of peoples deemed dangerous in French Guiana.

Only in the last three chapters do readers find themselves more often “in” the colony than elsewhere, in keeping with Spieler’s unique and compelling reading of the colonial relationship. These follow a chapter that looks at the how cultural developments (utopian and reformist visions of social and moral regeneration) and French imperial legal culture (colonial space defined by the legal status of the convicts and others who inhabit it) framed debates and designs for overseas colonial settlements during the 1830s and 1840s. The second (and final) emancipation decree of 1848 and the formal establishment of French Guiana as a penal colony in 1852 created a situation in which the imperial aim of configuring territory for specific legal purposes merged with the colonial elites’ desire to constrain the movement and actions of newly freed former slaves. What resulted was imperial space that was simultaneously unified with the metropole under the French legal order but also an exceptional zone where normal law was suspended; multiple sectors emerged throughout French Guiana that featured various legal realities and experiments contingent upon the status of those who inhabited it— and therefore overlapping where people of differing legal status shared the same physical space. Without citing Antonio Gramsci, Spieler describes what he would have recognized as a “war of position” during this period and lasting at least through the remaining period covered in the book, one that literally erupted into military confrontation on occasion as colonial authorities sought to subjugate and contain the Boni Maroons, a community that did not fit into any of the legal categories used to order imperial space. The empire, of course, prevailed, not only against the Boni but against every set of individuals who might have claimed some degree of freedom or autonomy. Depending upon the legal subject’s status— convict, ex-convict, free black, etc.—authorities in French Guiana controlled work, housing, marriage, food, even names; in short, they, or the system they served, exercised absolute control over inhabitants— the colony’s captives, all in some way—and did so within the framework of the domestic legal order.

The extent to which official power could reach is evident in the faint imprint that most inhabitants of French Guiana left on the colony’s history. Administrators like André Pariset, Louis-Adolphe Bonard, Eugène Mélinon, and Louis-Marie de Tardy de Montravel—men responsible for how life became structured in colonial French Guiana— and even Anne-Marie Javouhey, who oversaw Mana Village, an alternative settlement for Africans that was part religious mission and part utopian community, appear in greater definition, extensively and indelibly inscribed in the historical record as they are. Spieler attempts to retrieve individuals from among the more anonymous thousands whom colonial authorities relegated to official oblivion. The names of some, like John Edwin and Esther Bondy, Auguste Eckessan and Corine Arnola, Reine (the first name of a woman refused the right to use the surname Amiel), and Jean-Baptiste Morinan, are invoked briefly to illustrate points about constraints placed on marriage, property, identity, and labor, only to recede quickly, since the historical sources cannot sustain their presence beyond this ephemeral return from the past. Spieler discusses how she resolves this “archival problem” in her introduction and points to the issue as emblematic of the nature of the system that she analyzes.

Empire and Underworld is addressed to academic specialists. It challenges and engages ideas from Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Carl Schmitt, and others on structures of power, human society, and the law. As such, it should find its greatest appeal among not only historians but also sociologists, cultural theorists, and legal scholars. While the inside and back of its dust jacket allude to the book’s relevance to recent debates about detention and rendition as a response to global terrorism, Spieler herself makes no such explicit or direct connection. Still, her insightful and compelling work provides historical context for how law itself can be insidiously used to remove legal protection from the marginalized and the despised.

Reviewed by Michael Clinton, Gwynedd Mercy University
Edited by Karen Rosenflanz

(c) 2013-14 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 7, Fall, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]