In the century after the French Revolution, the South American outpost of Guiana became a depository for exiles—outcasts of the new French citizenry—and an experimental space for the exercise of new kinds of power and violence against marginal groups. Miranda Spieler chronicles the encounter between colonial officials, planters, and others, ranging from deported political enemies to convicts, ex-convicts, vagabonds, freed slaves, non-European immigrants, and Maroons (descendants of fugitive slaves in the forest). She finds that at a time when France was advocating the revolutionary principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, Guiana’s exiles were stripped of their legal identities and unmade by law, becoming nonpersons living in limbo.
The French Revolution invented the notion of the citizen, but as Spieler shows, it also invented the noncitizen—the person whose rights were nonexistent. Empire and Underworld discovers in Guiana’s wilderness a haunting prehistory of current moral dilemmas surrounding detainees of indeterminate legal status. Pairing the history of France with that of its underworld and challenging some of the century’s most influential theorists from Hannah Arendt to Michel Foucault, Spieler demonstrates how rights of the modern world can mutate into an apparatus of human deprivation.
This striking, original, and very intelligent book is concerned with a vast theme: the contrast between the principles of 1789 (liberty, equality, fraternity) and the realities of the lives of deportees in Guiana. In an age concerned with human rights, this book is of universal relevance. These pages may seem to be about the heart of colonial darkness in a far away place, but they are in fact about the heart of darkness in France itself.
This sophisticated study illuminates the history of French Guiana and enriches our understanding of the intertwined histories of France and the Caribbean. Braiding together vivid narratives of exile and imprisonment with detailed legal history, Spieler brilliantly analyzes the complexities of the French colonial order.
In this provocative book, we learn how the juridical order of a nation—even a democratic one—can create an administrative space which definitively erased its inhabitants from the civil sphere. In French Guiana, émigrés from the French Revolution, then slaves and ex-slaves, deported convicts and indentured workers were rendered invisible before the law. Inspired by the Australian and the Algerian experiences and also by Catholic and Socialist utopias, this process required juridical imagination as well as the ambiguities of empire. While set in nineteenth-century colonial France, Spieler's powerfully illuminating story has deep relevance for today's world.
- 2012, Winner of the J. Russell Major Prize
- 296 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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