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Empire and Underworld

Empire and Underworld

Captivity in French Guiana

Miranda Frances Spieler

ISBN 9780674057548

Publication date: 04/23/2012

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.

    —Patrice Higonnet, Harvard University


  • 2012, Winner of the J. Russell Major Prize


  • Miranda Frances Spieler is Associate Professor at the American University of Paris and Faculty Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center.

Book Details

  • 296 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press