An Anarchist on Devil's Island

[Often writers on Anarchism use fictional anecdotes from literature as history; here however we see that anarchist history has been turned into literature. The story of Clement Duval was lifted and, shorn of all politics, turned into the bestseller 'Papillon'.]

Paris, October 1886

Hidden in the shadow of an archway, Brigadier Rossignol tugged nervously at his moustache. If everything went according to plan, he was about to bring another brilliant police operation to an end; yet another success to add to his already fat personal record. He had no reason to doubt the success of the plan. He was a self-confident man, the Brigadier, one of the Calabrians of his time, famous for the courage and efficiency with which he persecuted wrongdoers. This time it was a question of arresting a dangerous subversive, suspected of burglary and arson, and the ambush had been planned with all necessary precautions; so there was nothing to worry about. There were 20 cops strategically placed; he himself was there under the archway, ready to give the signal. If he was nervous it was because of the waiting.

Perhaps it was through an excessive faith in his plan, or through his obsessive desire to cut a good figure, or for both of these reasons, that as soon as the person in question appeared, Brigadier Rossignol jumped without hesitation from his hiding place, followed by his colleagues.

In a flash he was on top of his quarry, shouting like a madman his favourite phrase of all those available to him in the police vocabulary: "I arrest you in the name of the law". This was the technique he used in such cases, both to frighten the suspect and to dissuade them from any idea of resisting arrest. But it didn't work. Instead of trembling resignation, his cry was met with a snarl of "And I kill you in the name of freedom!" To confirm his intentions, the man had drawn a long-blade knife. The scuffle that followed was very violent. While the other participants vainly tried to block him, the persistently aggressive individual made half a dozen lunges at Rossignol and, in a desperate attempt to get free, managed to put out one of the Brigadier's eyes. In the end, numbers told. He was handcuffed and taken to jail. Meanwhile the Brigadier went to hospital, one up in terms of success, one down in terms of eyes. The antagonist of the overconfident policeman was Clement Duval, anarchist expropriator, who that day had bloodily finished his career as a militant revolutionary, to start another as a convict deported to Guyana. The inescapable consequence of his violent act of rebellion was to be a joyless existence, suffering under the yoke of exploitation and tyranny. From this point of view, what happened to Duval is of great significance because it is a mirror of an epoch, in which is exhibited the reactionary face of newly-industrialised France, imperialist, exploitative and repressive. This story could have happened to anyone at that time, and in effect it happened to many. It is in its unexceptional nature that the value of the story lies.


Duval was of working class origin and he quickly learned what this meant. He had his first brusque contact with reality in the Franco- Prussian war in 1870, when he was just twenty. As a member of the fifth infantry battalion he was sent to the front, there to find out for himself what the glory of the nation cost, and who had to pay the price. Thanks to the French army's standards of hygiene, he contracted smallpox, from which he was lucky to recover. At Villorau he was seriously wounded by a mortar bomb and had to spend six months in a miserable military hospital.

He returned to Paris in 1873, where, as his father had died, he was now the sole breadwinner of the family: he was still in one piece, but he suffered for the rest of his life with arthritis and rheumatism - a legacy of his war wounds and the stay in hospital. Ironically, he found that the family for which he had to provide no longer existed as such. His young wife (who had married him just before he left for the front), unable to cope with being left alone, had had an affair with another man, and poor Duval, after the joys of the martial life, found himself wearing horns on his return from the war.

With regard to sexual customs and extra-marital relationships, the mentality of the era was not very broad-minded. and Duval, although he was he was of progressive views was in no state of mind to view matters with the serenity his ideas required. Fourteen months of bitterness and jealousy followed, until the young couple succeeded in forgetting the matter. It was the beginning of a period of relative tranquillity. He worked as a mechanic in a Paris factory, and she took care of domestic affairs; and his life, although hard, seemed almost happy compared with that of the front, even if it was not all hearts and flowers. At the factory, fourteen hours a day under iron discipline, always with the threat of the sack for any form of minor deficiency. At home, a poor life, dirty and squalid, long silences because of fatigue and misery. It was normal working class life in the industrialised countries at the time.

It was in this period that Duval's libertarian ides matured, he refined them through reading and direct experience, realising the nature of exploitation and that the only chance for the emancipation of the lower classes lay in revolution. But, more than for his subversive ideas and intentions, he was known for his proud firmness of character, for his honesty, and for the passion which, in spite of everything, he put into his work.

But he was a marked man. Not by a supernatural destiny; not even so much by the ideas he professed; but by his position as one of the exploited, one of the rejects from which society demanded everything - grief, sacrifice, resignation and gave nothing in return. After just three years of normal life, a terrible attack of rheumatism came to remind him of his battles for the fatherland. He was bedridden almost continuously until 1878. He lost his job, and if previously there had been poverty, now there was pauperdom. And, with misery came family quarrels, recriminations, the contempt of others, the anguish of an existence without prospects and without mercy. Desperation. Hatred.


…And Duval stole. In order to live, to eat, without questions about morality, only conscious of the fact that he had no alternative. The first time, he took a few francs from the till in the railway ticket office while the clerk was absent, and all went well. The second time, a little later, he tried the same thing in the same place, but he was caught in the act. The immediate result was a year in Mazas prison and the final departure of his wife. But this was not the only result, nor was it the most important. That first contact with illegality made him think and convinced him not only of the substantial legality of theft (or "individual reappropriation" as it was called then) but of the possibility that it was a means of struggle. A means, let it be understood, not an end in itself. It was precisely in this conception, whether or not it is acceptable in a plan of revolutionary strategy, that Clement Duval's greatness of spirit stands out. Others, after him, would turn to theft, but only for its own sake, substituting individual revolt (however understandable) for revolution, convinced that all that was necessary was to rob the rich, without thinking about what to do next. On the other hand, Duval saw theft as a means for financing political activity, for printing subversive literature, agitating among the masses, getting hold of the arms needed to confront the bourgeois exploiters, in effect a tool for making the anarchist revolution.

Although solitary because of the conditions in which he was forced to act, his was not an egoistic struggle. After his first unaware attempts, he knew how to go beyond his own personal tragedy, finding in it a point of departure for a fuller vision, the rationale of a struggle fought not for his own benefit, nor for that of a few others, but for everyone.

When Duval was released from prison, he started actively spreading libertarian propaganda in the Paris factories, and he realised he was at war. Violence was not excluded: this was a war without international conventions or any aristocratic notions of fair play. Every wage claim was met by massive sackings, every strike was met with gunfire, many were wounded or killed, every public demonstration was an occasion for mass arrests (and then it was jail, deportation or the guillotine). Duval thought (and who is to say that he was wrong?) that the only way to answer violence was with violence. And he answered.

A piano factory, the offices of a bus company, a furniture factory, the Choubersky workshops where he himself worked, the firm of Belvalette de Passy; all places where the most inhuman exploitation was practised, where workers had their health ruined for fourteen hours a day in exchange for four miserable francs, where the most unfair advantages were taken, all these became ruins, gutted by fire or explosives. It was in this period that the figure of the anarchist bomber, sombre vindicator of the wrongs done to the proletariat, nightmare of the bourgeoisie became part of the iconography of the regime. By now Duval was one.

The episode which brought him to ruin happened on the night of 25th October 1886. Duval broke into the apartment of Mme. Lemaire, a rich lady who lived at Rue de Monceau. The residents were away on holiday in the country, and he was able to move about undisturbed: he carefully put aside all the precious objects that he could find, and smashed all that he was forced to leave behind because it was too heavy or inconvenient. While leaving, he accidentally (for he had no desire to attract attention while he was at work) set fire to the house. The damage caused by both the theft and fire was worth more than ten thousand francs, a respectable sum, which gave a certain renown to the event. The police were not slow in finding out who was responsible. The expropriated jewels, put up for sale too soon, left an obvious trail, which led back to the 'fence', and thus to Duval. Taken by surprise in front of a comrade's door, both were arrested, not without trouble, as we have already mentioned.

The Trial

The trial, which was held on 11 and 12 February 1887 at the Seine Court of Assizes, was also a far from tranquil affair. The accused answered the judges with firmness, refusing the role of the common delinquent which they wished to assign him, proclaiming loudly the political nature of his activity, and contesting the pretence that the men in robes were handing out justice. From being the accused he became accuser, denouncing embezzlement, the injustice of exploitation, mystification, and the wrongs suffered by himself and those like him. The crowd which packed out the court-room was carried away by his vehemence, and echoed his words.

The final hearing ended uproariously with Duval expelled shouting "Long live anarchy", the police overwhelmed by the crowd, the judges in flight to their chambers, and then insults and blows, fights and arrests. An hour later, when the uproar had been quelled, the Court delivered its verdict: death. A penalty dictated by fear, certainly disproportionate to the gravity of the offences under trial. On February 28th perhaps revealing this lack of proportion, the President of the Republic commuted the sentence to one of deportation for life.

Freedom was closing its doors on him, and the inferno was to take him in, forever.

At four o'clock on the afternoon of 25th March, Duval departed the city on the Orne, from the military fortress of Toulon, bound for the vaults of Guyana. He had a ghastly anticipation of what to expect from the very first day of his stay in the fortress. His own words, for all their tone, are so eloquent as to not need comment: "… I would never dare to repeat the experience of the putrid corruption which poisoned every human emotion and sentiment to the last stages of decomposition. Along the walls, lying on their beds made from scraps of material those exhausted people who had said goodbye to all hope… In hidden corners, where neither the flickering light of the oil-lamps nor the gaze of the curious reached, they were trembling and sobbing; lust showed itself in delirious, bestial fornication. One of Sodom's slums, built in the shade of the well-meaning bourgeoisie's Third Republic, a tribute to their modest morality and their positive penal science."1

The Inferno

The thirty day sea trip aboard the prison ship to Guyana dispelled any remaining illusions. His companions in misfortune were thieves, assassins, soulless brutes; the sons of abjection, misery and ignorance. Lebou, sentenced for having shot his mother; Faure who had killed his brother for money, then chopped him up and fed him to the pigs; Mentier, who had killed two old women in order to rape the corpses and other worthy products of the society which had begotten them. This frightening section of humanity was paraded on deck for inspection every day, and met with the mockery, vulgarity and stupid comments of the crew, the guards, and the civilian passengers.

Duval was not the sort to accept this treatment willingly. On the first occasion he rebelled, answering the provocations in the same vein, and thus he had a taste of what was awaiting him in the penitentiary: naked as a worm, he was thrown into a water-logged cell where he stayed for two days, unable to stand upright because the ceiling was too low, and unable to lie down because the cell was too small. Repression inside repression.

Guyana was a real hell-hole, a filthy abyss of violence and depravity made even more intolerable by the hot and humid tropical climate. There the lie was given to the hypocritical idea that prison can lead to atonement and repentance. Guyana was synonymous with forced labour, fettered ankles, rotting food, punishment cells, swarms of insects, scurvy, dysentery. Redemption? In captivity, men lost their health, their dignity, they died of disease and want, their bodies and spirits scarred, humiliated, broken, brutalised, reduced against their will to the level of animals. The more assertive among them achieved some squalid privilege at the expense of their companions. The most cynical curried favour with the guards by crawling and informing on the others. The weakest went under. The penitentiary was the perverted image of all the vices, every misery, all the oppression of the society which had produced it. Because of this, those who had not submitted before, when they were free, did not accept the idea of submitting now that they were in a society that was more vicious but otherwise not dissimilar. Duval (and in general all the anarchists who ended up in prison) was no exception.

The story of his stay on the terrible island is the story of his pride of his unbeatable fighting spirit, of the constant struggle with the situation, not to lose his identity, of his refusal to fall into the abyss of misery that confronted him. And he succeeded. He opposed the guard's traps, rebelled against the injustices, helped the most wretched fellow prisoners, unmasked spies and provocateurs. The cruellest bullies, the drunken directors, the scum, the murderers, the mindless brutes that peopled the prison camp, learned to pay him a sort of respect, certainly worthy of better circles, in which admiration for his correctness was united with fear for his toughness. A respect that was merited, if one thinks of the terrible price that had to be paid for it.

The Revolt

On the night of 21/22 October 1895 [1894] there broke out a revolt on the island, organised by the quite large group of anarchists who were there at the time. It was a hopeless enterprise, undertaken more to compensate for the continual vexations which the comrades had to put up with, rather than for any real hope of success. Duval took an active part in its preparation, which was long, much disputed and laborious. But he was sent elsewhere as a punishment and had to cease his active contribution. All in all, this was a stroke of luck. In fact, the prison administration was informed on all the goings on through the reports of a couple of informers, and had decided to take this opportunity to do away with the whole anarchist group, which caused them continual problems because of the comrades' independent character. And so it happened. As soon as the rebels left their rooms they found themselves confronted by the guards' rifles. "Cold blood and no quarter given" had been the orders of the Commander Bonafi, chief of Internal Security, whose men had got as drunk as pigs for the occasion. In an incredible massacre, the following anarchists were overpowered and mercilessly killed, one by one: Garnier, Boesie, Simon, Le Leauthier, Lebault, Masservin, Dervaux, Chevenet, Mesuesis, Kesvau, Marpeaux; [edit: Garnier, Boasi, Simon (aka Biscuit), Léauthier, Lebeau, Mazarguil, Thiervoz, Chevenet, Meyrueis and Marpaux] the next day their bullet ridden bodies were thrown into the sea for the sharks to eat, while the hurriedly appointed Commission of Inquiry continued the repression, arresting and putting in irons anyone who was even slightly suspected of helping the rebels.

Duval stayed fourteen years in Guyana. In this time, he tried to escape more than twenty times, seizing every chance, every means: on rafts, on stolen or patiently built boats, hiding in ships that passed. Every time something went wrong.

He was captured, suffered from the inevitable punishment, and began again. Had he given up after the first attempts he would have died in prison like so many others, killed either by fever or by the guards. Instead, unable to resign himself to his fate, he was saved. After trying again and again, the time finally came when luck turned his way.

The Escape

On 13 April 1901, Duval, with eight of his fellow-prisoners, put to sea in a fragile canoe and silently made for the open sea. It was in the dead of night, and no guards noticed the escape until the next day. Thus the convicts, rowing with all their strength, made an undisturbed getaway. In the morning they raised a sail and made for the North-east, to avoid the territories under French jurisdiction. A warship came close to them without showing the slightest interest, and continued on its way. A good start.

Backed by a light breeze, they sailed all day. At the helm was a cabin-boy, an excellent sailor, whose experience of the sea helped to keep the morale of the others high. But in the evening the weather changed, turned nasty. The breeze soon became a hurricane, making huge waves that filled the boat with water, forcing the men to a nerve-wracking bailing. Further, the cabin-boy was quite unable to see in the dark because of a lack of vitamins in the penitentiary's diet, and thus his ability was rendered less useful. It was a hellish night, and they many times risked ending up as shark food.

The next day weather conditions were better, and Duval and his companions soon sighted land. It was the district of Paramaraibo, in Dutch Guyana. Outside the claws of the penitentiary administration. The worst was past. However, the fugitives were still in danger. As escaped convicts, they could still be imprisoned by the Dutch police. If the French got to hear about it, they could be extradited and again interned on the terrible island.

The odyssey was not yet over. It would last another two years. Always with false names, always on the lookout against discovery, always struggling against hunger and the authorities, forced into the most worthless and poor jobs. Duval made his way to British Guyana, then to Martinique, finally reaching Puerto Rico. Here he stayed a while, somewhat recovering his broken health and recommencing a normal life. On 16 June 1903 he left for the united States, with the prospect at least of living in liberty. Deportation was by now only a memory, even if an indelible one.

Paul Albert

1. Clement Deval, Memorie Autobiografiche, 1929, p. 86

From: Black Flag Quarterly, Vol 7, Number 5 (Winter 1984).