Outrage: An Anarchist Memoir of the Penal Colony by Clément Duval (translated by Michael Shreve with an Introduction by Marianne Enckell), PM Press, 2012.
“Theft exists only through the exploitation of man by man…when Society refuses you the right to exist, you must take it…the policeman arrested me in the name of the Law, I struck him in the name of Liberty.”
In 1887, Clément Duval joined the tens of thousands of convicts sent to the “dry guillotine” of the French penal colonies. Few survived and fewer were able to tell the stories of their life in that hell. Duval spent fourteen years doing hard labor—espousing the values of anarchism and demonstrating the ideals by being a living example the entire time—before making his daring escape and arriving in New York City, welcomed by the Italian and French anarchists there.
This is much more than an historical document about the anarchist movement and the penal colony. It is a remarkable story of survival by one man’s self-determination, energy, courage, loyalty, and hope. It was thanks to being true and faithful to his ideals that Duval survived life in this hell. Unlike the well-known prisoner Papillon, who arrived and dramatically escaped soon after Duval, he encouraged his fellow prisoners to practice mutual aid, through their deeds and not just their words. It is a call to action for mindful, conscious people to fight for their rights to the very end, to never give up or give in.
More than just a story of a life or a testament of ideals, here is a monument to the human spirit and a war cry for freedom and justice.
Clément Duval (1850–1935) was an infamous French illegalist, propagandist, and anarchist who was found guilty in 1886 of theft and attempted murder of a police officer. Originally sentenced to death, his sentence was commuted to deportation and hard labor in the French Guiana prison camps. After fourteen years and twenty escape attempts, Duval and fellow inmates set out on a rickety boat. He eventually reached New York City in 1901 and was welcomed by French and Italian anarchists. In 1929 Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani translated and published his full memoirs as Memorie autobiografiche.
Available at PM Press.
Although I am not well known to you, you know that I am an anarchist. I am writing this letter to you to protest against the insanities that must have leaked out about me in particular and about the anarchists in general in all different kinds of newspapers which joined together to say, when I was arrested, that I was an ex-convict and had already been convicted of theft. As if you could call someone a thief who was a worker who had nothing but misery whereas for me theft does not exist except in the exploitation of man by man, in short, in the existence of everyone who leaves at the expense of the producing class.
Here is why and how I committed the offense that they call theft. In 1870 I was, like so many others, stupid enough to go and defend the property and privileges of others; but I was 20 years old. From the war I brought back two wounds and rheumatism—a terrible sickness that has already cost me four years in the hospital. After serving as cannon fodder, I served as a guinea pig for the gentlemen of science. They made me take more than a kilo of sodium salicylate, which drastically weakened my eyesight. Proof is that at 36 years old I am wearing glasses and the bosses do not like that.
So, in 1878 I got out after three months in the hospital. I started working again for eight days; I got sick again; I stayed home for a month. I had two children and my companion got sick as well. No money and no bread in the house. Even though I was not part of the anarchist movement, which did not exist or was very small at the time (the study of sociology had not ended and it was still only in an embryonic state, plus they had not yet cut off the heads of anarchists to spread it), I had already, long before, freed myself of the prejudices that block the minds of the masses, an enemy of all authority.
I was an anarchist in heart, in love with what was beautiful, grand, generous, revolting against all abuses and injustices. From this fact I recognized the undeniable right that nature gave to every human being: the right to exist. An opportunity presented itself. With no qualms I put my hand in a stationmaster’s cash box. I took my hand out with 80 francs. 80 francs does not go far when you have nothing—medicine is expensive.
Therefore, I decided to go back and visit the stationmaster’s cash box, telling myself, “So what? The company steals enough from its employees. I who have absolutely nothing can very well take a little of its surplus.” What a bad idea because I was arrested there and sentenced to a year in prison. I am not embarrassed by this conviction, I take full responsibility. When society refuses you the right to exist, you have to take it and not help it along, which is cowardice.
There, companions, is the exact truth of my conviction. No companion knew about it, so I took sole responsibility for my actions and whoever takes advantage of human stupidity to try to discredit such a just and noble idea as the one that the anarchists defend, trying to dump on the whole of it the faults and wrongs (if faults and wrongs they are) of one of its defenders, is a cretin who trembles before the strict logic of the anarchist idea.
I thought that these explanations might be necessary for the anarchist companions, so I would appreciate it if you would include my letter in the next issue of Révolté.
–Clément Duval, Mazas Prison, October 24 1886.
Also at The Anarchist Library