“Subjects of Satisfaction”: Microhistory, the Late 19th-Century Colonial Press, and the Politics of Pederasty in a French Penal Colony

Sunday, January 5, 2020: 10:50 AM
Gramercy West (New York Hilton)
Ross G. Forman, University of Warwick
This presentation addresses the question of methods/approaches in doing the history of homosexuality in the nexus between microhistory and the periodical press. The paper is grounded in the late nineteenth century, a key period identified by Foucault and others for the “invention” of homosexuality. It is particularly invested in the tensions around naming the “unnameable” (the dynamic of preterition so aptly described by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in The Epistemology of the Closet). I focus on the obscure and somewhat eccentric case of La lanterne de Nouméa, a hand-written, short-lived printed newspaper published in 1885 by one Henri Hillariet in Nouméa, the capital of the French penal colony of New Caledonia. This title appeared with the express purpose of provoking a scandal about same-sex goings-on among and between prisoners, soldiers, and colonial officials in order to pursue a vendetta against the local Procureur de la République, one Paul Cordeil. The first issue, published on 30 October 1885, accuses Cordeil of “vice infames” (“infamous vices”). The newspaper also included a hand-drawn, suggestive illustration of the bearded magistrate with a young soldier of the marine infantry. An extraordinary supplement to the fourth number, dated 20 November 1885, goes so far as to announce that the writer has the pleasure of publicly accusing Cordeil of pederasty, and “of profiting from his functions as Chief Justice to more easily obtain ‘subjects’… of satisfaction.” This microhistory reveals the extraordinary reach not just of discourses of sexuality as they were being formulated in metropoles and tested in colonies, but also of the periodical press’s role in publicizing homosex and motivating the affiliations surrounding it. It also provides a counterpoint to the more circumspect reporting of convictions for sodomy, buggery, gross indecency, and related crimes in some more controlled, more metropolitan environments.