BOOK REVIEW Peter Zinoman’s Colonial Bastille: A History of Imprisonment in Vietnam 1862-1940

In the important study, Colonial Bastille: A History of Imprisonment in Vietnam 1862-1940, Peter Zinoman examines the transformation of the colonial prison as a system to maintain law and order into a social and ideological nexus for the development of communism, nationalism and anti-colonial resistance. Zinoman effectively argues that the colonial prison operated as “universities of revolution” to foment social connections of Vietnamese anti-colonial revolutionaries through the shared experiences of hard labor, living conditions, and sense of emotional loss within prison life. Thus, Zinoman extends the work of David Marr and Benedict Anderson to argue that the colonial prison was an ‘imagined community’ that forged fraternal revolutionary bonds and collective identities.

The first three chapters examines the institution of the colonial prison itself as fragmented and decentralized institutions of Sino-Vietnamese prison traditions and “prisoner of war” repressive camps. Zinoman argues that the colonial prison diverged from the Foucaldian panoptic prison of nineteenth century Europe and the United States which were built on systems of social scientific reform, panoptic surveillance, and “modern” ideas of spiritual rehabilitation and corrective behavior. Rather, colonial prisons (rural penitentiaries and urban central prisons) throughout Indochina were heterogeneous, under-funded, and disorganized institutions with uneven capacity to control, surveil, and classify prisoners.
Chapter four illustrates prison life, the emergence of a modern consciousness, and prison community. It is within this “quasi-structure” that prisoners were able to subversively create social communities, a common prison language, newspapers, organizations, political cells, and even led multiple prison revolts. Since many of the prisons lacked the capacity to isolate and classify the prisoners, most prisoners were shacked to a metal bar in a dormitory like room, allowing for the social communication between inmates. Prisoners such as Huynh Thuc Khang described the prison contributed to the development of “spiritual connection” with other prisoners and their collective struggle against a common enemy. Through the details of communal sentiments and everyday activities, Zinoman argues that the prison eroded traditional family commitments, ethnic, regional, and class differences, and cultivated a ‘modern’ consciousness. Chapters five through seven describe episodes of prison revolts and uprisings, particularly those of Poulo Condore (1890, 1918), Lai Chau (1927), and the largest and most destructive rebellion Thai Nguyen Rebellion (1930-1931). These chapters also discuss the elaborate prison communication network and how the Indochinese Communist Party built its organizational apparatus, training, and clandestine communications in prisons such as the Hanoi Central Prison.
Furthermore, Zinoman demonstrates how the colonial prison permeates throughout the press and public discourse. In the colonial era, newspapers reported on and critiqued the colonialism through prison reform initiatives (Chapter 8). Furthermore, during 1936-1939 the mass release of prisoners due to French Popular Front and Indochinese prison reform initiatives led to an explosion in anti-colonial politics and also a culture of revolutionary high regard for the ‘former political prisoner’. (Chapter 9) This valorization of the revolutionary continues through to the post-colonial era, where state sponsored re-publication of prison memoirs monumentalized revolutionaries and the narrative of patriotic commitment.
Zinoman contributes a social history of prison life and revolutionary communities through the details of everyday dynamics, social hierarchies, and elaborate clandestine cell and communications networks of Communist revolutionaries. Through a close analysis of first person prison memoirs, colonial archives, confiscated prison materials, and North sponsored official narratives, Zinoman reveals the importance of the prison to the development of Vietnamese communism and nationalism. This close reading undermines the discourse-focused scholarship on colonial power and the hegemonic modern state and reveals the nuances and agency of the diverse class of actors such as Vietnamese revolutionaries, prison guards, administrators, and common law criminals.
Review Questions:
  1. What was the role of the colonial prison in the development of communism, anti-colonial resistance, and ‘modern’ national consciousness in 1862-1940 Vietnam?
  2. How is the colonial prison an ‘imagined community’?

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