Sunday, 12 September 2010

Ghosts of a colonial past

The Jardin d'Agronomie Tropicale, in a remote corner of the Bois de Vincennes, is a ghostly setting, haunted by the spirits of France’s colonial past. The opposite of a typical French garden, it is instead disquieting in its wildness with only a few pathways kept clear of grasses, bushes and creeping branches.

These are not the gardens of a haunted house, but of a series of haunted houses. Nature has taken over now, winding its hands and fingers through a hamlet of crumbling buildings, but enough of the structures remain to give a blurred snapshot of what took place here before. This garden is the setting for a colonial exhibition from over 100 years ago, and a place that remained out of the public eye for most of the 20th century.

Today the public has free access to the gardens, but few people seem to visit. Being alone in this environment heightens the sensation of anxiety, leaving visitors to only guess at the reasons for the collapse and decay. Entrance is through a Chinese portico, the crumbling and fading red paint indicating the state of sights to come. From here you can follow a series of paths, all of which lead to ruined buildings, beheaded statues and mysterious, unexplained objects.

Research will tell you that these are the remains of the 1907 Exposition Coloniale, but signs explaining this in the garden are all sun-faded or have fallen down. What remains clear is that this is not an environment of which the authorities are particularly proud. Instead its decline can be seen as an interesting physical metaphor for French colonial politics.

The 1907 exhibition was based around several distinct villages representing all the corners of the French empire (Indochine, Madagascar, Congo, Sudan, Tunisia, Morocco..). Inhabitants from these territories were also brought over to live in these villages and be ‘observed’ by curious visitors for the duration of the exhibition (May to October).

This curious show though was not the reason for which the gardens were first created. The initial objective was to conduct experiments and find ways to improve the cultivation of tropical plants and trees that would then be sent out for planting across the empire. The hothouses in the gardens were filled with exotic trees including coffee, cocoa, banana and vanilla, and attempts were also made to grow these plants outside on site. Even the hothouses today though have been taken over by nature run wild.

Situated in an open field on the site is another curiosity – a series of monuments to soldiers from the French colonies who died during the First World War. Seeing the words ‘aux soldats noirs morts pour la France’ only exacerbates the feeling of unease. The colonies were (and in some instances still are) part of France, but their inhabitants were not French.

The city of Paris only took over ownership of the gardens in 2003, and only opened them up to the public again in 2006, but will the future of the site be? The buildings are today off limits, and it is very unlikely that they will ever be renovated, but there is a strong desire to ensure that they stay on site in some form. One building, the Indochine pavillion, is currently being refurbished and will function as a small museum and research centre. This seems like a very intelligent inititiative. We are not always proud of our history, but we should never hide it away.

The Jardin d'Agronomie Tropicale
45 bis, avenue de la Belle-Gabrielle, 75012
RER A: Nogent sur Marne
Leave the station on the Avenue des Marronniers, then take the Avenue des Châtaigniers, the first turn on the right.


Tim said...

An excellent find and a fascinating subject. What a curious place. Did you happen on it by chance or was it a place you'd heard/read about?

Adam said...

The first time was an accident (it's near the station in Nogent sur Marne and I was wandering around trying to fill some time). I went back deliberately with my camera though!

Peter said...

This is a part of the Bois de Vincennes that I have neglected. I just have to go there for a walk, scaring or not.

Adam said...

Peter - I've now added instructions on how to get there! I'm sure you won't be scared, but it did make me feel a little nervous - as if I was walking around the set of a horror film! Of course, that's only because I was completely alone there and letting my imagination get the better of me!

CarolineLD said...

This looks extraordinary, and well worth a visit.

Philippa said...

You have a real gift for getting off the beaten track! We will definitely visit this site on our next trip to Paris: it sounds deliciously creepy. Reminds me of a ruined cemetery in London called Nunhead that was overgrown and wild, with ruined chapels and headstones all around.

Sciarada said...

A beautiful place represented with beautiful pictures and a excellent documentation!

Cergie said...

Extraordinaire et particulièrement émouvant pour moi. Mon père a dû aller là bien souvent. Il était conservateur des Eaux et Forêts d'Outremer. Il a fait ses études à l'agro de Paris puis à l'école des Eaux et Forêts à Nancy.
Ce WE nous sommes allés visiter le fort de Cormeilles en Parisis, beaucoup de restes aussi. Visitable en dehors des fêtes du patrimoine tous les 1ers dimanches du mois.

Cergie said...

Les habitants des colonies ETAIENT français mais de nos jours qui le sait ? Même pas ceux qui délivrent les certificats dans les tribunaux d'instance. Difficile de prouver sa nationalité lorsqu'on est né là-bas. J'en sais quelque chose, notamment et surtout pour ma mère.

Gabriel Rochard - architecte de jardins said...

Fascinating ! Thank you for this post. I really should know better the city where I live...

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