Historical Dictionary



Situated off the coast of southern Vietnam, the prison of Poulo Condor, or Con Dao in Vietnamese, was the most notorious of the French colonial penitentiaries. Created in 1862, Poulo Condor held on average some 1,500 prisoners, although revolts on the mainland could overflow the cells as the French made large-scale arrests. The prison cells often mixed political prisoners with a large majority of common law offenders. Working conditions were often deadly. Disease was rampant and violence common. The mortality rate averaged between 3 and 4 percent, moving as high as 15 percent in 1930. In August 1936, the leftwing Popular Front government in France authorized a massive amnesty, freeing many communist and non-communist political prisoners. However, the fall of the Popular Front government and the outbreak of World War II saw the French colonial authorities renew their crackdown on nationalists and communists. According to Paul Mus, as of 9 March 1945 (when the Japanese overthrew the French and freed thousands of political prisoners on the mainland), between 8,000 and 10,000 political prisoners were being held in French Indochinese jails and labor camps, most of them Vietnamese. 5,000 political prisoners had been sent to Poulo Condor following the failed communist uprising in Cochinchina in 1940.

Paradoxically, prison experience in Poulo Condor and elsewhere in the Indochinese penal universe contributed to the development of Vietnamese nationalism by bringing together in one crowded place revolutionaries from all over the country. Years behind bars also forged some of the tightest bonds within the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), ones that would make themselves felt within the party, army, and especially in the Public Security Services. The lifelong friendship among Le Duan, Pham Hung, and Nguyen Van Linh began on the island of Poulo Condor. They returned together to mainland Vietnam on 23 September 1945, the day war broke out in the south. These men would go on to become the most important communist leaders in southern Vietnam during the Indochina War and in all of Vietnam during the war with the Americans. In all, boats returned about 1,200–1,800 political prisoners to Vietnam between August and October 1945. (Bao Dai had ordered the release of prisoners from Poulo Condor before the Japanese defeat; however, it is not known how many returned to Vietnam.) Prison time also divided communist and non-communist nationalists violently. In many ways, the seeds of the civil war that broke out between the ICP and the Vietnamese Nationalist Party (Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dan, VNQDD) in 1945–1946 had been planted in Poulo Condor in the 1930s. Nationalists and communists often came to violent blows in the island’s cellblocks.

Having returned to southern Vietnam, the French retook Poulo Condor by force on 18 April 1946 and used it again as the major colonial prison during the Indochina War. In May 1946, the French dispatched some 300 prisoners from Saigon to Poulo Condor, including combatants of the DRV armed forces as well as workers, students, and intellectuals who had taken part in the resistance. Between 1946 and 1950, not technically at war, the French transferred to Poulo Condor “political prisoners” who had taken part in anti-French activities. As of January 1950, Poulo Condor held 1,392 prisoners. The majority were Vietnamese numbering 1,157, but there were also 95 Cambodians, 9 Lao, 66 Chinese, 3 Thai, as well as 72 Japanese prisoners of war. Of the Vietnamese prisoners, 751 came from southern Vietnam, 233 from the north, 161 from the center, and two from the highlands. However, only 2 percent of these Vietnamese prisoners were members of the communist party. From April 1951, as full-scale battles raged on the mainland, the French began to dispatch hundreds of Vietnamese prisoners of war (tu binh) to Poulo Condor. While the communist party continued to organize and recruit among political and common law prisoners, the violence that had characterized Poulo Condor since the colonial period resumed, including the use of torture. And, as in the 1930s, communist and non-communist nationalists found themselves spending time together behind bars because of their opposition to the French. Heated exchanges were not uncommon. On 20 August 1954, 512 political prisoners were freed from Poulo Condor and transferred to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). One month later, another 1,050 political prisoners were returned to the DRV via Sam Son. See also PRISONERS OF WAR; SON LA.