New sound installation tells prisoners' stories at Portchester Castle

A new audio artwork at Portchester Castle, produced by Elaine Mitchener, will bring to life the stories of French and French-Carribean prisoners. 

The lives of French and French-Caribbean prisoners of war held at Portchester Castle near Portsmouth are the inspiration for an evocative new sound installation opening at the English Heritage site today. 

| Les Murs Sont Témoins | These Walls Bear Witness | has been created by London-born artist and musician Elaine Mitchener in response to Portchester’s history as a building of incarceration, creativity, and freedom, using historic texts to vividly bring the past to life. 

Portchester Castle served as a prison during all the major conflicts of the 18th century, particularly during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars of 1793–1815 when up to 8,000 prisoners of war were housed at any one time. During this time prisoners of many different nationalities and backgrounds were interned at the castle, including more than 2,000 African-Caribbean soldiers. Through the new soundscape visitors to Portchester castle will encounter voices and sounds that reveal the lives and experiences of these remarkable soldiers and their families. 

Excerpts of personal letters, registers and plays written and performed by the prisoners will be heard coming out of the walls, creating an atmospheric soundscape throughout the main castle keep. Recorded by Elaine Mitchener and a team of international contributors, the audio content is based on extensive research by Abigail Coppins and Katherine Astbury, Professor of French Studies at the University of Warwick. Drawing on this wealth of historic texts, the installation explores issues of race, gender, warfare and incarceration in Britain, France and the Caribbean between 1789 and 1815 and makes much of the natural drama of the prisoners’ lives.

Dominque Bouchard, English Heritage’s Head of Learning and Interpretation, said:

“This is a hugely emotive and immersive installation, which brings Portchester’s history uniquely to life for our visitors. In some places the sounds are like whispers, in others it is less subtle. We know that when the castle was used to house prisoner of war from France and the Caribbean the spaces were incredibly crowded – it would have been a sensory overload, the new soundscape reflects this in a striking and sensitive way.”

Katherine Astbury, Professor of French Studies at the University of Warwick, comments:

“It’s been an honour and a privilege to work with such an acclaimed sound artist as Elaine Mitchener to bring the stories of the French at Portchester to life. At the heart of these stories lie fundamental questions about human rights, discrimination, identity and the power of culture to overcome national differences. The lives of the black prisoners in particular allow us to move beyond traditional narratives of the enslaved as victims to celebrating black agency. The installation touches on issues as much of relevance today as back then.”

Artist Elaine Mitchener said:

“It has been an exciting and illuminating process researching and creating | Les Murs Sont Témoins | These Walls Bear Witness | for Portchester Castle. I am grateful to University of Warwick who commissioned me, with support from English Heritage. Special thanks to Prof Katherine Astbury and Abigail Coppins for allowing me to access and use their research for this project; technical and logistics support supplied by Harry Bishop and his team; studio technician Ben Marc Music; actors Serge Saint Rose, Stella Lucien, Sara le Turcq, Pierre Palluet and to those free French men, women and children from the Caribbean whose incredible lives and sacrifices were the source of inspiration and whose spirit can still be felt within these walls.”

| Les Murs Sont Témoins | These Walls Bear Witness | at Portchester Castle in Hampshire is open from Monday 8 July until the end of November 2019. 

Discover more about Portchester Castle's history here

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