Imprisoned in the devil's playground

After liftoff, Ariane rockets leave the Guiana coast and travel over three small islands known as the Islands of Salvation. These lie some 15 km off Kourou. For several hours after a launch, the only person allowed on the islands, now owned by the CNES, is one man who operates the cinetelescope. That instrument records the rocket’s trajectory using infrared tracking. Holidaymakers and the 20 or so residents who live and work at the hotel on the largest island have to decamp temporarily.

In the distant past, the opposite was true. Over 70,000 of France’s convicted criminals were transported to penal settlements in Guiana, and the islands were an integral part of that system. Leaving was hardly an option. Royale, the largest of the settlements at 21 hectares, was an administrative center and housed the largest numbers. St. Joseph’s, at 14 hectares, was where recalcitrant prisoners were sent to serve sentences in solitary confinement. Silence was strictly enforced and insanity was a common result. It was the third island, however, slightly smaller than St. Joseph’s, that achieved the most notoriety, even though few actually spent time there, because, after 1894, it was reserved for political prisoners. Its name is apt though — Devil’s Island.

Originally the whole island group was named Devil’s Islands, after the fierce currents that bedeviled early explorers and would later claim the lives of most prisoners who tried to escape. The name change was due to the succor that those islands provided one group of early settlers.

In 1763, France was smarting over the loss of Canada. That year, the Duke de Choiseul organized an expedition that sent 15,000 settlers to Kourou. Unfortunately, by 1765 over 10,000 were dead, largely due to yellow fever and typhoid. The survivors, before returning to France, abandoned Kourou for the islands, where a better climate proved to be their salvation.

In the 19th century, France was looking to replicate the system of transportation of criminals used by the British. Memory of the Guiana disaster was still strong, but it was thought that criminals did not deserve soft treatment. It was also thought that those who survived their sentences could help populate and develop the colony. This policy was reinforced by a rule called “doublage,” whereby most criminals, though not political deportees, had to remain in exile in Guiana for a time equal to their original sentence, up to seven years. If convicted for longer than that, it was exile for life.

The most famous prisoner to serve on the islands was also completely innocent. Alfred Dreyfus was an army captain when, in 1894, he was accused and convicted of spying for Germany. The fact that he was Jewish led to an outburst of anti-Semitism. This, combined with the obvious irregularities in his trial, nearly tore French society apart and certainly darkened its reputation abroad.

Dreyfus, who was the only prisoner on Devil’s Island during his 1894-1899 tenure, was unaware of the ensuing furor over his fate. Guards were instructed to communicate sparingly. At times he was allowed to walk around the island; other times he was kept in leg irons. During one period, whenever a ship passed near Devil’s Island the guards, fearing attempts to free him, kept a loaded pistol cocked at his head. At one point he wrote, “So profound is my solitude that I often seem to be lying in my tomb.”

Dreyfus was pardoned in 1899, retried and convicted again, but was eventually declared innocent in 1906.

Another famous resident of the penal system, and one very likely guilty of the crime of murdering a pimp, was Henri Charriere, or Papillon. He wrote a best-selling book in the 1960s that was made into a hugely successful 1973 Hollywood movie. Papillon probably spent time on the islands, but did not escape from Devil’s Island, as he claimed.

The penal colony, established in 1852, was terminated in 1945, though some ex-prisoners remained for several years on Royale and elsewhere in the colony until most were repatriated to Europe.

Today, the warden’s mess and living quarters are a tourist hotel. The majority of penitentiary buildings are crumbling and slowly being reclaimed by the advancing vegetation. One can still, for instance, walk through the haunting structure that housed the punishment cells. Those solitary chambers had wooden beds with iron leg restraints at one end. Very little light could enter.

Royale also had dormitories for the majority of its prisoners, a church, bakery, lunatic asylum and workshops. There is a small cemetery for the children of warders. Prisoners who died or were guillotined for infractions were taken by boat offshore and given to the sharks.

Royale is popular with locals and with those on temporary duty with the space program. Picnics are a favored activity and many stay overnight at the hotel or sling their hammocks on trees along the shoreline. It is also possible to stay in the cells for free, though understandably few choose to do so.

St. Joseph’s is also accessible to the public if arrangements are made at Kourou. Devil’s Island has no public access, though, and stands silent. Feral pigs roam its woods. One can stand on the Royale shoreline a mere 200 meters away and observe the stone house Dreyfus was kept in.

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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