Island life is generally thought of as desirable, being distant, scenic, and peacefully isolated. Throw in a tropical location, and the notion becomes dreamlike. Unfortunately for a lot of unlucky individuals over the course of about a hundred years, such a location was a living nightmare. In 1852, the government of French Emperor Napoleon III needed a place to send its convicted criminals. Humans are pretty good at making strong cages, but if you really want the bad guys out of your hair, it’s best to send them far, far away. France had a place that was indeed distant—its colony of French Guiana in northern South America, an entire ocean away. France already had infrastructure there, in the form of small colonial towns. Napoleon III must have known how effective island imprisonment could be. His own uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, had been exiled to the island of Elba, in the nearby Mediterranean—from which he escaped. His later dismissal to St. Helena in the South Atlantic, however, was permanent.
It seemed a brilliant idea to ship ne’er-do-wells off where they could not only serve their time, but do it while providing labor that might develop colonial riches in the New World. The facility so established was called the Prison of Saint-Laurent du Maroni, located on the banks of the Maroni River, which separated French Guiana from Suriname, or Dutch Guiana. Twenty miles upriver, it was the center of a network of camps where prisoners were held. At any one time, there were perhaps a couple of thousand inmates. Most of these men were let out each day into the settlements to work at such jobs as cleaning the streets, painting, farming, and a host of other jobs where they basically provided slave labor. Because many of the prisoners were minor offenders, they were well behaved and could be trusted among the colonists.
Those who were guilty of more violent crime, or were troublemakers, were instead sent to cut trees in the jungle. It was brutally hard work, and many died from disease, poor nutrition, and exhaustion. The heat and humidity, and the bugs and dangerous animals were bad enough, but their treatment at the hands of guards was also horrifying. Something on the order of 70,000 people were sent to French Guiana to serve time—three quarters of them died of diseases and the harsh conditions, or while attempting escape, which most tried at least once. The jungle or the sea ended most of their efforts. Only 5,000 managed to complete their sentences and walk out the gates. Some never even made it into the prison itself, dying in illness or violence on prisoner transport ships.
As bad as all this was, it was just the first ring of hell. For the unluckiest, there was a worse place to be penned up, and those who were caught and returned to the prison after attempting escape found out how bad it could be. About 120 miles from Saint-Laurent du Maroni by water was a group of three small islands roughly seven miles off the coast of French Guiana. These were Ile Royale, Ile Saint-Joseph, and Ile du Diable, or Devil’s Island—together known as the Iles du Salut, or Salvation Islands. The first housed prison administration and a lockup, as did the second. These were not labor camps, but strictly prisons where there was nothing to do all day but steam in the heat and be cooped up in very tiny cells, with very little light. Some had too much light—pit cells outdoors were open to the elements—only a rack of bars overhead against the sun and rain.
Conditions in all these facilities were filthy and terrifyingly dangerous. Many of the inmates were violent, desperate men, and murder was something the guards might well ignore, since making a case of it just meant a lot of tedious forms would need to be filed. Some other men were falsely accused or guilty of minor offenses born of economic desperation. They were not accustomed to dealing with society’s vicious underbelly, and yet it became their daily challenge. Worse than having to deal with fellow prisoners were the solitary cells where prisoners were totally isolated, some in complete darkness. Prisoners spent years in them, some going mad if they didn’t die first. But no one was expected to leave these islands—it was prison for life. After death, bodies were hauled out to sea to be dumped for the sharks.
Devil’s Island itself, whose name eventually came to represent the entire prison system in French Guiana, was reserved for political prisoners, and no more than 50 inmates did time there. Its most famous inhabitant, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was a French Army officer accused of treason. The island was not easily utilized, as strong currents and rocky shores make its 35-odd acres difficult to land on. With nine miles of sharky salt water separating it from the mainland, Dreyfus was initially let to walk about Devil’s Island. But paranoid officials, fearing escape, had him locked in a cell all day, shackled at night to his bed, and watched by armed guards 24/7. He eventually was freed, but only after the facts of his case and the nature of his imprisonment were given a wide audience by the famous French writer, Emile Zola.
France didn’t want its criminals to come home even after they had served their terms, if indeed they survived them. The government instituted a system called “doublage” wherein those serving sentences of less than eight years had to stay in French Guiana as free men for a period equal to their sentence, before returning to France. They were given land to work and raise food on, but it was not an easy life. Those sentenced to over eight years were barred from ever returning home. France began to send women prisoners to French Guiana, where they were taught how to be good homemakers. The plan was to have them as a supply of wives for the freed prisoners to marry. This plan soured as the all-ex-con families were not thought to be producing a desirable society. But even well into the 20th century, France shipped thousands and thousands of small-time criminals out of the country to rot in its distant prisons, before they were all closed down in 1946. Three hundred ex-prisoners never left French Guiana, so changed that they did not feel they could cope with life in France again.
The world had heard about the Devil’s Island prisons since the Dreyfus Affair in the late 1800s, and the public could read all about it when ex-inmate Rene Belbenoit wrote a book entitled Dry Guillotine in 1944. The fame of the place became really widespread when Henri Charriere, who besides Belbenoit was one of the very few escapees, wrote of his experiences and harrowing escape from there. The butterfly tattoo Charriere had on his chest gave him the name Papillon, and his book by the same name, published in 1968, was hugely popular. The movie made from it, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, also captivated the public. The Salvation Islands today house only ruins. The unspeakable tortures and suffering are quiet history, as tourists poke around the tiny cells and view the hated iron bars that clamped the inmates to their hard beds. Devil’s Island itself is almost inaccessible because those treacherous currents still run. French Guiana is now a modernizing society, with a good standard of living and a hopeful future, including a rocket launch facility northwest of the city of Kourou, which sits just opposite the Iles du Salut. The legacy of Devil’s Island, and the whole prison system that destroyed so many lives, is now only a sad and regretful memory.
After your stint at Devil’s Island, where ya gonna go? How about south to Brazil—it’s huge! Put this National Geographic map of Eastern South America on your wall and plot your escape! Pssst….you can get it from Maps.com.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Unknown (CC0 Public domain)
caption: Part of the prison complex at Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni
source: Flickr: Dan Sloan (CC by SA 2.0)
caption: The Iles Salut on the horizon—not so far offshore, but sharks and currents raise the ante on escape.
source: Flickr: Arria Belli (CC by SA 2.0 Generic)
caption: Rocky shores thwart visitors to Devil’s Island, seen here from Ile Royale.
source: Flickr: amanderson2 (CC by 2.0)
caption: A view of Devil’s Island from the guards’ cemetery on Ile Saint-Joseph.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Cayambe (CC by SA 4.0 International)
caption: Henri Charriere, or “Papillon,” left his name behind on a cell floor when he escaped.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Sebastien MAENNEL (CC by SA 3.0 Unported)
caption: French Guiana is now the site of European space launches. What would the prisoners of Devil’s Island have given to escape like that!
source: Wikimedia Commons: Spotting973 (CC by SA 2.0 Generic)