"" Writer's Wanderings: World Cruise - Devil's Island, French Guiana

Monday, May 11, 2015

World Cruise - Devil's Island, French Guiana

Just off the coast of French Guiana is a cluster of three islands, Ile Royale, Ile Ste-Joseph, and Ile du Diable or Devil’s Island. The most infamous of the three is Devil’s Island made so by the book and movie Papillion. The islands were penal colonies of France and the worst of the criminals, the political criminals were sent to Devil’s Island. The most famous of which was Alfred Dreyfus who was wrongly accused of treason and later released.

The penal colony existed from 1852 when it was instituted by Emperor Napoleon III until 1946 when it was forced to close. Each island served a different purpose. Ile Royale was administrative and for prisoner’s deemed less dangerous. The more hardened criminals were kept on Ile St. Joseph.

Because of the location and the dangerous waters surrounding them, sharks and strong currents, most attempted escapes ended tragically or were quickly ended by capture and return to the islands which earned time in solitary confinement. The most famous escapee, Henri “Papillon” Charriere, claimed to be the only successful escapee but there’s a possibility there were a few others.

Papillon is immortalized in a book and movie that starred Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. We watched the movie the night before we were to arrive at the islands. It portrays, a bit graphically at times, the horrendous conditions the prison was noted for and the terrible punishments inflicted on unruly convicts or those who did not accomplish the work quota for the day. When Papillon escapes a second time and is caught and sent to solitary for a five year sentence (the first was two years), I heard myself say, “Oh, not again.” At one point, his small cell is completely enclosed so that there is no light except for one small pinhole. Most prisoners went crazy under those conditions.

Solitary confinement building
Out of the 60,000-80,000 prisoners said to have served time there in those years, very few survived and even if there terms ended they were still banished to French Guiana to live out their days and try to survive the hardships that provided.

We arrived and dropped anchor off Ile Royale about one o’clock and Bob and I grabbed our gear and made for the tenders. It was already a hot day and I was thankful that the island had more trees than it had in the days of the penal colony. I guess with no prisoners to cut them down they grew heartily.

The tender unloaded its passengers on a jetty probably in the same spot prisoners were unloaded. We however were not shackled and we made our way off the pier and instead of turning left to visit the buildings immediately, we went right to follow the path that goes around the island. I really wanted a chance to walk for a while on solid ground under some trees and with a fresh ocean breeze blowing.

Around a bend, we found the remains of a tower that had been the base for a cable that ran across to Devil’s Island and was a means of delivering food and people, I think, as well. Devil’s Island has a rugged coast that is hard to approach by boat. Besides, I’m sure that they were also afraid prisoners might band together and commandeer a supply boat.

We were startled when an animal crossed our path that looked like it was carrying a baby in its mouth. A little later we saw another and realized it was a large rodent, one we’d seen in the zoo back home. I think they are called agouti.

Eventually we found our way to the center of the building complex and began exploring what was left of the old cells, the hospital, the chapel, and other buildings. Some we could wander through and others, like the hospital, while still mostly standing were closed to the public.

I was glad we’d taken the time to see the movie. It helped me to visualize and understand better the things I was seeing. Bob took a picture of me behind bars. I was making a face because I didn’t want to pose red faced from the heat and with sweat dripping from my hair. Later our son commented on the FaceBook picture, “Oh my gosh, Mom, what did you do to Dad?” He’ll never know how close I came. (Just kidding, kids.)

On our way around the buildings and ruins, we saw a helicopter pad that I’m sure wasn’t there back when and a fenced in small utility building with some dishes on it. We wondered if that was the tracking facility for the Guiana Space Centre that launches space rockets eastward over the islands.

We heard some people talking about seeing monkeys along the trail and I was sorry we had missed them. When we started back for the tenders though several people were stopped taking pictures of the trees above them and we realized we were in time for the monkeys after all.I’m not sure the variety, maybe capuchins? They weren’t afraid of visitors and were easily enticed by some other guests with a couple of crackers. People passing by were warning that you’d better hang onto your hats. The monkeys were known thieves. Perhaps that’s why they were here. Maybe that’s all that exists of the penal colony residents now. I didn’t wait around to ask. We took our pictures and gladly left for the air conditioned ship and a welcome shower.

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