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Devil's Island

By John and Sandra Nowlan

From our cruise ship balcony in the steady rain and mist, the three small, lush islands, covered with tropical vegetation, look to be among the most pleasant and relaxing places on earth. Looks can be deceiving.


We are, in fact, 15 kilometers off the coast of French Guiana anchored next to Les Iles du Salut (Salvation Islands), collectively better known as “Devil’s Island.”


In its day, the infamous French penal colony was the most dreaded of all prisons. It’s best remembered today as the site of the Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman escape movie, Papillon. To the inmates, it was known as “The Green Hell”. After attempts at colonization failed around 1850, Emperor Napoleon III decided to exile France’s most notorious criminals to this steamy South American outpost located just five degrees above the equator. For 100 years, until its closure in the 1940s, about 80,000 French prisoners were shipped across the Atlantic to rot in remote obscurity at this brutal penal colony. Of the 30,000 or so who managed to escape the torturous experience with life and limbs intact, most were still condemned, forced to spend the rest of their lives on mainland French Guiana coping with heat, humidity and rampant diseases like dysentery, malaria and yellow fever.


Visitors dock at the 70-acre Ile Royale, the central and largest of the three islands. It was here that administrative headquarters were maintained, as well as the military hospital, chapel, numerous solitary confinement cells, death row and the ever-crucial guillotine.


Some attempts are now being made to preserve and maintain the major buildings, but much of the prison area itself has been overtaken by a new group of ruffians: decay, rust, vines and palms. A portion of the complex has been turned into a resort hotel and tourism has become a major source of income, a fact which would no doubt shock the former inmates who wanted nothing more than to get away and never look back.


From the wharf, an old cobblestone path leads to the fine colonial mansion of the prison governor and a small museum. A few steps farther on, in the centre of the island, lay the main ruins. Looking into the dark crevices and crumbling walls, it takes little imagination to visualize the subhuman conditions endured by the inmates. In dilapidated buildings, small, dank solitary confinement cells evoke a shudder from visitors; rusting chains and bars along the perimeter serve as flagrant and haunting reminders that many inmates were shackled to the walls at night.


According to some stories from those days,  prisoners often had to work naked under the broiling sun while fending off ravenous mosquitoes and sadistic guards. It’s little wonder that many tried to escape. Those few who did make it to the mainland then had to cope with dehydration, malnutrition, sunburn, dysentery, storms and the knives and tempers of fellow escapees.


Devil’s Island has now become synonymous with French injustice and colonial oppression in a part of the world that was largely ignored and forgotten. As our ship pulls anchor and heads away from this small archipelago, one can’t help but wonder at the irony that these notorious islands, once the source of unspeakable pain and suffering, are now a safe haven for cruise ships, resort pleasures, and a growing army of tourists.

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