March 5, 2015
Devil’s Island, French Guiana
In the 1750s they called them the Isles of Salvation. French Colonists found the mainland of South America disease ridden and many died. These islands, several miles off shore did not seem to have the malaria and yellow fever present on the mainland. Settlers went there for convalescence and evaluation. Were they healthy enough to continue as colonists? Or should they be sent back to France? The Islands proved to be salvation of many French colonists.
But the islands have an earlier name, given to them by sailors who cursed the strong currents and shark filled waters, they were the Devil’s Islands. One was actually named for the Devil, one for St. Joseph and one Isle Royale. One hundred years after they became the Islands of Salvation they reverted to their demonic calling and became France’s most notorious prison colony. The islands, collectively, became again, Devil’s Island.
The islands’ two most famous residents were Alfred Dreyfus and Steve McQueen. McQueen played Papillon in the movie. In real life Papillon was not a resident of the islands, he escaped from the prison system on the mainland. Despite their reputation the islands, except for the solitary confinement wing on St. Joseph, were actually easier on prisoners than the mainland labor camps. They were healthier and the work was less exhausting, less clearing land in malarial swamps. However, high profile prisoners, especially political prisoners (including from Indochina) and spies, were sent to the islands because escape was nearly impossible due to the strong currents and the sharks. The sharks were encouraged by the French dumping bodies of dead prisoners off the islands rather than burying them. At one point there was about an 80% mortality rate among prisoners in French Guiana so there was a lot of shark chum.
Devil’s Island itself is where Dreyfus was imprisoned because it was the most difficult to escape from. Most prisoners on the island could grow food and live in their own huts. Dreyfus had a special cell built for him and was chained down at night because he was such a high profile prisoner and authorities wanted no chance of escape or rescue. The authorities also built a wall around his cell so he could not see, or signal, the sea. He was falsely convicted of spying for the Germans. Emile Zola took up his case and he became an international cause. He was a resident of Devil’s Island for about 5 years before being pardoned, than acquitted, then restored to his former army rank and finally promoted, serving with distinction in World War I. Devil’s Island itself is now closed to the public. There used to be a cable car connecting it to Isle Royale but it fell into disrepair. The currents are too difficult for most boats to approach the island. The prison authorities said the currents and the sharks were their guards.
I can attest to the currents. The ship was anchored between Isle Royale and St. Joseph. The currents and waves were moving swiftly between the islands. It took several attempts to dock on Isle Royale and coming back to the ship we got off the tender one at a time. When a wave crested so the tender was higher than the ship’s deck we jumped onto Prinsendam. The man in front of me slipped and was caught by two crew members on the ship who knew exactly what to do, and pulled on board. I would not want to attempt to swim in these currents.
Joseph Island was the home of the notorious solitary confinement cells. In those cells prisoners could not speak and were often held in total darkness as a way of breaking the spirit of troublemakers. Several went mad. It was called the dry guillotine.
Despite their reputations these are very pretty islands. There are no beaches but lots of rock with pounding surf. They are wooded, with nice walking paths, old stone buildings in various states of repair. The commander’s house is a little museum, the church still functions and there is a guesthouse, restaurant and bar on the island. The hospital and cell blocks are ruins, the prison system closed in 1953 after operating for101 years. The old buildings have trees and flowers growing up around them. There is still a lighthouse on Isle Royale and a tracking station for the European Space Agency launch facility on the mainland opposite the islands. A ship with more tracking equipment is anchored off Isle Royale. There is an older communications station that I found interesting, a semaphore station on top the hill at Isle Royale that relayed visual messages to the other islands.
Suzi and I enjoyed the stop, although I think some of our fellow travelers may not have been as enthralled. One said “Well, I’ll get on the tender, step off and get back on again just so I can tick off French Guiana as a country I visited.” I don’t understand this type of scorecard tourism. Where is the curiosity, especially after having made the effort to ride in on a bouncing tender? Other travelers got to the island and immediately tried to find, on their maps, the island’s one gift shop. For some people the main point of a cruise, I guess, is shopping. Suzi and I directed some of our shipmates to the shop but we didn’t have much interest in shopping. After a cursory glance we passed it on our way to the island’s one bar to get something cold to drink midway through our walks around the island. I had figured we would spend about three hours on the island based on the lectures and the walking tour maps. If fact we spent five hours. The island was smaller than we thought, it took less time to walk, but there was more to see.
Pulling away, leaving Devil’s Island in a fine mist, we’re ending the South America part of our cruise. Now we’re becoming a Caribbean cruise calling at Barbados and St. Thomas before returning to Florida in a week.