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Devils Island


January 14, 2008

The notorious 19th century French penal colony, made famous in the film "Papillon", Devil's Island is part of French Guyana, located 12 miles off its coast. It is, along with Royale and St. Joseph's Islands, part of the Salvation Island group. The group's name originated in the 1600's, when settlers fled the mainland to escape the disease ridden jungle.

The French first established the convict settlement in 1852 and the last prisoners did not leave until 1953 when it was closed. During the penal colony's 100 year existence, more than 80,000 prisoners were sent to the Salvation Islands, but few ever left. The most famous of these include Dreyfus, the French officer falsely accused of treason, who spent four years on Devil's Island before being released.

And, of course, there was Henry Charriere, better known as "Papillon," who claimed to be the only convict to escape Devil's Island and who wrote the best selling book about his life. Our stay allowed us to visit the ruins on Royale Island, the largest of the three and the only one still inhabited.

We could see St. Joseph Island from our ship. It is only about 2000 feet from Royale Island. It had a half dozen summer cottages on it. Devil's Island is located to the north of Royale Island and we could see it from the north side, again about 2000 feet away.

We were fortunate to be able to land at the Island as stormy weather had caused two previous landing attempts to be thwarted. In the photos above, the crowd is walking along the landing pier upon their discharge from the landing shuttles. The photo on the above right is a view of the cobblestone walkway to the top of a hill. The roof of one building, halfway up, can be seen in the distance.

We could hear screeching from the jungle. We later learned that it was monkeys. The steel boom is what is left of a hoist used to unload ships making deliveries to the penal colony.

On our walk up the hill we elected not to take the stairs. On our return we used the stairs as a shortcut and realized how difficult they are to climb as some step risers are 12" to 16" high.

Colorful plants abound and grow wild.

The above is a Presbyterian church that had been used while the island was inhabited.

The animal shown is an Agoti. It is about the same size as a rabbit. There were many of them running around the grounds. The building on the right is one of the prisons.

Prison infirmary and lighthouse.

More prisoner quarters and workshops. Note the helicopter pad likely installed in the 80's.


Prison barracks crumbling away. The enclosure on the right is actually the water reservoir that was used to store fresh water.

We don't know how much water had been contained within the reservoir. We estimated the water depth to be about 3 feet but we don't really know if it is deeper.

The island in the photo on the left is Devil's Island. The island in the photo on the right is St. Joseph Island. You can see the dock and shuttle boats from where we entered the island.

Color abounds.

We keep seeing the Agoti on our return to the dock.

Our ship awaits us in the distance. The day was cloudy and overcast. The photo on the right shows one of the guards quarters located at the top of the hill. The hill is 131 feet high.

The penitentiary was first opened by Emperor Napoleon III in 1852. As we walked around the prison grounds the thought kept running through my mind, "How can humans do this to one another?" The islands were used by France from 1852 to 1946 and finally closed in 1953 when the last prisoners were removed. Inmates consisted of everything from political prisoners to the most hardened of thieves and murderers. Of the more than 80,000 prisoners, most were sent to the mainland 12 miles away to a place called Kourou to build a roadway through the jungle. It was a certain death sentence due to harsh conditions and disease infested territory. Of the 80,000 prisoners it is reported that less than 10,000 ever survived.

Their sentences were puzzling as well. For example, if a prisoner was sentenced to 10 years he had to serve an additional 10 years after his sentence was completed. The second sentence was worse than the initial sentence because during their second term they had to fend for and feed themselves by whatever means they could. They would only be housed and fed during their initial sentence. The reason is that France wanted to populate the area and they were considered a viable source of settlers.




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Last modified:    April 2013