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Devils Island French Guiana

FRENCH GUIANA | Thursday, 7 March 2013 | Views [907]

Devils Island French Guiana

Devil’s Island (French: Île du Diable) is the smallest and northernmost island of the three rocky islands that make up Devil’s Island (nowadays known by their original name, the Iles du Salut), located about 6.9 miles off the coast of French Guiana (South America) near the capital city of Cayenne.
 It has an area of 34.6 acres. It was a small part of the notorious French penal colony in French Guiana until 1952.

We went ashore by tender to Ile Royale, the island where all the prisoners and administration were.

You stand on the wooden jetty that once echoed to the shuffle of shackled feet, it’s not difficult to imagine the men in shapeless uniforms who died here. Their ghosts are everywhere in the crumbling ruins. On Royale the air of colonial France still lingers in the governor’s house, the church, the hospital and admin blocks. Although time and foliage have softened their imposing features, the main prison blocks where 2,000 convicts were once imprisoned remain

Some of the buildings have been partially restored and others are ghostly reminders of the suffering and horrors which took place on these beautiful islands. 


 The setting is as beautiful as any tropical island paradise. But, walking through the buildings and ruins, you can’t help but feel the ghosts of the prisoners who suffered and died here. Over 80,000 prisoners were sent to the islands but only 30,000 survived.



I was particularly moved by the building for the “condemned and solitary confinement”. I truly can’t imagine what it must have been like to spend months and even years in the cells which I measured as about 5 feet wide and 10 feet long.



The French government relied upon malaria and severe climate to finish off “undesirable” citizens. To make matters worse, those who were “awarded” command of such camps were not exactly “cream of the crop” officers. Without supervision, some of them were sadistic. It was tantamount to murder, but the state could claim ignorance. Ile du Diable, considered escape-proof because of strong currents and sharks, was akin to a death sentence – 70% of the inmates died.



Despite the virtual impossibility of escape, some did achieve it. One man who made it back to civilisation, was safe cracker Henri “Papillon” Charriere, so called for the butterfly tattoo on his chest. Framed for murder, he was transported there in 1930 from I’lle de Re, off La Rochelle in France, and spent 13 years on Royale. His best seller Papillon, published in 1970, was eventually made into a harrowing film starring Steve McQueen as Charriere, and Dustin Hoffman as fellow convict Louis Dega who allegedly kept a fortune in francs stuffed up his rectum. It was all in vain.

Viewing the sea from the rocky point where the dead were thrown to the sharks, one wonders how Papillon figured every seventh wave was so powerful that he could be swept out to sea on a sack of coconut shells. But that is how he eventually escaped. Today, there are few, if any sharks around; only turtles. But when there was a plentiful supply of bodies, their fins were a familiar sight when the bell rang from the prison church. This was their cue for feeding time as more bodies would be tossed into the water.

Though the island is steep in this grim history it is facinating to explore.

Wandering around inside the aforementioned governor’s house, the church, the hospital and admin blocks is facintating. The small and sad Childrens Cemetary,
The fresh water dam that now house a few caimans.  Trees full of free roaming monkeys
Macaw parrots. and of course the agoutis (huge long leg guineau pig- like creatures)

Some of the stairways carved into hillsides were a bit tricky but we still chose to preserve on that path !! (another one of mums famous shortcuts)
The giftshop/restaurant/restrooms/bar was a welcome stop for many fellow travellers but we wanted to explore more

It was a very interesting day and in a strange way a most beautiful place.
I am very glad I made the effort to get here.

Tags: french, guiana. devils island, prisons, south america

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