2018 Travels 5 - Amazon River Cruise travel blog

Devil's Island Map

Devil's Island Map

Devil's Island

Devil's Island Animals

Devil's Island Cementery

Devil's Island Buildings

Devil's Island Staff Quarters

Devil's Island Modernization

Devil's Island Prison Grounds

Devil's Island Prison Grounds

Devil's Island Prison Grounds

Devil's Island Prison Grounds

Devil's Island Prison Grounds

Da Boss' House

Devil's Island Prison Grounds

Devil's Island View from the Top

Devil's Island Here's Johnny 1

Devil's Island Here's Johnny 2


After “riding the waves” for 36 hours (nice way of saying that the water was a bit rough) and spending all that time in the cabin under the influence of Dramamine, we arrived off the coast of French Guiana. We used Room Service the entire time while we exiled ourselves to the cabin, which was great. Hot food arrived hot and cold food/drinks arrived cold and we didn’t need to get all dressed up just to eat. Our Room Steward ensured that our mini-frig was refilled daily with our favorites and we never ran out of anything. In talking to our Steward this morning about the rough ride she confessed that many of the crew were also sick. Glad to hear that we are not the weaklings of the ship. It also looks like that nasty virus is going around. Crew members are now posted at every dining entrance to encourage passengers to sanitize their hands before entering. Crew members are also serving the passengers on the food line instead of allowing us to serve ourselves, another sign that “Houston, we have a problem.”

Anyhow, no tours are offered on Devil’s Island, but I did read a lot and I’ll pass most of this info along later on in our Journal.

First off, we did NOT visit Devil’s Island as advertised. There are actually three, small island that make up the penal colony; Ile Ste-Joseph, Ile Royale and Ile du Diable (Devil’s Island)(see the map in our photos). Prisoners were first brought the Ile Royale for processing and this is the island we visited. After processing, prisoners were “sorted” into “okey dokey – no problem” who were housed on Ile Royale, “beginning to go bad – unruly, hard to manage” were sent to Ile Ste-Joseph and the worst of the worst (in someone’s opinion) went to Devil’s Island.

Not only are there no tours to Devil’s Island, the only means of getting there safely, a Tram crossing the water from Ile Royale to Devil’s Island, was dismantled years ago. Devil Island’s shore is also too rocky and the surf too dangerous for a normal boat landing.

To continue, the penal colony of Cayenne, commonly known as Devil's Island, was a French penal colony that operated in the 19th and 20th century in the Salvation's Islands of French Guiana. Opened in 1852, the Devil's Island system received convicts deported from all parts of the Second French Empire, and was infamous for its harsh treatment of detainees, with a death rate of 75% at their worst, until it was closed down in 1953. Devil's Island was notorious for being used for the internal exile of French political prisoners, with the most famous being Captain Alfred Dreyfus. The prison system stretched over several locations, on the mainland and in the off-shore Salvation's Islands. Île Royale, the only island that was accessible to tourists, was the reception centre for the general population of the penal colony and home to prisoners that weren’t going to be a problem. Those prisoners were housed in moderate freedom due to the difficulty of escape from the island. Saint-Joseph Island was the Reclusion, where inmates were sent to be punished by solitary confinement in silence and darkness for escapes or offences committed in the penal colony. Devil’s Island was for the very worst prisoners or just those that pissed off the guards or staff.

Prisoners convicted of felonies in the 17th and 18th centuries were sentenced to serve as oarsmen in the French Mediterranean galley fleet. Given the harsh conditions, this was virtually a death sentence. Following the decommissioning of the Mediterranean galley fleet in 1666, the majority of prisoners were paired together in chains aboard galley hulks moored in French harbors until the boats rotted and sank. The prisoners were moved to live on the adjacent pontoons. Prisoners relied on charity or their families for food, bedding and clothing. They were required to work 12 hours a day in the docks, earning 10-15 centimes, which they could spend on food and wine. Other prisoners were housed in prisons onshore, where conditions were apparently so bad that many prisoners would "beg" to be transferred to the hulks.

By the early 19th century, the French urban population had increased from under six million to over 16 million, with a commensurate increase in crime. In 1832 legislation was passed mandating the state's provision of basic necessities to prisoners; however, prison reform changed the previous reliance on corporal punishment to imprisonment with a goal of vengeance and deterrence, with imprisonment considered a way to remove offenders from society. Recidivism of up to 75% had become a major problem; unemployed released prisoners began flooding the cities. In the 1840s, the state set up internal agricultural penal colonies as a place to receive prisoners, thereby removing them from urban environments and giving them employment. Prisoners were commonly sentenced under doubling by which, on completion of their sentence, they were required to work as employees at the penal colony for an additional period equal to their original sentence.

The French Navy, which had been tasked with managing the prison hulks, complained strongly about the cost of guarding the hulks and the disruption they caused to the shipyards. Following his coup in 1851, Emperor Napoleon III ordered that the hulks be permanently closed and that civil law convicts be transferred overseas to colonies. Debate over where the convicts would be sent was prolonged. Algeria was ruled out by the Navy as it was controlled by the French Army; Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Texas were considered, but the government eventually chose French Guiana.

France had repeatedly failed since 1604 to colonize French Guiana. The last attempt at colonization was in 1763, and 75% of the 12,000 colonists that had been sent there died in their first year. By the 1850s, the declining number of survivors was on the brink of extinction. In 1852, Napoleon called for volunteer prisoners from the hulks to transfer to the new Bagne de Cayenne (Cayennes penal colony) at French Guiana; 3,000 convicts applied. Two categories of prisoners were eligible for transportation: transporters, those civil-law prisoners sentenced under doubling, and deportees, prisoners convicted of political crimes, such as espionage or conspiracy. The hulks continued to be used, housing an average of 5,400 prisoners at a time, until they were finally closed around the turn of the century. The agricultural penal colonies continued to be used for juveniles until the last was closed in 1939.

The islands were part of a penal colony from 1852 onwards for criminals of France, who were convicted by juries rather than magistrates. The main part of the penal colony was a labor camp that stretched along the border with Dutch Guiana (present-day Suriname). This penal colony was controversial as it had a reputation for harshness and brutality. Prisoner-on-prisoner violence was common; tropical diseases were rife. Only a small minority of broken survivors returned to France to tell how horrible it was; they sometimes scared other potential criminals to go straight. This system was gradually phased out and has been completely shut down since 1953. Since the late 20th century, the islands have been tourist destinations. The islands were featured in the book Papillon (1969), published as a memoir by Henri Charrière, a former prisoner who escaped.

Devil's Island and associated prisons eventually became one of the most infamous prison systems in history. While the prison system was in use (1852–1953), inmates included political prisoners (such as 239 republicans who opposed Napoleon III's coup d'état in 1851) and the most hardened of thieves and murderers. The vast majority of the more than 80,000 prisoners sent to the Devil's Island prison system never made it back to France. Many died due to disease and harsh conditions. Sanitary systems were limited, and the region was mosquito-infested, with endemic tropical diseases. The only exit from the island prisons was by water, and few convicts escaped. Convicts who were lucky enough to have family or friends willing to send them money had to have it sent to them in care of a prison guard. The standard practice was for the guard to keep for himself a quarter of the amount sent and give the rest to the prisoner.

On 30 May 1854, France passed a new law of forced residency. It required convicts to stay in French Guiana after completion of sentence for a time equal to their forced labor time. If the original sentence exceeded eight years, they were forced to stay as residents for the remainder of their lives and were provided land to settle on. In time, a variety of penal regimes emerged, as convicts were divided into categories according to the severity of their crimes and the terms of their imprisonment or "forced residence" regime.

An 1885 law provided for repeat offenders for minor crimes to be sent to the French Guiana prison system, previously reserved for serious offenders and political prisoners. A limited number of convicted women were also sent to French Guiana, with the intent that they marry freed male inmates to aid in settlement and development of the colony. As the results were poor, the government discontinued the practice in 1907. On Devil's Island, the small prison facility did not usually house more than 12 persons.

The horrors of the penal settlement were publicized during the Dreyfus affair, as the French army captain Alfred Dreyfus was unjustly convicted of treason and sent to Devil's Island on 5 January 1895. In 1938 the penal system was strongly criticized in René Belbenoît's book Dry Guillotine. Shortly after the release of Belbenoit's book, which aroused public outrage about the conditions, the French government announced plans to close the bagne de Cayennes. The outbreak of World War II delayed this operation but, from 1946 until 1953, one by one the prisons were closed. The Devil's Island facility was the last to be closed.

Escapes? One alleged escape was Clément Duval. Duval, an anarchist, was sent to Devil's Island in 1886. Originally sentenced to death, he later received a commuted sentence of hard labor for life. He escaped in April 1901 and fled to New York City, where he remained for the rest of his life. He eventually wrote a book about his imprisonment called Revolte. Four more escapees from Devil’s Island were François Frean, Paul Renuci, Raymond Vaude, and Giovanni Batistoti. They all arrived in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands on 18 October 1936. Their native boat was nearly wrecked on the reef and the convicts were initially entertained as guests and treated for injuries at the Municipal Hospital. And, of course, the famous Henri Charrière’s bestselling book Papillon (1969) described his successful escape from Devil's Island, with a companion, Sylvain. They used two sacks filled with coconuts to act as lifebuoys. According to Charrière, the two men leaped into heavy seas from a cliff and drifted to the mainland over a period of three days. Sylvain died in quicksand a short distance from the shore. From then, Charrière was to meet the man of the name Cuic-Cuic who would help him escape again to the freedom he always wanted. But he was caught again and served in the Bagne at El Dorado where he would soon become free for life and lived in Venezuela. Charrière's account aroused considerable controversy. French authorities disputed it and released penal colony records that contradicted his account. Charrière had never been imprisoned on Devil's Island. He had escaped from a mainland prison. French journalists or prison authorities disputed other elements of his book and said that he had invented many incidents or appropriated experiences of other prisoners. Critics said he should have admitted his book was fiction.

René Belbenoît is perhaps the most renowned escapee of the penal colony, who wrote about his experiences in two well-received memoirs: Hell on Trial and The Dry Guillotine: Fifteen Years Among the Living Dead. After leaving the colony with permission, he made his way to the Panama Canal where he worked for nearly a year. Next he travelled to France to attempt to gain his freedom before being returned and imprisoned on the colony.

In 1938, the French government stopped sending prisoners to Devil's Island. In 1953, the prison system was finally closed entirely. Most of the prisoners at the time returned to metropolitan France, although some chose to remain in French Guiana. In 1965, the French government transferred the responsibility for most of the islands to its newly founded Guiana Space Centre. The islands are under the trajectory of the space rockets launched from the Centre eastward, toward the sea (to geostationary orbit). They must be evacuated during each launch. The islands host a variety of measurement apparatus for space launches. The CNES space agency, in association with other agencies, has restored buildings classified as historical monuments. Since tourism facilities have been added, the islands now receive more than 50,000 tourists each year.

Here’s an interesting tidbit. The bestselling memoir by Henri Charrière, Papillon (1969), described the extreme brutality and inhumane treatment of the penal colony. The book was adapted as an American movie of the same name; released in 1973, it starred Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Later historical analysis of Charrière's "memoir", from the actual records of the penal colony, show that most of what he wrote never happened, were embellishments or were feats ascribed to others. Although prisoners were not treated well, the French government claims that conditions were not as bad as in Charrière's account. But, after reading numerous articles where the magic number appears to be 75% deaths of everyone who came to the island, you have to wonder just who is telling the truth. Just can’t believe anyone anymore, eh? And I thought it was only/mainly politicians.

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