Devil Island, French Guiana
Since leaving Belem Tuesday evening, we’ve been sailing in the outflow waters of the Amazon – a shallow, nasty, brown-colored water that, according to the Captain, extends nearly 200 miles into the Atlantic. It’s actually quite depressing – very unpleasant. You don’t smell that fresh salt air normally apparent in the ocean. Rather, there’s just this aroma best described as stale & musty – not that it’s offensive – it just seems out of place. Others share the same feeling. We should be clear of the Amazon’s influence sometime this evening, and back in beautiful blue waters again.
Devil’s Island has a dark and intriguing history. The smallest and northernmost of the three Iles du Salut, Devil’s Island is located off the coast of French Guiana and was part of the notorious French penal colony until 1952 – the year I was born. Opened by Emperor Napoleon III’s government in 1852, the prison became one of the most infamous prisons in history. The inmates ran the gamut from political prisoners to thieves and murderers. The harsh conditions and rampant spread of diseases on the island guaranteed that more than 80,000 prisoners were never seen again. The remote location, rocky coastline and treacherous waters made escape virtually impossible. In 1938, France stopped sending prisoners to Devil’s Island, and in 1952, the prison closed forever. Papillon, a best-selling book by ex-Devil’s Island convict Henri Charriere tells of his numerous alleged escape attempts. It was made into a popular movie starring Steve McQueen & Dustin Hoffman. The prison ruins on the island are a fascinating but grim reminder of this beautiful island’s dark past. The cemetery, which includes the gravestones of children, reminds us that this grim past didn’t only affect adults on the island.
They say that Devil’s Island was escape-proof with its strong currents and sharks – akin to a death sentence, 70% of the inmates died.
Those who were sentenced to seven or more years and still managed to survive were required to remain in French Guiana for the rest of their lives, but few had to face the prospect of life in exile. Of the 80,000 prisoners sent to the island, only 30,000 lived to tell about it. Up to 2,000 criminals could be interred at one time. Ruins of the old barracks, chapel, lighthouse, and prison hospital are ghostly reminders, and we went through them all. The former guard’s mess hall has been restored as a restaurant and hotel. The overnight fee is low, but conditions are not exactly luxurious. There is also a very small souvenir shop. A number of paths cross the island – the prison complex is at the top. The ruins of the convict community are interesting…though eerie sights. Most of the buildings are now crumbling (like me) but steps have been taken to prevent further decay. The tiny cells and austere atmosphere present a clear picture of the singularly unpleasant lifestyle that must have distinguished the place. Flashlights are needed inside the dark structures.
We arrived and dropped anchor about 7am, & surprisingly close to the small island. According to the Captain and depending on tides, the sea depth ranged from 3’ to 10’ – VERY shallow here. The island is small – I envisioned a much larger landmass, but it’s roughly 1.5 – 2 miles maximum, and you can walk completely around it via foot-path in about 45 minutes.
We had breakfast at 6:00, so we were packed & ready to ‘tender’ shoreside the moment the ‘all clear’ announcement was made. We were among the first passengers to set foot on the island – it was about 8:30 and quite humid. In fact, it was more clammy & damp than the Amazon. The main pathway leads both left & right – left being the shortest route to the top where the main barracks are, or right, around the perimeter of the island that enables you to see the old guard shacks, insane asylum, and other structures eventually taking you to the top. We went right – we wanted to see it all. The island is very tropical – very beautiful & lush. The shores are rocky with pounding surf, and we observed several iguanas sunning themselves on the beach, some quite large…maybe 3’. The first structure you come to is the crumbling insane asylum – not too much left. This building was purposely placed down the hill and through a small jungle from the main prison & wardens quarters so they didn’t have to listen to earsplitting shrieks 24 hours a day, or so the story is told. Today, the remains of the building are engulfed by tropical vegetation and several monkey families, who were quite inquisitive & friendly I might add. The ocean view from the asylum is quite beautiful, and most of the cellblocks appeared to be facing that direction – it makes you wonder if the prison authorities had a sense of humanity after all? To build a home today with such breathtaking views would cost millions.
On we go…the morning mist has dissolved & the sun is at full strength – it got hot in a hurry. I wore a light fishing shirt thinking I’d stay relatively dry – not the case. Within 20 minutes after arriving, we were both sweating profusely – my shirt wasn’t just damp, it was absolutely waterlogged. It was hard to imagine the prisoners coping with this type of environment – perhaps this is, in part, what fostered the rapid spread of devastating disease? It was hideous.
We now start up a hill toward the main barracks, infirmary, & solitary confinement cells. These facilities are still largely intact with iron doors & thick rusty bars. There were “Do Not Enter” signs clearly posted throughout…but written in French. I don’t speak French…I don’t read French. Cheryl says, “Honey, c’mon.” My feeling is, to come this far and not actually experience the facility would be both frustrating & disappointing. It would be the same as going to the infamous Book Depository in Dallas and not allowed inside. How absurd…right? A few other inquisitive passengers find an iron door ajar…in they go…and in WE go. Probably not the mature, responsible thing to do, but the door WAS ajar, and we rationalized that this particular area was probably not part of the prohibited area…at least that train of thought made us feel less awkward & guilt-ridden. If our kids are reading this, please don’t lose any respect for us – this was an opportunity for an authentic & very educational step back in time.
I packed a flashlight back in December in the event the ships were to lose power or we otherwise found ourselves in a situation requiring a small light. Once inside, the cell blocks were very dark, with the exception of small ventilation holes drilled in the ceilings of each chamber. It was time for the flashlight. We walked down the long corridor with barred cells on both sides. One particular cell was without barriers, except for two pieces of lumber over the small opening – there was just enough room for me to squeeze through. I was now in a solitary confinement compartment. As I stood, I could outstretch my arms and touch both sidewalls simultaneously. The ceiling was a narrow cylinder shape extending up 20’ I would estimate, with only tiny holes for oxygen flow. Without my flashlight, I would have been in nearly total darkness. To my right was a bedframe, or actually, what once was – now only three rusty conduits. To my left, no more than foot, was an oxidized chair, corroded over the years leaving only the outline. A small hole in the cement floor was obviously the latrine. As I beamed the flashlight on the walls, they were covered with graffiti – nothing decipherable – I believe mostly French – but probably the chalkboard used by hundreds of prisoners over the years to vent their frustrations or leave their mark. It was stifling hot, yet very clammy & mildewed. If only walls could tell their tales…incredible. After perhaps 5 minutes, I was done. I reflected for a moment of the many men who stood in my place years earlier – albeit criminals, but who spent decades in a cubicle compared to my few minutes…either praying for death, or constantly searching for a way out. With that thought, I stepped between the lumber barriers and back into the hallway to join Cheryl. It was a moving experience.
We went through the balance of the ‘public’ facilities, and stopped for a few minutes in the children’s cemetery with reverence & respect – these were kids belonging to the prison guards who died very young at the hands of multiple diseases. Tragically, headstones revealed some were only a few months old…others in their teens.
By this time, we had made the entire loop around the island – we were back on the ‘tender’ by 11:00 for our short trip to the ship.
I write this at 6:30am on Saturday, April 27 – we have been sailing toward St. Lucia since leaving Devil’s Island two days ago – scheduled to arrive at 10:00 this morning. I will post pictures of our visit to the prison on Monday, so please check back. Today, Cheryl and I are going deep-sea fishing with two of our friends – actually Marlin fishing. Fort Lauderdale is only three days away, northwest of our current position. We begin the final leg of this journey tonight at 6pm, scheduled to arrive Wednesday morning.
While we will continue on to San Diego, these past four months have been unforgettable.
Son Brendon, wish us luck fishing today...we know you'd like to be here!