Have you seen the film Papillon? Either the Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman classic or the 2018 remake? It’s about a serial thief who is sent to the French penal colony on Îles du Salut, off the coast of French Guiana, adapted from the memoirs of real-life inmate Henri-Charriere.
There are in fact three islands, to the ironically called, Salvation Islands. The largest is Ile Royale, and is not often visited, except by cruise ships and Saint Joseph Island and Devil’s Island (Îles du Salut) which are completely barred from tourists. We spent the day exploring Ile Royale as part of our voyage onboard the Viking Sea.
French Guiana was the only South American colony for France. The French were looking for gold like everyone else, but all that they found on these islands was jungle and malaria.
French Emperor Napoleon III deemed that the best use for the islands was as a place of exile for political prisoners. Napoleon realised that his government was housing 6,000 political prisoners in disease-ridden floating jails. Rather than spoil the view for Parisians, he had the prisoners sent to Guiana. And from 1852, the islands became one of the most notorious prisons in history.
Often people who were transported here, never returned and even if they lived to see the end of their sentence, they didn’t have the funds to return to France, so worked out their days on the island. As a prison, life was pretty desolate. The islands were used as a prison until after WWII in 1947 and some 70,000 prisoners stayed on the island across its life span, issued with red striped shorts and a straw hat. Now it is abandoned, looked after by the French National Trust.
Saint Joseph Island was considered the worst prison, home to solitary confinement, where prisoners were not allowed to speak for years at a time and were often driven insane. Devil’s Island itself, a tree covered rock and a former leper colony, was home to the most notorious criminals and is completely off-limits today. It’s estimated that there were 50,000 escape attempts from the prison as a whole. Most were failures.
We caught the tender boats from the Viking Sea ashore and were able to explore Ile Royale on foot independently. The island was home to the prison guards’ quarters, who lived here with their wives and children; the hospital; the warden’s house; office; plus the guard’s mess hall.
Our walk around the island starts with Musée du Bagne, in the former Director’s home which has lots of information about life in the prison. From here we walked upward, there’s both a set of steep steps which are slippery when wet, or you can make your way up the sloping roadway to the top.
At the summit, the prison buildings are spread out around the perimeter of a large grassy courtyard. We headed first for the prison’s chapel built by hand by the prisoners around 1855. Inside the wooden church, we could just see from the closed gates at the entrance, the murals painted by convict forger, Francis Lagrange or ‘Flag’. He painted daily life, escapism and even erotica on the wall, and kept up the forgery on behalf of requests from prison officers.
Following the church, the hospital is the largest building on the island and was designed for military personnel stationed on the island rather than the prisoners. Occasionally wealthy citizens from the mainland would come to the hospital to convalesce – heaven knows why? The lighthouse, now automatic, was once operated by a convicted mechanic.
Saint Joseph Island housed most of the prisoners in solitary confinement, but there was a cell block dedicated solitary on Ile Royale. Here they lived on a diet of bread and soup every three days and some remained in solitary for years; each cell not much wider than the width of two outstretched arms.
There were not many other tourists the day we visited, principally just passengers from the Viking Sea and there are not many people actually on the island – mainly the staff running the guesthouse and some gendarmes now stationed in the guard’s quarters. I read after that the islands are in the pathway of a nearby rocket path and gendarmes are principally in charge of ensuring that the island is evacuated when a launch is expected.
The mess hall now houses a small guesthouse, restaurant, and shop. It’s big enough for a rest stop, but I’m not sure if it is the sort of place I would want to stay. A lot of buildings are crumbling, home to monkeys and the jungle clawing its way back in. It’s an interesting place, but you wouldn’t want to get left behind.