Devil’s Island

Devil’s Island deserves a post of its own.  When we first visited in 2006, we didn’t expect much…and were completely moved by the emotions permeating the place.  Just off the coast of French Guiana, it was a French prison island from the 19th century until 1950.  Once on the island, prisoners were seldom released, rarely escaped and generally died there.  It is the site of a famous movie, Papillon, starring Steve McQueen.

From the small pier, one has four choices in reaching the top of the hill where the prison was situated.  Two involve steep slopes and many steps; one is a long, gradual slope of gravel around half of the island and one is a shorter, more steep cobblestone road up one side of the island.  This last was our choice, as all of the stones were carried and put in place, one at a time, by prisoners.

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At the top is a small village for the officials, soldiers and their families, including a church, dormitory, and family housing.  Today, there is also a small hotel, snack bar and gift shop in what was a former administration building. IMG_20160117_100519424_HDR

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The prisoners were held in general buildings and isolation cells (which have largely deteriorated).

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Life on the island today is gentle.  There are some Gendarmerie, maintenance workers and a few others.  The coast of French Guinea is visible in the distance, and locals come to the island to work, fish and enjoy the day.  Peacocks and the occasional chicken run loose, and on e Macaw obediently posed for a photo.  But, on a hot afternoon, one can imagine the suffering and inhumane treatment of the prisoners.  Escapes were exceedingly rare as the currents tend to push swimmers back to the islands, and sharks abound in the surrounding water.  When prisoners aged to a point where they were not a threat, or quietly went insane, they were placed on a tiny adjacent island with no guards and allowed to be self-sufficient to a point.  Critical supplies were sent over by cable and pulley.

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When it was time to return to the ship, we elected to take the longer, more gentle slope.  Along the way we passed Agouti (large South American rodents), monkeys, the children’s cemetery (children of the guards and soldiers — adults were buried at sea) and a glimpse of our ship anchored offshore.

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We were as moved this time as we were 9 years previous.  It’s a place where you can feel history.

Next — Belem, Fortaleza, Natal and Recife, Brazil.

Don Horner

About Don Horner

Okeechobee, Florida
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6 Responses to Devil’s Island

  1. Pam says:

    Captain Alfred Dreyfus spent nearly five years there.

  2. Dave says:

    Did you happen to notice that you could see with the naked eye the launch towers for Ariannespace on the mainland where the European Space Agency launches their Geostationary Satellites for TV and communications?

  3. stanandjim says:

    Fabulous post as always Don.
    Educational, funny and making us pea green with envy.

    Enjoy every second, but eat a little something, you look so thin!
    ((Well, just Maybe We’re prejudiced towards the big boned type ))

    Jim & Stan

  4. Betsy says:

    What an awesome pictured description of Devil’s Island, one of my favorite destinations!

  5. Don Horner Don Horner says:

    Dave, yes, we met an American working at the space center who came over to the island to fish. He pointed out the launch tower, which was hazily visible. We also saw the radar and tracking devices on the island, but didn’t photograph them as they jarred with the old prison.

  6. Erin says:

    A thoroughly fascinating place. Perhaps someday I’ll see it for myself, but in the meantime, thanks for the photo tour.

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