Grief Tourism

Travel to areas affected by natural disasters, places where people were murdered, etc.

Islands of Salvation: Diable, Royale, and St. Joseph

15th October 2009

Three islands, Diable, Royale, and St. Joseph, are collectively known as the Iles du Salut, an obvious misnomer for islands that offered no salvation or rehabilitation for prisoners. Located about 6 miles off the northern coast of French Guiana in the Caribbean Sea, all three once housed infamous prison settlements. Established in 1852 by Emperor Napoleon, the first prisoners were sent here from Brest, Toulon, and Rochefort, France. Over 80,000 criminals were imprisoned, and most died on these islands during the estimated 100 years that the prisons were in existence. The smallest and most notorious is Ile Diable, better known as Devil’s Island. Surrounded by rough currents and voracious sharks, it has often been compared to Alcatraz where escape by sea was almost impossible. In fact, tourists today can only view Ile Diable from the other islands, as rough waters prevent boats from landing on its shores. Occasionally, a fisherman can be paid well and convinced to make the trip, although the island is considered off limits.

The much larger Ile Royale housed prison guards, administrators, and the death row inmates. The entire complex included a hospital, meat market, bakery, church, and a small cemetery for children and wives of the guards. Few prisoners lived more than a short time in the dark and forbidding environment of harsh conditions, prevalent disease, hard labor, and severe punishment. Death by guillotine was the fate for many, and burial rites were non existent, as the dead were tossed to the hungry sharks circling the island. Five to eight year sentences were the minimum, and these were doubled, as prisoners had to serve an equal amount of time by remaining on French Guiana even after release. Many would never leave, as those with sentences over 8 years were forced to stay on French Guiana. The French government brought in the first 28 female prisoners in 1889, in hopes of their marrying released prisoners and thus adding to the population. This effort was eventually abandoned, and no other women were sent here after 1914.

The remote and isolated prison site, Camp Reclusion, on Ile St. Joseph was known as the Devourer of Men by prisoners placed there in solitary confinement, or locked away as criminally insane. Remnants of steel bars and chains used to secure prisoners to their beds lie scattered across the bare dirt floors of the cells. Today, Camp Reclusion is home for hundreds of monkeys, where towering coconut palms grow through the iron grates above the cells, mosquitoes and spiders thrive in the damp and humid jungle air, and vines cling to empty prison bars.

The prisons housed the worst incorrigibles, the thieves and murderers, but many were exiled from France for political reasons, the most noteworthy being Alfred Dreyfus. In 1894, Captain Dreyfus was convicted on false charges of treason and sentenced to life in prison in the Green Hell of Devil’s Island. He spent 5 years of a miserable, lonely existence in a 13-foot, one-man cell, with only a bench to sit upon and wait for freedom from across the sea. The Dreyfus Affair is well known in history for the unparalleled political, religious, and moral controversies that occurred, goaded by the media and divided public opinion – support of Alfred Dreyfus was well presented in Zola’s “J’accuse” in 1898. Eventually pardoned by former President Loubet and completely exonerated of these crimes in 1906, he was reinstated to major and awarded the French Legion of Honor.

Although many prisoners tried and failed, we know of three inmates who managed to escape and live to tell their stories. Clement Duval, a political anarchist, was tried and sentenced to death in 1886. Although he served time in hard labor and contracted smallpox, he managed to escape from Devil’s Island in 1901. Duval spent the rest of his life in New York City, where he wrote about the evils of the prison in his book “Revolte.”

Henri Charrière has given us a fascinating tale of his 12 years on the Iles and his carefully planned escape from Devil’s Island. From a rocky inlet, he had determined that the current was strong enough in every 7th wave to carry someone to shore. Charrière and a fellow inmate floated for days on a crudely built raft of large bags filled with coconuts and eventually reached the mainland. Whether his memoir, “Papillon,” (French word for butterfly, the tattoo on Charrière’s chest) detailing his adventures is entirely factual has always been questionable, but it does provide interesting insight into his experiences and prison life. In fact, so intriguing is his narrative that the film on which it was based is still considered a classic and often compared to the “Shawshank Redemption.”

Much later, René Belbenoît was convicted of stealing a set of pearls in 1920 and sent to Devil’s Island to serve 8 years. His first attempt to escape in a canoe failed, when he was recaptured and sentenced to solitary confinement. Although he was able to spend a year as a gardener in Panama on a prison pass, he foolishly decided to return to France. Here, he was arrested again and returned to Ile St. Joseph. Finally released from prison in 1935, he fled from French Guiana and eventually made his way to Los Angeles. Belbenoît wrote two memoirs of his frightening experiences during those years, “Dry Guillotine” and “Hell On Trial.”

Fortunately, this incredible mass destruction of humanity and cruel punishment such as this ended when the prisons were eventually closed in 1946. Today, tourism has become the economic redemption for these islands. Ile Royale, a resort destination, is a picture perfect tropical paradise of abundant wildlife and lush vegetation where South America cruise ships dock regularly, airlines fly frequently, and tourists come to visit, relax, and explore. A museum of exhibits and history has been established in the old administrator’s house, but the religious murals by Francis Lagrange, former inmate convicted of counterfeiting, have almost completely disappeared from the walls of the small chapel. An interesting 2-hour guided tour (in French) of the island may be available which includes the abandoned prison buildings where monkeys chatter and play in the ruins, and the original lighthouse built in 1914, which is still in operation.

Hours: 10:30am – 4:30pm, Tues thru Sun. Admission: $6.00

For a much more realistic, but depressing visit to the grim past, there is no charge to wander through the rusted iron gates into the Crimson Barracks, so named for the blood shed as prisoners frequently attacked and killed each other. The old foundation of the guillotine remains a tragic reminder of the cruel executions that took place in front of the entire prison population. Beheadings were ordered often at the whim of the guards, and carried out by a fellow inmate. Once this so-called justice was done, proof of the executions was required, and the heads were carefully preserved in jars of alcohol and shipped back to France.

Accommodations: The inn (Auberge) on Ile Royale offers simple guest rooms for 60 Euros, rooms with terrace for 70, and hammock only for 10 Euros. Restaurant, gift shop, and bar onsite, and daily catamaran service to and from the islands and the mainland.

Transportation: Catamarans depart around 8am from Kourou, the main port on the mainland, and return around 4pm. Service on the 2-hour boat ride often includes rum punch and other amenities.

Popular boats: La Hulotte visits Ile Royale and St. Joseph and sails around Ile Diable, price $55 U.S. Royale Ti’Punch, owned by the inn (no extra charge for overnight stays), price $57 U.S. Sothis, ferry to Ile Royale, one-way $35. Tropic Alizés leaves from Kourou or Cayenne, price $55. (Cayenne, the capital, is a popular tourist city, with numerous hotels, restaurants, and shops.)

At certain times and dates, you may be able to view another popular tourist attraction while visiting these islands and French Guiana. The Guiana Space Centre has been in operation near Kourou since 1968 and serves as an excellent location for European, Russian, and commercial launches. Its proximity to the equator, as well as speed and maneuverability, provides an effective cost saving spaceport. Since this area encompasses the Iles du Salut, evacuation takes place during launch times. For visitors interested in seeing the actual launch, there are a limited number of viewing seats available in the spaceport itself. You must be 16 years or older to view the launch from a 4-mile distance, and at least 8 to view from a distance of 7 miles. Seats are free, but reservations are needed well in advance. There are no age or reservation requirements to view the launch from the beach at Kourou. The Guiana Space Centre averages 10 space launch missions each year.

Sharon L. Slayton

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