Saturday, March 18, 2023

Devils Island, French Guiana

 March 16, 2023 – Cruising the North Atlantic towards Devils Island


By 0500 we had crossed the Barre Norte and altered course to the north towards the Salvation or Safety Islands (Iles du Salut), the location in French Guiana of the infamous Devils Island penal colony.  The Salvation Islands lie offshore from Kourous, close to the European Space Agency’s spaceport.  We would be close enough to see a launch if one were scheduled, but sadly, none are.

March 17, 2023 – Devils Island, French Guiana


Iles du Salut or Salvation Islands

Devils Island was a French penal colony which remained in use from 1852-1952.  It is located some 10 NM offshore from Kourous.  More than 56,000 prisoners, mostly male were imprisoned over the course of it’s existence, with more than 90% dying.  The prison actually was on three islands, Ile Royale which was the administrative center and where most prisoners were located, Ile Sainte Joseph, where the solitary confinement cells were located, and Devils Island (Ile du Diable), where the most known inmate, Frenchman Albert Dreyfus, wrongly accused of treason, spent 4 years in solitary confinement.  Very few people escaped, since the island group, known as “The Salvation Islands” or Iles du Salut, has treacherous currents and the waters are shark infested.  In addition, all trees were cut down to prevent prisoners from making rafts.  Prisoners who died were thrown into the sea to ensure the sharks remained close to the islands.  The cemetery contains only guards and their families.  The 1973 and 2017 films “Papillon” dramatized the story of one successful escapee, whose story is now being questioned, since French Archives, recently opened, do not show he was ever on Devils Island.


Today the trees have regrown and Ile Royale boasts a hotel located in the former administrative center and campground on the main square.  There is ferry service to the mainland.  No visitors are allowed on Devils Island, but we will take zodiacs to Ile Sainte Joseph and tenders to Ile Royale.  Ile Royale is better preserved and restored, with extensive signage explaining what is still present.  The island has a large church and a post office, only for residents.  There are two swimming areas constructed by the prisoners, one for guards and one for prisoners.  People were swimming in both and camping in some of the buildings, with hammocks covered with netting slung from the ceilings.  Viewing the partially restored cells, including those on death row was sobering.  The guillotine that was used for executions has been removed.


Butchery on the shores of Ile Royale

One of the solitary confinement cells on Ile Royale

Grim solitary confinement

Prisoners swimming area - Ile Royale

Soiltary Confinement house for Albert Dreyfus on Ile du Diable

Guards cemetery on Ile Royale

Interior of Church - decorated by prisoners

Some of the prisoner paintings in church

Church on Ile Royale

Ile Saint Joseph is in a natural state of decay, with trees growing up through the buildings and the 150 solitary confinement cells.  Many of the cells only had bars for a roof, so the prisoners were exposed to the elements all the time.  In another few decades, it will be difficult to even see the crumbling ruins underneath the tropical vegetation.  There is a small group of buildings still used by the French military and off limits to the public.

Debris from crumbling ruins on Ile Saint Joseph

Trees growing through walls

Interior of Solitary confinement cells

One of the many corridors for the 150 solitary confinement cells

The prison looks better from the outside, Ile Saint Joseph

Many of the cells only had bars for a roof, open to elements

This stairwell to the cells was the last open air many prisoners had as they experienced “hell on earth”


Ile du Diable, where the solitary confinement building housing Alfred Dreyfus from 1895-99, is off limits to all visitors, although the building has been preserved and can be photographed from Ile Royale.



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