Taking No Prisoners to Devil's Island

It was two days after Christmas, but at 8 in the morning the day was already hot and humid. We were a couple of hundred miles north of the Equator, our ship heading south along the east coast of South America.

Suddenly a helicopter buzzed us, the French tricolor showing on its underside. Like a gull from shore, it assured us that we were close to the morning's port of call at Devil's Island.

Yes, that Devil's Island, the "dry guillotine." Our ship veered slightly to starboard, the helmsman giving the triangular group of islands a wide berth as he threaded a treacherous current.

Occupied in Desperation

Les Iles du Salut (Isles of Salvation) are eight miles off the French Guiana mainland and southeast of Venezuela. Devil, St. Joseph and Royale islands were originally occupied in desperation.

In the 1760s, France, having been stripped of much of its colonial empire in the Americas by Britain, decreed that Guiana, an area the size of South Carolina, be populated. King Louis XV sent 12,000 people, mostly Alsatians, to start the colony.

Decimated by an epidemic of yellow fever, the few who could do so went to the three nearby islands, their "islands of salvation." They named them for their king, the saint under whose guidance they had sailed, and the devil, for who else could be responsible for the fierce tides and hungry sharks surrounding the islands?

In the mid-1800s, French prisoners, who had been used as galley slaves until the advent of the steamship, were sent to French Guiana by Louis Napoleon, thereby establishing a penal colony. Prisoners who tried to escape the mainland colony were sent to Devil's Island because of its presumably escape-proof currents.

In time, devil's island became a generic term representing all the penal colonies, including those on the mainland.

Devil's Island, or Ile Diable, is about 400 by 1,200 yards; it rises 50 feet above the sea. Like the other islands, it is lush and covered with coconut palm trees. As a prison site, its most recent inhabitants were political prisoners. Named deportes, they were banished for life.

The island's most widely publicized prisoner was probably army Capt. Alfred Dreyfus who, in 1895, was sentenced for supplying Germany with war secrets. He stayed on the island for four years.

The furor created by Emile Zola's article, " J'accuse ," published in 1898, which accused the military of deliberate fabrication, undoubtedly was instrumental in Dreyfus being returned to France where he was eventually exonerated and rejoined the army with the rank of major.

A more recent detainee was Henri Charriere, convicted in 1931 for a murder he denied committing. After several unsuccessful escape attempts from the colony on the mainland, and time in solitary confinement on St. Joseph, he was sent to Devil's Island. The motion picture "Papillon," with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, grew out of the story.

It is said that Devil's Island housed no more than a dozen men at any time. Compared to the other prisoners, the deportes led a fairly easy life. Each had his own stone hut. They were given meat several times a week, and wine. They had the run of the island and suffered no corporal punishment. Rather, their punishment was in boredom--the loneliness and the knowledge that they would never be allowed to return home.

Solitary Confinement

But St. Joseph was reserved for those who made repeated attempts to escape from the mainland colony. The usual punishment: solitary, round-the-clock blackness, sometimes for years.

Our destination was Ile Royale, which has a small harbor. Royale, the administrative center for the island group, housed the "incos" (incorrigibles)--the worst of the thieves. The prison director lived there, along with the guards. It housed the bakery, the foundry, a hospital and chapel, and a swimming pool for the guards.

Our ship anchored well outside the shallow harbor. We went ashore by tender, our fellow passengers quiet and pensive. A large, two-story concrete building had been the processing office for all the newcomers.

We studied the heavy iron gate, the barred window openings; we realized with a start that men had been sent there well within the lifetimes of most of today's visitors. We labored up a well-worn but overgrown footpath, stopping occasionally to catch our breath in 90-degree heat with humidity to match.

As we rested, slowly fanning ourselves, we became conscious of a singsong humming. These, we were told, were tree frogs. We didn't see any, but their humming was with us until we left the island.

Perspiration saturated us before we reached a plateau several hundred feet high. The first building was the chapel; it appeared to be in excellent condition. Because it was locked, we continued across a field while admiring the colorful flowers, ferns, palms, emerald vines and bushes.

Surgery Scene

Having heard that the red-brick hospital had some art work on its disintegrating walls, we wished to see them. They proved to be line drawings, schematic figures depicting a surgery scene. The dank, musty room depressed us; we took pictures and returned to the tropical sun.

We passed the lighthouse and decided to skip the cimetiere des enfants. The children's families lived here with the guards, and this was a hostile land.

Some cruise ships include stops at these islands. Other visitors, the majority apparently French, stay at a no-frills hotel on Royale a short distance away from another new addition, a tracking station for the Western European space agency.

The hotel's frame buildings look new, but are built on the order of World War II barracks and are joined by covered walkways. Some tourists there were sipping cold drinks.

Inside, in a lobby-reception area, young women were selling souvenirs, books and T-shirts emblazoned "I Escaped From Devil's Island."

Refreshed, we made our way back toward the ship's tenders. We paused to enjoy an exquisite view of Devil's Island and to reflect upon the incongruities: Salvation Islands, but yet a death factory; beautiful but bestial; the chapel, hospital, but also the whip; exotic, multicolored birds. . . .

Yielding to international pressure, France discontinued sending prisoners to penal colonies in 1938, but those already there remained through World War II. With France's defeat by Germany in 1940, conditions for the prisoners worsened, because ships were not available to deliver food and other necessities. Most of the guards deserted; the prisoners were left to fend for themselves.

The area is too hot and humid to grow many important foods, so prisoners stole from and killed fellow prisoners.

The Coconuts

What about the coconuts, which grow in abundance? Taking coconuts for their own use subjected prisoners to additional punishment. Coconuts were for the hogs, which were kept in locked pens as food for the guards. Prisoners lived--or died--according to their strength and guile.

Although France faced many grave problems at war's end, it was still smarting from the international criticism of its treatment of prisoners on Devil's Island and elsewhere.

So in 1946 the French government tapped a virtual unknown, Charles Pean, to oversee the dissolution of the penal colonies. Though not known to the public, many of the prisoners on the islands knew Pean because years earlier he had obtained permission to live in their midst. No ivory-tower sociologist, Pean studied their miserable conditions on site; eventually he won their tolerance, even their respect.

Pean's job was made particularly difficult because, although the prisoners' conditions deteriorated during the war, making their early removal essential, France also needed time to prepare new prisons for them on French soil.

Pean completed his task in 1953; when the last man had left.

The final irony: Pean, liberator of the inhabitants of the Salvation Islands, was an officer in the Salvation Army.

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