Tourists Pay Price to Escape to Devil’s Island
During their grim years of imprisonment on Devil’s Island, both Alfred Dreyfus, the martyr to French anti-Semitism, and Papillon, the Marseilles safecracker, reached the same conclusion.
The breeze-swept, coconut palm-dotted island off the northern coast of South America wouldn’t be a bad place to spend a holiday or even the rest of one’s life if it weren’t for the awful isolation, the monotonous cuisine and the company of guards and fellow convicts.
Now tourists are discovering the charms of Les Iles du Salut, the triangle of tiny islands with Devil’s Island at the northernmost apex, that for nearly 100 years until World War II served as France’s notorious penal colony.
Motor launches from the occasional cruise ships calling at Ile Royale, the main island, deposit eager, mostly elderly passengers in the tiny harbor behind the rock jetty. Hundreds of convicts lost their lives building it in that pounding surf.
Luxury yachts bob at anchor in a picture-postcard cove near the channel separating Royale from nearby St. Joseph Island, where sharks used to answer the 6 p.m. chapel bell tolling the burial at sea of another inmate.
Sharks Execute Deadly Ballet
Henri Charriere, alias “Papillon,” watched in horror one evening as more than 100 sharks executed a deadly ballet with the flour sack-shrouded body of his closest friend, lifting it high above the water in their churning greed, despite the heavy rocks and steel-wire trussing meant to sink the corpse from sight.
There is no convict cemetery on the islands, but camera buffs can focus their lenses on the graveyard for guards and their families, where Papillon dug into a tomb to hide sections of a boat he was assembling for an escape attempt.
Postcards of the smaller, more picturesque cimetiere d’enfants, the children’s cemetery, are available in the gift shop in the former guards’ dining room. It also features photocopies of French newspaper coverage of the 1894 Dreyfus treason trial and T-shirts made in Hong Kong declaring that the wearer has accomplished l’evasion, an escape from Ile du Diable, or Devil’s Island.
The same long, low building has a small hotel with a notice on the bulletin board that would have amused lifers Dreyfus and Papillon: “Checkout time 11 a.m.” There is a snack bar and garden bistro with prices, if not l’ambiance, worthy of a sidewalk cafe along the Champs-Elysees.
Two young officers from a cruise ship grumbled about “this place still being a den of thieves” after paying $12 for a beer and a Pernod. But the menu listing hot dogs at $3.50 did not seem to discourage a rush to the tables by sightseers arriving from the capital at Cayenne on the noon helicopter. The chopper lands in the meadow where guards used to test the guillotine by inserting banana stalks beneath the blade.
Taking advantage of the visitor has long been part of the hospitality on Les Isles du Salut, the Safety Islands.
Papillon recounted in the best-seller memoirs he transcribed in 13 school copybooks how the “original” Dreyfus coffee mug and the “authentic” Dreyfus mess tray, inscribed with his initials, were sold over and over again to the gullible Breton sailors who, every two years, delivered from France up to 1,800 convicts, handcuffed and chained to each other by the ankles.
Dreyfus, Paillon Shared Bench
A boatman will row the tourist the few hundred yards from Royale over to Devil’s Island and show him the stone bench where Capt. Dreyfus stared longingly in the direction of the France that had accused him of being a German spy and where Papillon, who thought himself wrongly convicted of murdering a Montmartre pimp, sat for hours, day after day, patiently plotting his 10th and at last successful escape attempt.
The convicts began to arrive in 1854, when Napoleon III conceived a penal colony in French Guiana for “our worst bandits.”
When asked who would guard them, he replied, “even worse bandits.”
Like Dreyfus and Papillon, visitors disembarking at Ile Royale first see the lighthouse, the bakery and the stone boathouse that for a few hours, until the last helicopter leaves, serves as headquarters for the air patrol. They are the only police on the island, which has a year-round population of 20.
“There is no crime here at all now,"joked the wife of one of the caretakers, hanging out clothes to dry in the flower-decked breezeway of what once was a row of cottages for staff and guards’ families.
The main penitentiary buildings are atop a 600-foot high plateau reached by a winding red dirt road built by convicts.
Crumbling and ensnared by huge vines and tree roots, the maximum security wing and its dungeons are a mecca for camera buffs. They must be alert for the tarantula colonies that horrified Papillon.
Besides its shark-calling sunset bell, the chapel offers some poignant, realistic frescoes executed over the years by the inmates. One depicts Christ preaching from a boat on the Sea of Galilee against an almost three-dimensional background of green and brown Judean hills.
The faces, all drawn from convict models, are unforgettable. After all, Luis Dega, Papillon’s dormitory mate, was a past master at transforming 500-franc national defense bonds into 10,000-franc denominations.
A lovely woodland trail, fragrant with frangipani and alive with the screeching of exotic birds, winds down to a turquoise cove where suddenly three enormous sea turtles surface. Lizards and peccaries--tropical wild hogs--dart from the underbrush.
Just across the water, “grim and green” as Papillon called it, looms Devil’s Island. At the water’s edge of “that enormous rock covered with coconut palms” could be seen a few of the cottages, painted yellow with gray tin roofs, where the political prisoners like Dreyfus spent their exile.
Actually, this smallest and rockiest of the three penal islands was the least brutal.
St. Joseph, now almost completely overgrown, was the worst.
Its single large building, barely visible at the crown of a low hill, housed the prison within a prison, la reclusion disciplinaire. This was the solitary confinement unit, la mangeuse d’hommes --the devourer of men--a cement block of 250 cells, back to back, behind 4-foot-thick walls, roofed with iron bars. The dreaded cubicles had no windows, only a tiny iron wicket.
Every week the prisoner stuck out his head to receive a haircut from a trusty armed with huge garden shears. When the doctor called, once a month, the other end was protruded.
‘Try to Break You’
Here, pacing back and forth “like a caged leopard, five steps, turn and graze the wall,” Papillon spent nearly four years. “We don’t try rehabilitation here,” the warden welcomed him. “We try to break you. We have only one rule: Keep your mouth shut. Absolute silence.”
A reclusionnaire could have months added to his sentence for just mumbling merci to the guards for his pot of watery soup at noon or the unvarying plate of lentils at dusk. Both guards and prisoners wore slippers to muffle even the sounds of silence.
Even now an unsettling serenity seems to hang over this abandoned island.
Perhaps not for long. Already there are rumors of bulldozing the crumbling prison walls and ruins to make way for hotels, condos, boutiques, discos, cabanas and, no doubt, a marina and a casino.