Devil’s Island, French Guiana




It turns out that the famous and infamous Devil’s Island, located just off the coast of French Guiana, is one of those places really worth visiting – ONCE.

Since we were here last year, and since last year was a beautiful if humid day while today was overcast and rainy, with ship’s tender landings intermittently suspended because of strong squalls (a squall is rain accompanied by high winds and rough water), we decided to forego a second visit but share some information about the place and use last year’s photos as illustrations.

What is commonly known as Devil’s Island is actually only one of a cluster of three islands off the coast of French Guiana cynically named the Salvation Islands.  The three islands in this cluster are Royal Island, Devil’s Island and St. Joseph’s Island.  The actual penal colony made famous first by the Dreyfus trial at the end of the 19th century and more recently by the novel and film Papillion is located on Royal Island; there is nothing on Devil’s Island. However, in this blog when I refer to Devil’s Island, I will primarily be referring to Royal Island, where the penal colony was located. Royal Island is about 70 acres large, and the three islands are separated from one another by a narrow strip of sea only about 650 yards wide, but the treacherous currents in the passage and the ever-present sharks in the waters insured that the islands were “escape-proof”.  Prison wardens and their wives who died while in service were buried in a small cemetery on St. Joseph’s Island; there is a small children’s cemetery on Royal Island, and inmates who died were turned unceremoniously into shark food, their bodies being thrown into the sea. “Devil’s Island” stopped receiving prisoners in 1936, and its phase-out as a prison began in 1948.  The place was closed down as a penal colony in 1953.

Today many of the buildings have been restored to some degree and repurposed to tell the story of this infamous French penal colony. One of the buildings has been converted into a small hotel (it’s hard to imagine who would want to come here for a vacation, but we’re told that people from Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana, come here because the rates are low although neither the accommodations nor the service are exactly sumptuous). There is an exhibit hall that recounts the story of the infamous trial of French Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, who in the early 1890’s was falsely accused by France of passing military secrets to Germany and subsequently tried and found guilty of treason, stripped of his rank and sentenced to prison on Devil’s Island. Eventually new evidence came to light proving Dreyfus’ innocence, he received highest honors from the French Government and was restored to the military as a General, and served France in World War I.  The handling of his case and sentence were so unpopular in France that the famed French writer Emile Zola wrote an excoriating diatribe against the French government (titled “I ACCUSE!”) accusing it of outright, blatant anti-Semitism.  It has been said that the only thing Alfred Dreyfus was really guilty of, was that he was born a Jew.

Many people who come to Devil’s Island are surprised to find that it’s a tropical paradise – one, however, that requires a yellow fever shot in order to travel there. Your first real view of what the island holds is from the tender dock

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from which you can also see the actual Devil’s Island several hundred yards away.

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As you disembark a footpath leads to the left, and walking along it gives ample evidence of the tropical nature of this place, being only 8 degrees north of the equator.

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Walking around the island you run into several different kinds of wildlife, some of it indigenous to the island, such as this capybara (the world’s largest rodent – think guinea pig on steroids) – it weighs about 40 pounds…

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or these howler monkeys….

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and some of the wildlife introduced species, such as these colored macaws

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or this particular breed of chicken (chickenus empiricus?), which camouflages almost perfectly with the ground

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A walk around Devil’s Island will bring you to the walls surrounding the prisoner’s barracks

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here in close-up – the stone being a type of lava rock indigenous to the island

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The buildings to the right of the wall were the prison guards living quarters and today are used by the French soldiers who look after the islands

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here one of the soldiers has brought a couple of coconuts back to the barracks……

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Clearly there was some attention paid to aesthetics on the island despite its sinister purpose, as this wall design will attest:

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The old military hospital, no longer in use, has has its exterior partially restored and the surrounding grounds cleaned up

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although as of last year there was still a lot of work to do:

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A fresh rainwater reservoir, now covered with algae, was the primary source of drinking water for the inhabitants of Devil’s Island. 

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Surprisingly, there is also the remnants of a salt-water swimming pool on the far side of the island that was used by the prison guards and their families.  Visitors to the island today can actually swim in that pool today; which is on the edge of the island.  At the same time they are warned against actually swimming in the adjacent ocean waters because of strong currents and sharks……

From an overlook at the hotel restaurant on the far side of the island (Royal Island) you can actually see all of Devil’s Island itself, although there is nothing there except a couple of footpaths.

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The penal colony is actually located on the upper part of Royal Island, and the winding path around the island slope up gradually but takes a long time to get to the top level where the penal colony facilities were located, including the Warden’s Residence., which is located on the top level of the island but closer to the dock. To enable the Warden and visitors to the island to get to the Warden’s Residence and offices more quickly, the prisoners built a very steep stone staircase, consisting of 97 steps, some of them fairly wide and some very narrow, but all steep,  as a shortcut from the bottom to the top and back again. 

Here are photos of Nina descending the last 4 or 5 steps, plus a view of the staircase at one of its wider points. Believe me, the descent is much steeper  than it looks….

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For us the most interesting part of the island is the permanent exhibit, now located in the former Warden’s Residence, of what came to be known throughout Europe and the United States at the end of the 19th century as “The Dreyfus Affair” – the accusation, trial, conviction, imprisonment, retrial, reconviction – and finally, complete exoneration of French Jewish military officer Captain Alfred Dreyfus.  Unfortunately, this being a French colony, all the texts in the exhibit were in French, but there were also many photographs that would be familiar to someone (like Kal) who was familiar wit the Dreyfus case.

This is a photo from the exhibit of  the far side of  Royal Island just prior to Dreyfus’ arrival:

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Dreyfus, as a high-profile prisoner, received “special” treatment.  A stone cell, measuring four square yards, was built for him.  It had a barred window and door and was guarded day and night, and a light was always on in the cell.  A fence was built surrounding the cell to prevent him from seeing the sea. 

Each night from September 6 to October 8, 1896, Dreyfus was put in iron chains.  This was the result of a fictitious account, printed in an English paper, of his escape from Devil’s Island.  Dreyfus was never told why he was put in chains. Dreyfus’ guards, ever fearful of an international plot surrounding him, were continually on the alert.  Wherever one of the guards saw a boat on the horizon, a loaded pistol would be pointed at prisoner Dreyfus’ head until the boat disappeared. 

The Warden of Devil’s Island even received instructions in 1896 to embalm Dreyfus’ body before shipping it back to France if Dreyfus had died.  This would preserve  evidence whether Dreyfus had committed suicide or was the victim of foul play.

This is a photo of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in his military uniform:

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and a contemporary French political illustration showing a convicted Dreyfus being demoted and disgraced (his military sword is being broken over the officer’s knee)::

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Here is a photo of French writer Emil Zola’s open letter to the President of the French Republic, a public indictment of the French judicial system as a result of the outcome of the Dreyfus trial (“I ACCUSE!”):

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And finally, a picture of Dreyfus being released from Devils Island after his exoneration.  Apparently ladies accompanied his departure from the island as there appear to be ladies’ hats at the bottom of this photo:

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Having covered all that we wanted to see on Royal Island last year, namely, the penal colony commonly known as Devil’s Island and the exhibit on the case and trial of Alfred Dreyfus, we hopped back on the tender and returned to ship.

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I doubt if anything different would have taken place this year, except that instead of last year’s humidity it would have been rainy and windy this year.  In any event, one visit to Isle de Diablo is enough for us…..

Sunday, March 12, 2012

The last two stops on our  trip before we returned to Ft. Lauderdale were Castries, St. Lucia and Phillipsburg, St. Maarten.  Both are Caribbean islands that most likely will be familiar to people who have visited the Caribbean.  Because, strictly speaking, these are only “convenience ports” and not really a part of our South American experience, we’re not sure that we will be blogging about them, and if we do, it will only be after we return to the USA

(From Kal:  I didn’t even bother getting off the ship in either of these ports, so I have nothing to contribute.)  

We may blog about our return trip to Arizona from Florida, but this will depend on whether we have any particularly noteworthy adventures that we think others would be interested in reading about.

If you are following this blog, you should receive an email next time we post.  So stay tuned!  There may be more!


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