Devil’s Island (French: Île du Diable) is the smallest and northernmost island of the three Îles du Salut located about 6.9 miles off the coast of French Guiana (South America) near the capital city of Cayenne. It has an area of 34.6 acres. It was a small part of the notorious French penal colony in French Guiana until 1952.
Use as penal colony
The rocky, palm-covered island rises 130 feet above sea level. The penitentiary was first opened by Emperor Napoleon III’s government in 1852, and became one of the most infamous prisons in history. In addition to the prisons on all three islands, prison facilities were located on the mainland at Kourou. Over time, they became known collectively as “Devil’s Island” in the English-speaking world, while they are known in France as the bagne de Cayenne, (French: Cayenne penal colony) Cayenne being the main city of French Guiana.
While the colony was in use (1852–1946), the inmates were everything from political prisoners (such as 239 republicans who opposed Napoleon III’s coup d’état) to the most hardened of thieves and murderers. A great many of the more than 80,000 prisoners sent to the harsh conditions at disease-infested Devil’s Island were never seen again. Other than by boat, the only way out was through a dense jungle; accordingly, very few convicts ever managed to escape.
On 30 May 1854, a new law provided that convicts would be forced to stay in French Guiana following their release for a time equal to their forced labor time, or, for sentences exceeding eight years, for the remainder of their lives. They were to be provided with land to settle on. In time, a variety of penal regimes emerged, convicts being divided into categories according to the severity of their crimes and their imprisonment or forced residence regime.
In 1885, a further law accelerated the process, since repeat offenders for minor crimes could also be sent. A limited number of convicted women were also sent to French Guiana, with the intent that they marry the freed male inmates; however, the results were poor and the government discontinued the practice in 1907.
The horrors of the penal settlement became notorious with the publicity surrounding the plight of the French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, who had been unjustly convicted of treason and sent there on 5 January 1895.
Sunrise this morning
I awoke early this morning with sunlight coming through our balcony window about 6:15AM. I went up two decks to the Lido and had a cup of coffee while watching the islands come closer. I graciously brought Kay a cup on my way back. After dressing for the hot humid weather, we again ascended to the Lido deck for a light breakfast while the ship anchored about a mile from shore. We would only be able to go ashore by tender since there is nothing but a small pier on the island. We will actually be visiting the largest of the three islands, Ile Royale. We departed by tender at almost exactly 9:00 AM.
We returned to ship about Noon, approximately 3 hours after departing. During this time we had a nice walk exploring the entire island. We were able to post some cards and a letter with the Devil’s Island postmark. Postcards were $1 and postage $1. Not too unreasonable considering the only way to the island is boat or helicopter. Some of the buildings have been partially restored and others are ghostly reminders of the suffering and horrors which took place on these beautiful islands. Nowhere can I imagine a greater dichotomy than here on the Iles Du Salut. The setting is as beautiful as any tropical island paradise. But, walking through the buildings and ruins, you can’t help but feel the ghosts of the prisoners who suffered and died here. Over 80,000 prisoners were sent to the islands but only 30,000 survived. I was particularly moved by the building for the “condemned and solitary confinement”. I truly can’t imagine what it must have been like to spend months and even years in the cells which I measured as about 5 feet wide and 10 feet long. The French government relied upon malaria and severe climate to finish off “undesirable” citizens. To make matters worse, those who were “awarded” command of such camps were not exactly “cream of the crop” officers. Without supervision, some of them were sadistic. It was tantamount to murder, but the state could claim ignorance. Ile du Diable, considered escape-proof because of strong currents and sharks, was akin to a death sentence – 70% of the inmates died. Some photos follow.
Devil’s Island as seen from Ile Royale
The Prinsendam anchored off the Iles Du Salut
Condemned and Solitary confinement cells
A single Cell
Door to a condemned cell