Devil’s Island, French Guiana

Devil’s Island (French: Île du Diable) is the smallest and northernmost island of the three Îles du Salut located about 6 nautical miles (11 km; 6.9 mi) off the coast of French Guiana (South America).

It has an area of 14 ha (34.6 acres). It was a small part of the notorious French penal colony in French Guiana until 1952. It lies in the Atlantic Ocean.

Use as Penal Colony

Devil's Island

Devil's Island — Île du Diable

The rocky, palm-covered island rises 40 m (130 ft) 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. As an island, the only way out was via the water; 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 labour 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.

The hut in which Dreyfus lived

The hut in which Dreyfus lived

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.

Attempted Escapes

Clément Duval

Devil’s Island was used mainly for French prisoners from 1852 to 1946. Clément Duval, an anarchist, was sent to Devil’s Island in 1886. He was sentenced to death but this sentence commuted to hard labour on Devil’s Island.

He contracted smallpox while on the island. He escaped in April 1901 and fled to New York City, where he remained for the rest of his life. He eventually wrote a book on his time of imprisonment called Revolte.

Henri Charrière and Sylvain

Henri Charrière’s bestselling book Papillon describes a supposedly successful escape by him from Devil’s Island, with a companion, Sylvain, using two sacks filled with coconuts. According to Charrière, the two men leapt into heavy seas from a cliff and drifted to the mainland over a period of three days. Sylvain died in quicksand a short distance from the shore.

Charrière’s account aroused considerable controversy and was disputed by the French authorities, who released penal colony records that showed that much of the prisoner’s book was untrue. Charrière, the records showed, had never been interned on Devil’s Island and had made his escape from a prison camp on the mainland.

Numerous other aspects of Charrière’s account were challenged by French journalists or prison authorities, and it was claimed that a significant number of the incidents recounted in his book were invented or were experiences of other prisoners which Charrière had appropriated.

Aftermath

Îles du Salut

Map of the Salvation Islands (Îles du Salut), off the coast of French Guiana

In 1938 the French government stopped sending prisoners to Devil’s Island, and in 1952 the prison was closed. Most of the prisoners returned to metropolitan France, although some chose to remain in French Guiana.

In 1965, the French government transferred the responsibility of most of the islands to the newly founded Guiana Space Centre. The islands are under the trajectory of the space rockets launched eastward, toward the sea, from the Centre (to geostationary orbit). They must be evacuated during each launch. The islands host a variety of measurement apparatus for space launches.

The CNES space agency, in association with other agencies, has since had the historical monuments restored. Tourism facilities were added; the islands now welcome more than 50,000 tourists each year.

Cultural References

Several movies, songs, a stage play, and a number of books feature Devil’s Island.

  • The most famous was Henri Charrière’s autobiography, published under the title Papillon in 1970. The book, which became a bestseller, told of his numerous alleged escape attempts, and in 1973 it was made into the movie Papillon starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
  • In the 1925 film depiction of The Phantom of the Opera, the Phantom is an escapee from Devil’s Island.
    The infamous penal colony was mentioned in the French dramatist Jean Genet (1910–1986)’s 1947 absurdist play The Maids.
  • Likewise, the diary-like Danish novel Helvede Hinsides Havet (Hell beyond the Sea) from 1949 by an anonymous former inmate describes the life in the camp.
  • Humphrey Bogart and Joan Bennett starred in the 1955 film We’re No Angels, which is set on Devil’s Island.
  • Before the bestseller Papillon, Rene Belbenoit’s book, titled Dry Guillotine and published in 1938, was instrumental in exposing the prison colony of Devil’s Island.
  • In an episode of the 1968 TV series The Time Tunnel, time travelers Tony and Doug arrive on Devil’s Island shortly before Captain Dreyfus arrives, and attempt to formulate an escape.
  • Heavy metal music band Megadeth released a song named “Devil’s Island” as a part of the Peace Sells… but Who’s Buying? album in 1986.
  • Devil’s Island is referenced in Revenge of the Pink Panther where Clouseau is thought to be dead, however it was only someone wearing his clothes who had died. On his return home, Clouseau discovers that his man-servant Cato has turned his flat into a brothel. When confronted about this, Cato tells Clouseau that it could turn a profit of 200-300K per year and “that ain’t chickenfeed”. Clouseau retorts with “and ten years on Devil’s Island is not chicken feed either”, even though by the time the movie was made (1978) Devil’s Island had not been a working penal colony for over 30 years.
  • Much of Plan de evasión, translated as A Plan For Escape, published in 1945 by Adolfo Bioy Casares, takes place on and around Devil’s Island.
  • The main character of Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris, Florent, spent several years in exile on the island for his participation against Napoleon III’s coup d’état.