ES­CAP­ING TO DEVIL’S IS­LAND

Trop­i­cal sun has daz­zled away the shad­ows of the past in this sur­pris­ing par­adise.

Seabourn Club Herald - - IN THIS ISSUE - By Alex Dar­ling­ton

Trop­i­cal sun has daz­zled away the shad­ows of the past in this sur­pris­ing par­adise.

Wise trav­el­ers know there’s more to Devil’s Is­land than the im­pos­ing name. When plan­ning an up­com­ing va­ca­tion, the typ­i­cal group’s pri­or­i­ties might in­clude re­lax­ing amid palm trees, ocean breezes, ti­dal pools and beau­ti­ful fra­grant flow­ers. Af­ter a few min­utes of bat­ting around des­ti­na­tions such as Hawaii, Tahiti and the Caribbean, you might hear the un­likely words, “And of course we’ve got to hit Devil’s Is­land.”

The knee-jerk re­sponse might well be: “Are you nuts?” But sea­soned sight­seers al­ready know that a serene beauty now flour­ishes on the site of one of the dark­est chap­ters in French his­tory. To­day, the area is tran­quil and full of life, a trop­i­cal tes­ta­ment to Mother Na­ture’s time­less splen­dor.

Nat­u­rally, be­fore go­ing any fur­ther, we have to sep­a­rate this for­bid­dingly named coastal area of French Guiana as it is to­day from its night­mar­ish nearhun­dred-year his­tory. So let’s be­gin by ad­dress­ing that dis­tant past, and then we’ll re­veal some very com­pelling rea­sons to ex­pe­ri­ence the place to­day.

A DARK HIS­TORY

No one can deny that the very words “Devil’s Is­land” con­vey grotesque images of the place once known as “Green Hell.” There have been very few spots on earth more in­fa­mous than the French pe­nal colony that ex­isted at the north­ern tip of South Amer­ica be­tween 1852 and 1953.

As it’s usu­ally used, the term Devil’s Is­land is re­ally col­lec­tive. It ac­tu­ally refers to three rocky is­lands, not just one: Ile du Royale, Ile du Di­able (Devil’s Is­land) and Ile du Saint- Joseph. Pris­on­ers were housed on all three of the is­lands about 12 miles off the coast. And in fact there were also cells and work camps on the main­land in Kourou and in Cayenne, the colony’s cap­i­tal.

Dis­re­gard­ing a few non-vi­o­lent po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers, only the most dan­ger­ous con­victs were sent there — more than 60,000 hard­ened crim­i­nals dur­ing the 100-year pe­riod of Devil’s Is­land’s ex­is­tence. Fewer than 2,000 sur­vived.

It’s no ac­ci­dent or ex­ag­ger­a­tion that for­mer in­mate René Bel­benoît ti­tled his book on the fa­cil­ity Dry Guil­lo­tine. A deadly com­bi­na­tion of hor­rors killed hun­dreds of men a day: bru­tal work­ing con­di­tions, ram­pant dis­ease, food ra­tions that

TO­DAY, THE AREA IS TRAN­QUIL AND FULL OF LIFE, A TROP­I­CAL TES­TA­MENT TO MOTHER NA­TURE’S TIME­LESS SPLEN­DOR.

barely kept in­mates from star­va­tion, se­vere beat­ings by guards and gross over­crowd­ing that pro­moted pris­oneron-pris­oner vi­o­lence.

Es­cape? For­get it. Prison staff mem­bers were fond of say­ing, “We have two very ef­fec­tive guardians on our side: the jun­gle and the sea.”

Very apt, since the jun­gle at that time was full of caimans, army ants and the fear­less gi­ant ro­dents known as agoutis. (In re­al­ity, they’re mild-man­nered and harm­less — but that’s not some­thing the guards would tell their charges.) The rivers and other bod­ies of fresh wa­ter were (they said) filled with pi­ra­nhas. And if a man hap­pened to make it past those ob­sta­cles to the sea, he would (sup­pos­edly) wind up as shark food.

Most of the men — about 99 per­cent — were housed on Ile du Royale, the largest of the is­lands. They slept in small cells with their legs shack­led all night, mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble to turn.

Even more feared was the fa­cil­ity on

Ile du Saint-Joseph, where men would be sent for soli­tary con­fine­ment, walled up in 12-foot-high roof­less cells with barely room to sit down, for­bid­den to talk to any­one, even the guards who brought their food. One es­cape at­tempt got you two years in soli­tary. A sec­ond at­tempt, five years.

Ile du Di­able it­self, a for­mer leper colony, was re­served for po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers — the most fa­mous in­hab­i­tant be­ing Al­fred Drey­fus, who spent five years there on trumped-up charges of spy­ing. The com­ing-to-light of Drey­fus’ story did much to bring about the dis­man­tling of the prison.

So what would mo­ti­vate any­one to go there?

PAR­ADISE RE­GAINED

The area has ex­erted a mag­netic pull on vis­i­tors from around the world, drawn to the lush nat­u­ral spa­ces, evoca­tive ru­ins and out­landish an­i­mals. The jun­gle, left to its own de­vices for decades, has re­claimed many of the prison build­ings. The roads the pris­on­ers built now serve as shaded paths un­der a leafy canopy, where mon­keys leap from branch to branch.

THE REAL LEGACY OF DEVIL’S IS­LAND – A PLACE WHERE NA­TURE HAS BEEN AL­LOWED TO RE­CLAIM THE PAST AND FILL IT WITH NEW LIFE.

Be­fore the prison was ever con­ceived, these breezy is­lands were known as the “Iles de Sa­lut” (“Isles of Sal­va­tion”), a name that’s now been re­stored by the French gov­ern­ment. Then as now, the lo­cals rec­og­nized some­thing bliss­ful about the area.

And, the is­lands and nearby main­land house the Guiana Space Cen­tre. The Euro­pean Space Agency uses Kourou to launch capsules car­ry­ing sup­plies to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion.

Re­al­ity seems to con­tra­dict the com­mon be­lief about its cli­mate. In his book Papillon, prob­a­bly the best-known source of in­for­ma­tion about Devil’s Is­land, famed in­mate Henri Char­rière de­scribed the area as op­pres­sively hot. Ex­perts to­day are pretty much in agree­ment that Char­rière’s book, and the sub­se­quent pop­u­lar film adapted from it, is largely fic­tion. Most ad­ven­tures the au­thor claimed as his own were ei­ther in­vented or were based on the ex­ploits of oth­ers. And sell­ing the idea of hel­lish heat en­hanced the idea of him as a hero. True, French Guiana is vir­tu­ally on the equa­tor. But balmy sea breezes cool the is­lands, and big, waxy palm leaves pro­vide an abun­dance of shade.

Un­like the times when would-be es­capees fell vic­tim to caimans and army ants, there are plenty of safe, scenic trails on Ile du Royale and Ile du Saint- Joseph (the only is­lands now open to tourists).

Ile du Di­able can still be seen, how­ever.

“Many spots on Royale com­mand an un­ob­structed view of bu­colic Devil’s Is­land,” wrote ac­claimed au­thor Ed­win McDow­ell in 1983, “which, with its sparkling shore­line and un­bro­ken palm trees, re­sem­bles a Club Med va­ca­tion spa.”

For­mer in­mate Fran­cis La­grange, au­thor of Flag on Devil’s Is­land, served 15 years on Royale. You’d think he’d want to get as far away from there as pos­si­ble, but upon his re­lease in 1946, he chose to stay on as a free man. Many oth­ers find the en­vi­ron­ment sooth­ing as well.

“There’s a real beauty about the place,” says one fre­quent visitor. “There are ma­jes­tic but­ter­flies the size of birds. There are re­fresh­ing ti­dal pools. And bril­liant bougainvil­lea and wild­flow­ers abound.”

This, then, is the real legacy of Devil’s Is­land – a place where na­ture has been al­lowed to re­claim the past and fill it with new life.

Devil’s Is­land

Prison chapel

Prison ceme­tery

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