January 23, 2007
Craig and I took a catamaran early this morning along with a dozen or so other tourists to the Iles du Salut (The Islands of Salvation), sometimes collectively known as "Devil's Islands," where the French had an infamous prison colony from 1852 to 1953. The islands sit only 14 KM from the mainland, so I could see them already even before leaving. However, almost as soon as we left the jetty, a large white object became visible next to one of the islands. That object turned out to be a cruise ship carrying 1500 passengers, most of whom were Americans.
When we got to the main island jetty, we learned that the ship had visited several small islands in the Caribbean and stopped at Ile Royale, which everyone kept calling the "Papillion Island" (pronounced pah-PILL-li-on), before continuing up the Amazon and ending in Manaus, where tourists would have the option of taking a "wilderness survival" course. Craig an I speculated that this meant having to survive eating a dinner with only seven courses. There was no dock on the island big enough to handle the huge cruise ship, so passengers had to be tendered to shore all morning. Before we knew it, Ile Royale was full of more tourists than we had seen in months, all of whom seemed to be jolly because they were on vacation and were so well fed. It really made me miss being on the Marco Polo, the cruise ship I took to Antarctica a year ago.
Our first stop on the island was the museum, which explained the islands' history. Several unsuccessful attempts were made by the French to colonize the islands in the 17th and 18th centuries in which over half the colonists died from malnutrition and tropical diseases. Eventually, the French decided that the three small islands would make the perfect location to start a prison colony. Most of the prisoners were sent to Royale because it was the biggest island. The undesirables (lepers, insane prisoners, etc) were sent to St. Joseph's and generally held in solitary confinement, and the worst of the worst went to Devil's Island, where they were free to roam around on their own.
Many attempted to escape the islands, but few succeeded because of the shark-infested waters in which they are located and the strong currents that easily drown all but the best swimmers. After their release, convicts had to spend a time equal to that of their sentences, or in the case of a sentence of more than eight years, the rest of their lives, on the mainland. Only a small amount of the 80,000 prisoners who were sent to the Iles du Salut made it out alive.
The prison had many famous prisoners. Paul Roussenq, known as "the King of the Dark Cells" because he spent 3779 days in solitary confinement during his fourteen-year tenure in the prison, was sent there for setting fire to his straw mattress when he was in the military. Isidore Hespel, the former executioner of the islands, was hated by both prisoners and guards and was himself eventually guillotined for executing one of the prisoners without permission. And probably the most famous prisoner was Henri Charriere, AKA Papillon, who was sent to the prison for murder. His book made him famous, but it contained mostly fabrications. He escaped from Cayenne on the mainland, not from the islands as he claimed, most of his sensational adventures actually happened to other people, and even his description of the prison was actually how the prison was twenty years before he got there.
After looking at the museum, I attempted to dodge the cruising tourists and get a look at the prison. There was a big courtyard with a large mango tree in the center, but unfortunately, there were no fruits ripe enough for my enjoyment. At one end of the courtyard was the hospital, the only one on the islands, where prisoners who were near death were sometimes sent. Next to the hospital was the helipad, but I doubt it was actually used as part of the prison. On the other side of the hospital was the cemetery, which was full of run-down graves.
Most of the other buildings on the island were full of prison cells. I thought the prisoners had it rough when I saw the normal cells, but at least they could see the light of day. The prisoners in the solitary building weren't so lucky. A lot of the walls were covered with graffiti, although it wasn't clear whether this was done while the prison was in operation. The mood was quite somber while walking though the cells. Even the hordes of cruise ship passengers seemed to reflect on the lifestyle lived by the island's former inhabitants.
At the back of the island was a gift shop in which small pieces of jewelry were available for hundreds of dollars. There was even an bar, complete with a pool table. Some of the cruisers were actually spotted ordering lunch at the restaurant, despite the fact that they would be able to eat all they wanted when they boarded the ship in less than an hour. Several of them, after seeing Craig and I, said they'd bring us food from the ship if only it were allowed.
When I had seen all of the old prison buildings, I walked down to the shore, where Devil's and St. Joseph's Islands were visible. All three islands were covered with palm trees and were absolute tropical paradises. This was in stark contrast to the prisons that occupied them. Nobody can visit Devil's Island, so I had to settle with admiring it from afar while waiting for the tenders to finish reloading the cruise ship and the catamaran to pick me up.
Our final destination for the day was St. Joseph's island, which would have been much quieter than Ile Royale even had the cruise ship not been there. The only permanent inhabitant of St. Joseph's was a French Foreign Legionnaire who I was told had a Swiss accent. He was a muscular old man permanently dressed in a skin-tight camouflage shirt and shorts. His job was apparently caretaker of the island, although he seemed to claim the status of "king." I attempted to communicate with him, but he spoke not one word of English. I think he would have been a good guy to have a chat with, if only we had spoken a common language.
Craig and I selected a campsite on the beach which was hopefully out of reach of the falling coconuts, easily the biggest worry of the island, and hung out with a handful of Belgians who were also staying overnight. Our intention was to hang out and enjoy the island life for a few days.