Île du Diable
Map of Devil's Island, or île du Diable
|Overseas department||French Guiana|
|Island chain||Îles du Salut|
|• Land||0.140 km2 (0.0540 sq mi)|
Devil's Island (French: île du Diable) is the third largest island of the Îles du Salut island group in the Atlantic Ocean. It is located approximately 14 km (9 mi) off the coast of French Guiana in South America just north of the town of Kourou. It has an area of 14 ha (34.6 acres). The island was a part of the controversial French penal colony of French Guiana for 101 years, from 1852 to 1953, but in spite of its being the smallest part of the penal colony, it is the most famous for its use for internal exile of political prisoners. The most famous political prisoner on Devil's Island was Captain Alfred Dreyfus.
English speakers have come to use the island's name to refer to the entire former prison system of French Guiana; however, French speakers refer to it as the Bagne de Cayenne (Cayennes penal colony).
Early penal system
Prisoners convicted of felonies were originally sentenced to serve as oarsmen in the French Mediterranean galley fleet which, given the conditions, was virtually a death sentence. Following the decommissioning of the Mediterranean galley fleet in 1748, the majority of prisoners were paired together in chains aboard galley hulks (Bagnes) moored in French harbours until they rotted and sank, at which time they then lived on the adjacent pontoons. Prisoners relied on charity or their families for food, bedding and clothing but also worked 12 hours a day in the docks, earning 10-15 centimes which could be spent on food and wine. Other prisoners were housed in prisons onshore where conditions were apparently so bad that many prisoners would "beg" to be transferred to the hulks. By the early 19th century, the French urban population had increased from under six million to over 16 million with a commensurate increase in crime. In 1832 legislation was passed mandating the provision of basic necessities, however, prison reform also brought a shift from a previous heavy reliance on corporal punishment to imprisonment with an emphasis on vengeance and deterrence as a way to remove offenders from society. Recidivism of up to 75% had become a major problem as unemployed released prisoners began flooding the cities and in the 1840s internal agricultural penal colonies were set up to remove criminals from urban environments and give them employment. Prisoners were commonly sentenced under doublage, where on completion of their sentence, they were required to remain at the penal colony as employees for a further period of time equivalent to their original sentence.
The French Navy, which had responsibility for the prison hulks, complained strongly regarding the cost of guarding the hulks and the disruption they caused to the shipyards. Following his coup in 1851, Emperor Napoleon III ordered that the hulks be permanently closed and that common law convicts be transferred overseas. Debate over where the convicts would be sent was prolonged. Algeria was ruled out by the Navy as it was controlled by the French Army, Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Texas were considered but French Guiana was eventually chosen. This was a surprising choice as France had failed in repeated attempts to colonize French Guiana since 1604. The last attempt at colonization was in 1763 when 75% of the 12,000 colonists died in their first year and by the 1850s the survivors were on the brink of extinction. In 1852, Napoleon called for volunteers from the hulks to transfer to the Bagne de Cayenne (Cayennes penal colony) and 3,000 convicts applied. Two categories of prisoners were eligible for transportation, transportés, those common law prisoners sentenced under doublage and déportés, prisoners convicted of espionage or conspiracy. The hulks continued to be used, housing an average of 5,400 prisoners at a time until they were finally closed around the turn of the century. The agricultural penal colonies continued to be used for juveniles until the last was closed in 1939.
Use as penal colony
The rocky, palm-covered island rises 40 m (130 ft) above sea level. The island's use as a penitentiary was begun in 1852 by the government of Emperor Napoleon III. The island is surrounded by rocky promontories and shoals, strong cross-currents and shark-infested waters. Landing on the island by boat is so treacherous that prison officials constructed a cable car system to connect the island to the nearby Île Royale, and used it for years to travel the 180m (600 ft) wide channel between the two islands.
Devil's Island was first used to house the prison system's leper colony. With no understanding of the cause of leprosy (now known as Hansen's disease), nor means of treatment, societies isolated its sufferers. Well before 1895, the island was converted to primarily housing political prisoners.
The islands were part of a penal colony from 1852 onwards for common law criminals of France, those convicted by juries rather than magistrates. The main part of the penal colony was a labor camp stretched along the border with Dutch Guiana, which today is Suriname. Île Royale was for the general population of the penal colony, housed in moderate freedom due to the difficulty of escape from the island. Île Saint-Joseph was where inmates were sent to be punished by solitary confinement in silence and darkness for escapes or offences committed in the penal colony. Île du Diable was for political prisoners including the aforementioned Captain Alfred Dreyfus.
This penal colony was controversial for it had a reputation for harshness and brutality. Prisoner-on-prisoner violence was common, tropical diseases were rife. Only a small minority of broken survivors would return to France to tell how horrible it was and scare other potential criminals straight. This system was gradually phased out and has been completely shut down since 1953. Nowadays the islands are a popular tourist destination. The islands were featured in the novel by Henri Charrière, Papillon. He was imprisoned there for nine years.
Devil's Island and associated prisons eventually became one of the most infamous prison systems in history. In addition to the prisons on each of the three islands in the Salut island group, the French constructed three related prison facilities on the South American mainland, just across the straits at Kourou; 30 miles east in Cayenne, which later became the capital of French Guyana; and a hundred miles west at St. Laurent.
While the prison system was in use (1852–1953), inmates included political prisoners (such as 239 republicans who opposed Napoleon III's coup d'état in 1851) and the most hardened of thieves and murderers. The vast majority of the more than 80,000 prisoners sent to the Devil's Island prison system never made it back to France. Many died due to disease and harsh conditions. Sanitary systems were limited, and the region was mosquito-infested, with endemic tropical diseases. The only exit from the island prisons was by water, and few convicts escaped.
A common way for convicts to earn money was to trap butterflies, which were sold to collectors. Convicts who were lucky enough to have family willing to send them money had to have it sent to them in care of a prison guard. The standard practice was for the guard to keep a quarter of the amount sent for himself and give the rest to the prisoner.
On 30 May 1854, France passed a new law of forced residency. It required convicts to stay in French Guiana after completion of sentence for a time equal to their forced labour time. If the original sentence exceeded eight years, they were forced to stay as residents for the remainder of their lives and were provided land to settle on. In time, a variety of penal regimes emerged, as convicts were divided into categories according to the severity of their crimes and the terms of their imprisonment or "forced residence" regime.
An 1885 law provided for repeat offenders for minor crimes to be sent to the French Guiana prison system, previously reserved for serious offenders and political prisoners. A limited number of convicted women were also sent to French Guiana, with the intent that they marry freed male inmates to aid in settlement and development of the colony. As the results were poor, the government discontinued the practice in 1907. On Devil's island, the small prison facility did not usually house more than 12 persons.
The horrors of the penal settlement were publicized during the Dreyfus affair, as the French army captain Alfred Dreyfus was unjustly convicted of treason and sent to Devil's Island on 5 January 1895. In 1938 the penal system was strongly criticized in Rene Belbenoit's book Dry Guillotine.
Shortly after the release of Belbenoit's book, which aroused public outrage about the conditions, the French government announced plans to close the bagne de Cayennes. The outbreak of World War II delayed this operation but, from 1946 until 1953, one by one the prisons were closed. The Devil's Island facility was the last to be closed.
The cable car system deteriorated and the island is closed to public access. It can be viewed from off shore by use of charter boats. The two larger islands in the Salut island group are open to the public; with some of the old prison buildings restored as museums, they have become tourist destinations.
Clément Duval, an anarchist, was sent to Devil's Island in 1886. Originally sentenced to death, he later received a commuted sentence of hard labour for life. 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 about his imprisonment called Revolte.
Francois Frean, Paul Renuci, Raymond Vaude, and Giovanni Batistoti
Four escapees from Devil's Island arrived in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands on 18 October 1936. Their native boat was nearly wrecked on the reef and the convicts were initially entertained as guests and treated for injuries at the Municipal Hospital. The fugitives, Francois Frean, 37, Paul Renuci, 32, Raymond Vaude, 35, all French and Giovanni Batistoti, 35, an Italian, were reported to have suffered hardships.
Henri Charrière and Sylvain
Henri Charrière's bestselling book Papillon (1968) describes his successful escape from Devil's Island, with a companion, Sylvain. They used two sacks filled with coconuts to act as lifebuoys. According to Charrière, the two men leaped 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. From then (papillon) was to meet the man of the name cuic-cuic who would help him escape again to the freedom he always wanted. But he was caught again and served in the Bagne at El Dorado where he would soon become free for life and live in Venezuela.
Charrière's account aroused considerable controversy. French authorities disputed it and released penal colony records that contradicted his account. Charrière had never been imprisoned on Devil's Island. He had escaped from a mainland prison. French journalists or prison authorities disputed other elements of his book and said that he had invented many incidents or appropriated experiences of other prisoners. Critics said he should have admitted his book was fiction.
In 1938, the French government stopped sending prisoners to Devil's Island. In 1953, the prison system was finally closed entirely. Most of the prisoners at the time returned to metropolitan France, although some chose to remain in French Guiana.
In 1965, the French government transferred the responsibility for most of the islands to its newly founded Guiana Space Centre. The islands are under the trajectory of the space rockets launched from the Centre eastward, toward the sea (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 restored buildings classified as historical monuments. Since tourism facilities have been added, the islands now receive more than 50,000 tourists each year.
The bestselling memoir by Henri Charrière, Papillon (1969), described the extreme brutality and inhumane treatment of the penal colony. The book was adapted as an American movie of the same name; released in 1973, it starred Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
Note: Charrière's "memoir" is mostly fiction. The actual records of the Colony show that most of what he records could not have happened or was performed by others. The treatment was not as severe as reported either, but the prisoners were not treated well at all. Reference: Devil's Island: Colony of the Damned - Alexander Miles.
In the 2003 episode "Bend Her" of the animated comedy Futurama, Devil's Island is seen to have gained sufficient autonomy to enter the 3004 Olympics; the athletes appear to be wearing striped prison uniforms.
"Devil's Island" is the title of a 1986 song by Megadeth on the LP Peace Sells... but Who's Buying?. The song expresses the thoughts of a prisoner on Devil's Island about to be executed. In the song, the prisoner's life is spared by God just as he is about to be killed, but he is condemned to spend the rest of his life on Devil's Island.
- "The Last Prisoner on Devil's Island". 1981. Retrieved 2012-04-28. Excerpt from the People's Almanac, posted at "trivia-library.com
- Toth, Stephen (2006) Beyond Papillon: the French overseas penal colonies, 1854-1952 University of Nebraska Press ISBN 9780803244498
- "Island of Misery: Devil's Island". 2012. Retrieved 2012-04-28. Description of former cable-car connection to Île Royale.
- "Britannica: Devil's Island Started as Leper Colony". 2012. Retrieved 2012-04-28. Description of initial purpose of Devil's Island
- Krakovitch, Odile (January 1985). "Les archives des bagnes de Cayenne et de Nouvelle-Calédonie : la sous-série colonies H aux archives nationales". Revue d'histoire du XIXe siècle. 1985-01. Retrieved 2007-11-15.
- Begley, Louis. Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009, p. 67.
- FOUR FUGITIVES FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND HERE, The Daily News, 18 October 1937
- "Papillon alive and well in a Paris retirement home",Mail & Guardian, 26 June 2005.
- "Iles du salut", Dossier de presse Îles du Salut, CNES
- "Les Îles du Salut", CNES website
- Hammett, Dashiell The Dain Curse (1928), Chapter 6, "The Man From Devil's Island".
- "The Realms of Deth - Megadeth Lyrics - Peace Sells... But Who's Buying?". Megadeth.rockmetal.art.pl. Retrieved 2011-08-14.
- Belbenoit, René. 1940. @#!*% on Trial. Translated from the French by Preston Rambo. E. P Dutton & Co. Reprint by Blue Ribbon Books, New York, 1941.
- Belbenoit, René. 1938. Dry Guillotine: Fifteen Years among the Living Dead. Reprint: Berkley (1975). ISBN 0-425-02950-6. Reprint: Bantam Books, 1971.
- Seaton, George John. Isle of the Damned: Twenty Years in the Penal Colony of French Guinea. Farrar, Straus and Young, 1951. Also published in England as Scars Are My Passport.
- Charrière, Henry. Papillon. Reprints: Hart-Davis Macgibbon Ltd. 1970. ISBN 0-246-63987-3 (hbk); Perennial, 2001. ISBN 0-06-093479-4 (sbk).
- Godfroy Marion, Bagnards, Tallandier, 2008.
- Godfroy Marion, Bagnards, édition du chêne, 2002 (Ranked as "Best coffee table book of the year" by Le Monde).
- CNES, Dossier de presse Îles du Salut
- Rickards, Colin. The Man From Devil's Island Peter Dawnay Ltd., London, 1968. Hardback
- Nicol Smith, Black Martinique, Red Guiana, 1942.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Devil's Island.|