French Guiana is on the north coast of South America and was sighted by Columbus in 1496. It was settled by the Spanish, Dutch, and French, and the Treaty of Breda gave the territory to France in 1667. About an hour’s sail off the coast are the three islands known today as the Iles du Salut (Islands of Salvation). The name comes from the survivors of a disastrous expedition to the mainland who took refuge there in 1763. Between 1852 and 1939, the French used the islands as a penal colony. The islands are slightly cooler than the mainland and considerably drier; most of the vegetation on the islands was planted during the time they were a prison. Today, French Guiana is an overseas department of France and the islands are used to track rockets as they ascend from the mainland Kourou Space Center, which has launched the majority of all European satellites now in orbit. Ruins of many of the prison buildings are very much in evidence, and upkeep is handled by the French Foreign Legion.
The three islands, Ile Royale, Ile St. Joseph, and Devil’s Island, are rocky and separated by unpredictable currents and schools of sharks, thus escape was virtually impossible. The islands were self-sufficient, with flocks of goats, chickens, and a cow or two, and plenty of fruits and vegetables; however, tropical diseases killed many of the prisoners. Common criminals were housed on Ile Royale and Ile St. Joseph; Devil’s Island was reserved for political prisoners. The island’s notoriety is largely based on its being the home of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Army Captain who was falsely accused of treason in 1894. The passionate denunciation of the French army by novelist Emile Zola (“J’accuse!”) was instrumental in Dreyfus’ pardon in 1899. Devil’s Island was also the setting for the film Papillon, starring Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen.
I visited Devil's Island on the Oceania Regatta in December, 2006, along with the Amazon River and several Caribbean islands.
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