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.

58 PHOTOS

CLICK on the first photo to start a Slideshow

The three Iles du Salut. Only Ile Royale can be visited.
The three Iles du Salut. Only Ile Royale can be visited.
Although ‘protected’ the prison buildings are not restored
Although ‘protected’ the prison buildings are not restored
The harbor at Ile Royale with Ile St Joseph in the background
The harbor at Ile Royale with Ile St Joseph in the background
Some of the buildings can be seen on the hilltop
Some of the buildings can be seen on the hilltop
A path leads from the jetty to the compound
A path leads from the jetty to the compound
The path splits into a ‘high road’ to the compound and a ‘low road’ around the island
The path splits into a ‘high road’ to the compound and a ‘low road’ around the island
Prisoner-built stairs lead to upper levels
Prisoner-built stairs lead to upper levels
Gateway
Gateway
The forest humidity provides a perfect environment for moss and lichens
The forest humidity provides a perfect environment for moss and lichens
‘Moss garden’
‘Moss garden’
Look closely for the red-rumped agouti
Look closely for the red-rumped agouti
Lining the path are coconut palms...
Lining the path are coconut palms...
...with monkeys leaping from tree to tree.
...with monkeys leaping from tree to tree.
The open field on the hilltop looks inviting
The open field on the hilltop looks inviting
Some buildings are still in use by the French Foreign Legion caretakers
Some buildings are still in use by the French Foreign Legion caretakers
An artificial reservoir supplied the island with water
An artificial reservoir supplied the island with water
The reservoir is home to a healthy growth of algae...
The reservoir is home to a healthy growth of algae...
...and iguanas.
...and iguanas.
Large cacti grow next to tropical palms and ferns
Large cacti grow next to tropical palms and ferns
Hotel and bar next to the reservoir; who would want to vacation here??
Hotel and bar next to the reservoir; who would want to vacation here??
A resident peacock struts his stuff...
A resident peacock struts his stuff...
...for his peahens.
...for his peahens.
Scarlet macaws also live on the island
Scarlet macaws also live on the island
A beautiful, large macaw
A beautiful, large macaw
The guards’ quarters are in pretty good shape
The guards’ quarters are in pretty good shape
Entrance to the guards’ quarters
Entrance to the guards’ quarters
This area actually looks rather pleasant
This area actually looks rather pleasant
Tropical flowers are very much in evidence
Tropical flowers are very much in evidence
The grim reality sets in at the solitary confinement buildings
The grim reality sets in at the solitary confinement buildings
Courtyard of the buildings
Courtyard of the buildings
Inside, the main building is slowly disintegrating
Inside, the main building is slowly disintegrating
A hallway lined with solitary cells
A hallway lined with solitary cells
They had no opening to the outside air and light
They had no opening to the outside air and light
Inside, the cells have remnants of beds and graffiti
Inside, the cells have remnants of beds and graffiti
Even here, bright flowers liven up the scene
Even here, bright flowers liven up the scene
A small infirmary
A small infirmary
Very basic sanitary facilities
Very basic sanitary facilities
Other buildings are farther along their ruin
Other buildings are farther along their ruin
Looking through the bars
Looking through the bars
Another decrepit building...
Another decrepit building...
...another beautiful flower.
...another beautiful flower.
Gutted hospital building
Gutted hospital building
Lighthouse and hospital
Lighthouse and hospital
Behind the hospital, a small children’s graveyard
Behind the hospital, a small children’s graveyard
The wives and children of the superintendent and some guards are buried here
The wives and children of the superintendent and some guards are buried here
Spikey plants provide some color for the graveyard
Spikey plants provide some color for the graveyard
A small museum features the story of Alfred Dreyfus
A small museum features the story of Alfred Dreyfus
A copy of Emile Zola’s famous indictment of the French Army
A copy of Emile Zola’s famous indictment of the French Army
Public restroom? 
No thanks!!
Public restroom?
No thanks!!
Bright tropical wildflowers
Bright tropical wildflowers
10 inch long sweet-smelling flowers
10 inch long sweet-smelling flowers
Devil’s Island seen through the palms of Ile Royale
Devil’s Island seen through the palms of Ile Royale
The rough seas and dangerous coastlines prevented escapes
The rough seas and dangerous coastlines prevented escapes
A bathing area on the north shore of Ile Royale
A bathing area on the north shore of Ile Royale
Supplies and provisions were sent to Devil’s Island by cable car
Supplies and provisions were sent to Devil’s Island by cable car
The pylon of the cable car system between Iles Royale and Diable
The pylon of the cable car system between Iles Royale and Diable
For all their dark history, the Iles du Salut today appear a tropical haven
For all their dark history, the Iles du Salut today appear a tropical haven
The classic ‘palm trees on the seashore’ photo
The classic ‘palm trees on the seashore’ photo
(placeholder)
(placeholder)

Back to South America Page