Today, the abandoned and scary buildings part of the penitentiaries in the Salvation’s Islands are visited by thousands of tourists looking for gloomy experiences. Up until a few decades ago, those places were a real hell of living dead men.
The well known Île du Diable, Devil’s Island, was named as such in 1763 by the French whom occupied part of the New World, the French Guiana in South America. The little island, along with others, creates the archipelago called Îles du Salut (Healthy Islands) by the French governor of that time who was hoping his land was spared by the tropical diseases which were destroying many other colonists lives.
The three islands were called Île Royale, Île Saint-Joseph, e Île du Diable. For the last one, the governor got inspired by the indigenous from the island, who believed in a evil spirit living there. At the same time though also by the hostility of its sea, infested by sharks and the strong steam operating throughout the area, flapping its waves against the rocks. The name became a prophecy and for a century it assumed a literal meaning. The Devil’s Island would have become one of the most infamous places of all.
The French Guiana
The colonisation of Guiana by the French was the heaviest of the failures in terms of lost lives during the colonisation era in America (JR McNeill, Mosquito Empires, 2010). The French intention was to turn that island in an agricultural colony but 10,000 of the total 12,000 colonists sent over died of yellow fever, dysentery and other tropical diseases. The soil was neither meant to be used for cultivation nor the coasts would offer natural harbours for commerce. It seemed like a cursed place for Europeans.
The Penal Colony
The image below was taken in the Penal Colony of Saint-Laurent du Maroni, on the dry land of Guiana, used as a sorting station towards the other prisons around the area.
Picture shared with licence Creative Commons 3.0
From 1852 to the next 100 years, the penal colony of Cayenne, simply known as Devil’s Island, was used both for political opponents and common prisoners. The penitentiary was made up of diverse structures both on dry land and on the three islands. A green Hell from which the escape was almost impossible. Just 2,000 of the 80,000 prisoners condemned to forced labour managed to survive. No gateway was possible because, as one of the directors said:
We have two guardians, one being the Jungle and the other the Sea. If you won’t be eaten by the sharks or have your bones stripped by the ants, soon you will beg to come back
The Jungle represented a natural barrier. Diseases, insects, fierce animals, rivers infested by piranhas, unbearable heat, and indigenous paid to capture and bring back the prisoners, would make the attempt of leaving the island extremely unlikely. The other alternative, the Atlantic, was as much improbable: steam, sharks and patrol boats were representing a clear huge obstacle.
Penal Colony of Saint-Laurent du Maroni
Source: Chatsam via Wikimedia Commons – licence CC BY-SA 3.0
It is difficult believing that this prison regime, where human rights were utterly trampled on, has been carried out by a “civilized” Western nation until 1953, year in which the penal colony got completely shut down.
The smallest of the islands, Île du Diable, was so inaccessible to the point that it had to be arrange a set of ropes and pulleys to get there. That place was reserved for political prisoners, one being Alfred Dreyfus, wrongly accused of treason. He spent five years of his life in the island in total isolation (1895-1899).
Alfred Dreyfus prison
Picture via Wikipedia – licence CC BY 3.0
Henri Carriere is certainly the most popular amongst the few ones who managed to leave Devil’s Island. In his book “Papillon”, which also inspired a film with Steve McQueen, describes the terrible experience in the penal colony and his continued attempt of running away, nine throughout the ten years spent in Cayenne.
His exciting gateway succeeded thanks to a sack filled up with coconuts, used as a raft, with which he threw himself from the rocks of Devil’s Island. After having observed carefully the waves motion, Carriere understood that, after seven waves, the force released by the sea was enough for him to be carried off the shores. “Papillion” was published in 1970 and soon became a best seller even though it was considered by many people as a book of controversial nature. It seemed that Carriere had gathered adventures of several inmates without having ever experienced those situations on his own skin. There were furthermore rumors that he had never even been to any of those islands but instead just in a dry land jail.
However, Carriere aside, other inmates in other times were able to complete such a journey which could very well be associated to a trip from Hell to Heaven: Devil’s Island to Angel’s Island.
Charles De Rudio
De Rudio was an Italian noble that during the historical period named “Risorgimento”, joined the secret society of Carbonari and took part in a plot to kill Napoleon III. Once the attempt got discovered, the four participants were sentenced to death apart from De Rudio and another man. For them, the got a life sentence and in 1858 De Rudio got deported along with 200 other prisoners in the penal colony of Cayenne.
After some forced labour on dry land the man was moved to Île Royale, from which he escaped in 1859 at his second attempt. With other inmates, the seized a boat from a few fishermen and arrived to the British Guiana. The venture seemed incredible, in fact the men were able to travel around 1600 km (1000 miles) in a tiny boat with nothing to eat nor drink. Treated as political prisoners, the Brits welcomed them. Subsequently De Rudio moved to the United States and there join the army and kept on embarking on other adventures.
De Rudio was one of the few men who survived the Little Bighorn battle
After a lifetime split between France, Italy, Switzerland, Great Britain, 10 years as a revolutionary, 1 in the hell of Cayenne as well as 30 as a soldier in the US army, De Rubio settled down in Los Angeles. After having endured several hellish episodes, he chose to pick up his own slice of paradise.
Another prisoner named René Belbenoit had a rather novel-like existence, to the point that he inspired the creation of two films based on himself. The first one, “Condemned” from 1929, came out while he was still serving the sentence and six years before his sensational escape from the French penal colony. He became a legend due to his feat then helped out as a technical advisor for the second film “Passage to Marseille” starring Humphrey Bogart, 1944. In 1938 He wrote down a book about his own experience in the colony titled “Dry Guillotine”: the book became a best seller and spread disdain about the prison system in Cayenne.
At the end of the first world war, after having fought for the French army, Belbenoit was jailed for theft and sentenced to eight years of forced labour in Guiana. Back then, a law would dictate that, before returning to France, an inmate would have to spend an equal amount of years in Guiana. If the sentence was exceeding eight years, they would be forced to remain there for good.
Exiling an undesired person for good was most likely the eugenic purpose of the French legal system
Belbenoit arrived in French Guiana on the 23th June 1923, prisoner number 46.635: so many others had been put there since 1852, year in which the colony first opened up.
The pain which Belbenoit endured in Guyana was terrible. No matter disease,hunger, tortures though, he never gave up. He wrote down his memoires that he sold while still captured to a couple of American journalists visiting the colony. Robert and Blair Niles. Inspired by these memories, Mrs. Niles wrote down a novel named “Condemned to Devil’s Island”, which then was the base for the film from 1929.
After several attempts of evasion, never went through, in 1930 Belbenoit finished his sentence but he still could not leave the island. Thanks to the goodwill of the governor, he was allowed to get a limited permission and leave for a year, giving demonstration that he was able to make a honest living, which would have granted him with a permanent permission. After a year in Panama working as a gardner Belbenoit realised that the governor had changed his mind and that he had to go back to Guiana for good nevertheless. He decided to come back to France looking for justice but at his arrival he got arrested and sent back to the penal colony on the 7th of October 1932.
After two years of isolation they granted him to come back to dry land as a “free prisoner”. Along with other five companions of misfortune Belbenoit bought a canoe and head towards Trinidad. After 14 days of navigation and 700 miles past, the men reached the island, but their final destination was still the US. All his partners got captured one after the other apart from Belbenoit. He went through seven months with the natives of Kuna then, passing Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, was able to illegally jump on a cargo ship and “finally” get to Los Angeles on the 11th of June 1937.
Even here, despite his fame coming from his adventure, he had to deal with several issues one for example being an imprisonment of 15 months as he entered the country illegally. Wretched René Belbenoit got his American citizenship in 1956, last certainty that he would have never been sentenced from French Court anymore.
Below: trailer of the film “Papillon”