January 11, 2020
It was officially called Bange de Cayenne (Cayenne Penal Colony) or Bange. Informally it was tagged “the dry guillotine” because most of the 80,000 people sentenced there died before their sentence was up. Many of the rest of us know it as “Devil’s Island” although the small island was only a part of the French Guiana penal colony. To the people sent there it was hell.
There are three islands about 11 miles off the South America coast where political prisoners went as well as those who were most prone to escape or those who were considered most dangerous. Devil’s Island housed Alfred Dreyfus, the most famous political prisoner and Isle St. Joseph wea where Henri Charriére, Papillion, was housed in solitary for his successful escape from the mainland prison system. He made his final escape from these islands. Aside form the harsh conditions in solitary the islands were preferable to the mainland colony. The work was less difficult, the inmates had less supervision, there was a nearly constant breeze and they were healthier than the mainland with its swamps and insects. (Although our call at “Devil’s Island” is a reason we need to have international yellow fever vaccination certificates.)
Now the largest of the three islands, Isle Royale, hosts a boutique hotel, a small harbor for yachts and 50,000 annual cruise ship passengers. The thee islands are owned by the French Space Agency and Isle Royal is the site of a rocket tracking station attached to the European Space Agency’s launch facility on the mainland.
They really are lovely islands, palm fringed with flowers and blue sea. It was hot when we arrived but a breeze made much of our walk tolerable, although most of our cruise mates were off the island by 3:30 and I am sure I sweated off several pounds of water weight. We stayed until the 5 PM tender and there were only 16 on board, about half ship’s staff. On the island you can walk past and through the ruins of the stone buildings that housed the criminals and wardens, the hospital, workshops and storerooms.
The administration building and the church are intact and you can visit, and, of course, there is the hotel, where we stopped for some local beer. We need to be really hot before we order beer. I had a dark brew and Suzi a lighter colored one in which one of the ingredients was cassava.
One other feature of the island is the wildlife. We saw several monkeys working the bark of trees to get insects and, at times, sliding down the palm fronds to the ground. The other animal in abundance the red-rumped agouti, a large rodent.
We have visited this island before on our 2015 Prinsendam cruise. You can read a bit more about the history of these islands and why they were called “The Islands of Salvation” in my blog post from that cruise at “The Devil Owns Salvation” Click on https://rich.mcclear.net/2015/03/06/the-devil-owns-salvation/