After four days at sea we anchored off Île Royale, the largest of the three Île du Salut (Islands of Salvation) and part of the infamous ‘Devil’s Island’ prison; locale of the famous book and movie Papillon. Île du Diable is the smallest and northernmost of the islands, and the third is Île Saint-Joseph (St. Joseph). All manner of crimes were represented among the prison population from political prisoners to murderers and traitors. The prison soon became home to the worst criminals and repeat offenders in France. The prison was notorious for its cruel conditions and ‘inescapable-ness.’ There were escapes but they were very few in number. Many prisoners died from disease and the harsh environment and workloads. It is estimated that the majority of the 80,000 men interred there died serving their sentences. Less than 30% survived.
In 1852 under the direction of Emperor Napoleon III Devil’s Island became a French penal colony, which was officially called Bagne de Cayenne (Cayenne Penal Colony). The prisoners began to refer to it as Devil’s Island and the name caught on and stuck. Prisoners were housed in various places on the mainland and the three Île du Salut islands. St. Joseph’s was the Reclusion, where prisoners were sent for solitary confinement in seclusion and darkness as punishment for breaking various laws of the prison. Île du Diable was used mainly for political prisoners. Île Royale was the reception center for the general population and held the main military and prison buildings.
The islands are only 7 miles from the French Guiana mainland but the coastline is rocky, the waters are treacherous and sharks are abundant. In 1938 France stopped sending prisoners to Devil’s Island and the prison was closed in 1952.
As we approached the island group it look like one large island. The three islands are not far apart and you couldn’t see the water between them until the ship got very close to Royal Island. There were no organized tours on the unpopulated island but we were free to wander around and there was a nice path that went all the way around. It took about 45 minutes to do the circuit. You could easily see the smaller St. Joseph Island.and Devil’s Island. Many of the prison buildings were derelict but a few were still in good condition and the former warden’s house is a hotel, gift shop and museum. For a small island we saw quite a few critters. A peacock or two, lots of Howler monkeys, a spider monkey, pheasants, some agouti – a large tailless rodent, and very quick iguana. Since it is a tropical island there were also lots of pretty flowers. The humidity was such that we needed to shower when we returned to the ship in time for sail-away at 5 pm. The captain set sail for Trinidad and a May 7 port of call at Port of Spain.