Escape to Devil's Island (French Guyana)

  • Print

Portions of this article appeared first in Latitudes & Attitudes magazine.

ESCAPE TO DEVIL'S ISLAND

By James Baldwin

While sailing from Brazil to the Caribbean in the 28'sloop Atom, a solo sailor finds refuge among the ghosts of Devil's Island in French Guyana's Isles du Salut.

Devils_6

Approaching French Guyana's Isles du Salut.

Seven miles off the coast of French Guyana lies the ex-penal colony of Devils Island. For anyone who has seen the movie Papillion, the very name - Devils Island - conjures up scenes of immense suffering and dramatic escape attempts. I had long awaited a chance to discover for myself the myths and truths of this much-maligned island. But as it lay hundreds of miles against wind and current from the Caribbean waters I grew up sailing in, my pilgrimage there had to wait many years until I approached it from the east when my second voyage around the world was nearly complete.

Even as light favorable winds and the Guyana Current swept me gently along the coast from the Amazon Delta towards French Guyana, I never guessed this notorious little island and its two neighboring islands, known collectively as Isles du Salut, would still prove so difficult to escape from. However, before reaching the islands, I first made a provisioning stop on the mainland.

Besides the alluring Devils Island, for the adventurous sailor there are many places of interest on the mainland. The Oyapok River, which borders Brazil, is navigable far into the hidden interior rain forest. At the other end of the country, the Moroni River, bordering on Suriname, is occasionally visited by yachts heading for the old penal colony town of St. Laurent. Sailing alone and without an engine, I reluctantly confined my explorations to the two main ports only.

The capital city of Cayenne is no longer the main yacht port since the river entrance and harbor have silted up in recent years, making it unsafe for boats of over 4-foot draft to enter. Visiting yachts as well as some local yachts now anchor a few miles southeast of Cayenne off the village of Stouppan about five miles up the Mahoury River. But facilities there are limited and finding transportation into Cayenne is uncertain.

Cayenne today wears a fairly prosperous look with French sidewalk cafes, boutiques, bakeries and shady parks. A zoo in town exhibits some of the weird creatures of the local jungle. Along the old stone quay on the waterfront is a bustling vegetable and fish market containing all the typical tropical offerings as well as such delicacies as crocodile and monkey meat, and of course, plenty of fiery Cayenne chili peppers. Apart from a few thousand indigenous Indians, almost all the people in this sparsely populated country the former slaves, the Asians imported from French Indo-China, and the French themselves live in the two largest towns of Cayenne and Kourou. The main language spoken is a French Creole.

Although Cayenne has the best selection of goods between Belem and Trinidad, prices in this last remaining European colony in South America are out of this world. I did a lot of gawking through shop windows here, but refused to buy anything other than the essential baguettes, cheese, fruit and vegetables. Thankfully, I had purchased enough other provisions in Brazil to see me through to the Caribbean.

Sailors who speak French, often find well-paid work in Cayenne in construction or as teachers, secretaries or nurses. I met one French sailor who came to hunt for gold by joining other prospectors in small-scale sluicing and panning along the rivers. These temporary mining camps carved into the jungle along the riversides are among the few scars of civilization in a completely untamed interior where few roads even attempt to penetrate more than a handful of miles.

Toady French Guyanas most popular mainland port for visiting yachts is located some 30 miles northwest of Cayenne in the mouth of the Kourou River. As I sailed up the long approach channel, I took frequent stern bearings off the large buoys to avoid being set by cross currents onto the surrounding sandbanks. I continued upriver a half mile and anchored just outside the channel between the marina docks and the other anchored boats. Anchor too close to shore here and the 6-foot tides will leave you stuck in foul mud where packs of fat vultures hop around feeding on dead fish at low tide. Fresh water is available at the marina dock, though due to the frequent downpours, you'll never need it if you have a rain catcher. Malaria is apparently not a problem near Kourou, but the voracious mosquitoes along the river act like they've never been fed. Screens over all hatches are essential river survival gear.

Within walking distance of the marina, the large town of Kourou has sprung up around the nearby European Space Agencys satellite launching station. The space station offers guided tours and the stations related industries are another good source for well-paid temporary jobs. Because of the many expatriate workers living here, most of the necessities of life can be found, for a price, in the shops of Kourou.

The town has a good supermarket and a well-stocked vegetable market supplied by industrious Laotian farmers. If not for the stifling heat and incessant rainfall, the prices of goods here could make you think you were shopping in the French Riviera instead of a French welfare state in the South American jungle.

Devils_3

Luciana on Royal Island with Devil's Island in the background.

In Kourou I was told by the other cruisers that customs and immigration have not the slightest interest in meeting us. For once, I thought, the feeling would be mutual. For the moment at least, yachts are neither cleared in nor out and there is none of the tedious and costly bureaucracy we're forced to wade through in most of the world's ports. Local officials have taken the practical, quixotic attitude of "Don't tell us and we won't ask."

After blowing a months budget on a small bag of groceries and topping up my water tanks with rainfall, I made my escape from Kourou to the Iles du Salut. This group of three small volcanic islands was named Iles du Salut, or Salvation Islands, by the survivors of a failed expedition from France in 1763. A few hundred surviving settlers out of an original group of 11,000 took refuge here from the mosquito-borne diseases of the mainland. History repeated itself when the French established a penal colony on the islands in 1852. Most prisoners were given a choice whether to serve their sentences in France or Guyana. So many chose Guyana that larger prison camps were established on the mainland where outbreaks of yellow fever and other tropical diseases periodically wiped men out by the thousands.

The main anchorage in the group is at Royal Island below a prominent two-story salmon-pink house perched on the hillside. There were just three other yachts here, including my friends Theo and Luciana on Islander, whom I had last seen in Brazil. This anchorage is generally rolly and shallow with depths near shore from 2-3 meters. I dealt with the maddening rolling by setting a stern anchor to keep the bow pointed into the swell. The anchorage has only partial protection so it's necessary to keep an eye on the weather and be prepared to put down extra ground tackle or make a hasty departure if bad weather moves in.

Lying at 5 degrees north latitude, the islands are sometimes under the influence of the Northeast Trades and sometimes within the ITCZ (Intra-Tropical Convergence Zone).The dry season is approximately from August to November when winds are generally light easterlies affected by land and sea breezes off the mainland. I stayed here the entire month of November without any problem, but a boat that arrived a month later reported that they had to leave when strong southwest winds made the anchorage untenable. Even during the dry season there can be frequent rainfall, though not in the Biblical proportions that gets dumped on the mainland.

Soon after my anchor hit bottom off Royal Island, the daily ferryboat from Kourou dropped off a handful of day-tripping tourists who came to see the space center and Devils Island all in one day. Once theyd left, I rowed my dinghy over to the pontoon dock and walked alone up a steep road bordered with banana, papaya and coconut trees. The roads paved with grey stone blocks, hand-cut and set in place with infinite care by generations of prisoners, blend in well with the surrounding landscape. Low walls of this same stone edge all the footpaths and serve as a natural-looking seawall along the harbor.

Placed near the hilltop to take advantage of the cooling breezes, I find the resident gendarme in his restored colonial house with white trim and heavy balustrade. He takes my name and boat name to add to his visitors list. I pretend not to understand French by greeting his every question with a smile and a blank stare and am thereby spared having him tell me all the things I must not do here, such as touching fallen coconuts or visiting Devils Island, which was rumored to be currently off-limits to visitors. In good humor he welcomes me anyway, looking into his French/English dictionary and screwing up his face into a smile and haltingly spitting out: WelcomeEnjoyNo problem. And that, thankfully, is the end of the briefest and most pleasant clearance formalities Ive ever experienced.

Another refurbished hilltop building that was once the wardens mess hall is now a restaurant where the transplanted Parisian waiter sneers at my imperfect French and old floppy sailors hat, then offers me a bottle of beer for eight US dollars. When I hesitate, he retreats behind the rack of five-dollar post cards at the souvenir counter. From the restaurant veranda the view alone may be worth the price of the beer. Below us, set against the blue sea, hundreds of shimmering green palms on nearby Isle du Diable and Isle du St. Joseph wave invitingly in the afternoon sea breeze. A line of white breaking waves brushes against shores of black lava boulders and patches of white sand in a primeval scene that draws me in with the fascination of a Polynesian painting by Gauguin.

Having resisted the stuffy waiters offer, I walked down the stone path and stopped to quench my thirst by cracking open two fallen coconuts with my machete. Overhead, a pair of noisy macaws circled a mango tree. A monkey screamed and retreated into the bush. I was surprised to see the island is completely overrun by chickens that are quite unafraid of humans. It seems the gendarme and restaurant guests prefer their chicken flown in frozen from France. The island is also home to numerous agouti: queer-looking brown-furred animals that are one of the worlds largest rodents.

Next to the lighthouse I entered a wooden chapel. Traces of paintings were still visible on the walls and ceiling. These were made by Felix Flag Lagrange, an artist turned counterfeiter who was incarcerated here. Flag spent months of concentrated labor in this church, momentarily forgetting he was an outcast of society, high on a scaffolding re-creating Biblical scenes a la Michelangelo. Now they crumble bit by bit; soon to be gone forever. After Flag was released, he wrote a book describing the prisoners life on these islands that is perhaps more factual than the more widely known story of Papillion.

Devils_5

Prisoner burial off Royal Island by Felix Lagrange.

Royal Island, at 1.5 miles across, is the largest of the group and was the penal colonys administration center. Convicts toiled unloading ships, maintaining buildings and gardens, and cutting rocks to make the staircases, walls and roads that still stand today. Here also is where men who attacked a guard lost their heads in the guillotine. Across a narrow channel is St. Joseph island where some 2,000 prisoners were held, many in solitary confinement cells.

The smallest of the group, Devils Island, a mere half-mile long and two stones throws across, was reserved for political prisoners and only held about 15 convicts at a time. The cruel system of doublage, whereby a man was forced to live as many additional years in the colony as he had served on his sentence, was the government's program to insure permanent colonization. Due to its notorious image, Devils Island became synonymous with French injustice and colonial oppression in the eyes of the world, finally causing France to close the island prison some 50 years ago. The islands remain uninhabited, aside from a few government caretakers and the owners of the recently opened restaurant catering to the small trickle of tourists.

The only freshwater source on the islands is from a scummy algae-filled pond on Royal Island that convicts chopped out of the solid rock to collect rainwater. There are a couple of private cisterns that could be used in an emergency, but during your stay here you will have to rely on catching your own rainwater or making the trip into Kourou to fill your tanks.

On St. Joseph Island I met two scowling and lonely looking French Legionnaires whose well-muscled arms could have ripped my head off with no trouble at all. One of them leaned on a shovel and glared at the machete hanging from my belt while his more talkative friend explained that they work here as grounds keepers when theyre not on assignment chasing down trespassers on the jungle border with Suriname. I wondered if they felt and resented that they were now the prisoners here with nothing much to do other than give directions to passing tourists. Somehow I had expected that, if the legendary Foreign Legion did still exist, they would be found in an equally ominous and legendary place like this.

On my walk around St. Joseph Island's shoreline I passed a rock-lined pen built by prisoners and still used by the gendarmes as a shark-proof tidal swimming pool. Next I detoured inland and followed a long stone staircase leading up to a dining hall, its thatched roof now replaced by dangling vines from the jungle canopy. Broad Banyan trees grow between and even inside the building, pushing their roots through doorways and windows. Im bathed in sweat and silence in the hot, still air and can almost hear roots growing and pressing through walls. The only activity is at my feet where long lines of black ants carry leaf cuttings back to their nests like endless parades of tiny green umbrellas.

Adjoining the dining hall, I passed through iron bar doors, permanently rusted into half-open position, and discovered rows of concrete solitary confinement cells. Records show one incorrigible convict was kept alone for 10 years in one of these cells. This is where Henri Papillon Charriere was locked up for one year for attempting to escape a camp on the mainland. Contrary to his somewhat exaggerated account, Papillion was never on Devils Island, nor did he escape from here. His book contains a mixture of stories from other convicts, although later he did escape from a mainland camp and eventually retired as a free man in Venezuela.

Devils_1

Theo behind bars on St. Joseph Island.

Escape from the Isles du Salut was difficult because prisoners were well guarded and often shackled to their beds at night. Strong currents and fear of sharks kept most men out of the water. When a convict died he was wrapped in a cloth shroud, weighted with stones, placed in a coffin and dumped from a boat into the harbor for the waiting sharks. The same coffin was used over and over again. Still, there were several dramatic escapes. Convicts set themselves adrift on empty barrels, tree trunks, and sacks of coconuts. One clever fellow stole the communal coffin and paddled away to the mainland.

I stopped at St. Josephs cemetery and ran my hands over the names on the weathered tombstones. I imagined hearing keys turning in the cell door locks; the soft clinking of chained feet as they shuffled along; the staccato barked orders of the guards; the priest reading last rites to damned souls; the sudden, deadly whoosh and thud of the guillotine. As I rowed back to Atom with my backpack full of papayas and husked coconuts, I felt a new awareness of the simple joy called freedom.

Devil's Island itself has no useable anchorage and even landing by dinghy is sometimes impossible due to the breaking seas. After someone drowned here last year, the gendarme on Royal Island no longer encourages visitors. Taking a lesson from the French officials in Kourou, I figured the best way not to be refused permission to visit the island was to not ask for permission in the first place. So one day I stealthily pointed my kayak towards Devils Island. In the channel between islands I paddled past green sea turtles and saw through the translucent waters the dark shapes of several sharks who I hoped had lost their preference for human flesh.

I managed to make a precarious landing between waves and quickly pulled my kayak up the rocky shore. I walked up the footpath past ruins of little stone cottages straight out of the movie Papillon. At the seaward end of the island I paused to rest on the same stone bench where French Army captain Alfred Dreyfus looked out over the sea for five years during his banishment here for treason in 1895. Eventually he was found innocent and freed.

Because of the difficult access, guards brought food over to the island each morning by a cable car strung from Royal Island. Each night before leaving they chained the prisoners to their beds. People often went mad here. A visiting doctor noted that one lunatic prisoner threw stones into the sea every day from the same point on the island, claiming he was building a causeway to France and would walk across it to return home. Through the unjust suffering of notables such as Dreyfus, this tiny island came to lend its sinister name to the whole vast complex of Guyanas penal administration, and ultimately, to its abolition.

When five more yachts from five different countries arrived in the anchorage, our Cruising Foreign Legion came together one afternoon for a potluck on the windward side of Royal Island. After a huge feast, we played guitars and sang songs by lamplight while fireflies flickered in the bushes around us. Late that night, we walked back to the harbor from the windward coast with the sound of waves lifting and crashing heavily on boulders. Palm fronds rustled in the light wind and were momentarily outlined by a sweeping arc of silvery light from the islands lighthouse.

I'd have willingly served more time communing with the ghosts of Isles du Salut, but was eventually ordered to leave along with everyone else by the French Navy the day before the space center on the mainland launched an Ariane 5 satellite rocket directly over the islands. In past years there had been enough faulty rockets blowing themselves up spectacularly over the islands that perhaps I should have been glad to get out safely. As Atom drifted away from the islands under sails spread like giant butterfly wings, I thought, how ironic that these prison islands would today offer refuge for the most freedom loving of all people the cruising sailor.