Devil’s Island: Devourer of Souls, Extinguisher of the Human Spirit

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A prison hulk in Toulon harbour.

Thousands of prisoners served time on Devil’s Island and thousands died there, whether by starvation, overwork, execution or disease.

This most notorious and infamous of hell-hole penal colonies was devised by man but generously assisted by nature with its almost impenetrable surrounding ocean and jungle teeming with crawling, flying, swimming horrors awaiting anyone attempting an escape.

Located off the coast of French Guiana in the Caribbean, Devil’s Island, or Île Du Diable

in French, operated from 1852 until roughly the middle of the next century, during which up to 80,000 prisoners served time. The majority would never leave. The penal colony was first established during France’s Second Empire under Napoleon III, who needed an out-of-the-way place to tuck away political prisoners and criminals. He also saw the penal colony as a means to populate Guiana with settlers, with prisoners, upon their release, being required to live in Guiana for a period equal to their prison term.

Even before the Devil’s Island penal colony was established, that part of the world was an inhospitable death trap. In 1763, for example, thousands of French colonists were brought to French Guiana with the promise of free land and easy gold for all. Ten out of twelve thousand would succumb to floods, malaria and tropical storms, all of which at last forced the remaining two thousand to seek refuge on the islands to the north, including Devil’s Island.

Prisoners sent to Devil’s Island suffered appalling conditions, many of which were worked to death as slave labor on the Guiana mainland, where they died under the overpowering, merciless tropical sun and from the ever-present malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Those who failed to keep up with their work quota, building roads or felling trees, had their already meager rations cut still further.

Inmates who escaped and were caught could expect brutal treatment upon their return: solitary confinement, extra work and irons and shackles at night as well as extra years added to their sentences.

Escaping inmates would typically make their way southward through the French Guiana mainland until they reached the Moroni River. Untold numbers would die during the crossing of this river, victims of crocodile attacks. There was also the ever-prevalent threat from piranha fish, which, it was believed, could strip an unlucky living victim of his flesh down to the bone within minutes, though in recent years this has been proven to be more myth than reality.

In 1895 the colony gained additional notoriety when Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army, was sent to Devil’s Island after being falsely accused of treason. He would finally be released in 1899 with his name cleared.

One of the few prisoners to successfully escape from Devil’s Island was Henri Charrière, who wrote Papillon. The name means “butterfly” in French and was his nickname because of his butterfly tattoo. During one of his many escape attempts over a period of years, he put out to sea in a raft made of coconuts, eventually reaching the mainland despite the threat of sharks. A companion who was with him on his own improvised coconut raft was not as fortunate, and as they came in toward land, he was lost to the quicksand that surrounded the shore line.

Though the penal colony has long since been abandoned, fascination with the macabre draws visitors to Devil’s Island, where they can tour the penal settlement. Guided tours include visits to prison cells, the prison chapel, the residence for the insane and a graveyard.

It’s been said that those who die a violent death are subject to becoming a ghost and will reside in a limbo state. If that is so, there might well be thousands of ghosts haunting the ruins of Devil’s Island and the northern mainland area of Guiana, still unable to find their elusive final rest after a life of toil and misery.