Experiencing Devil’s Island

December 27, 2012

Our first stop in South America was in an unlikely place. Devil’s Island is located about nine miles (13 kilometers) off the coast of the territory of French Guiana, which is South America’s only continental land that is not an independent country. Devil’s Island is actually the smallest of three islands that make up the Iles du Salut or the Salvation Islands Archipelago. It received its name from settlers who relocated in these islands in 1763 after disease all but wiped out their fledgling settlement on the mainland.

Beginning in 1852 a penal colony was established here. Until it was closed in 1953, the Ile du Diable (Devil’s Island) held political prisoners, Ile Saint Joseph (St. Joseph Island) was reserved for solitary confinement and Ile Royale (Royale Island) housed the general convict population. The harsh conditions and diseases of a tropical environment, coupled with the difficulty of escape, due to dangerous ocean currents and shark-infested waters, made this prison system infamous. The entire three island complex was eventually known as “Devil’s Island”. Even with these adverse conditions, several people did successfully escape Devil’s Island while serving time here. The most famous story is told in the novel and movie Papillon.

In the days leading up to our approach to Devil’s Island we were not sure if we would go ashore. The water is shallow around the islands and, if the conditions are rough, the ship could potentially bottom out. Anchoring out further could subject the ship’s tenders to severe ocean swells that would not make a landing possible. Crew members who had previously been here told us that the landing success rate is only about 50%. So, when we arrived, we were indeed fortunate to anchor in the shallow water and take ship tenders ashore!

Although one cannot actually set foot on Devil’s Island itself today, it can be seen clearly from the other two islands. Our tender landed us on Royale Island, which contains most of the former penal colony structures. Although Royale Island is only 69 acres (28 hectares), it is the largest island in the Iles du Salut chain, so we had time to take it slow in the jungle heat and humidity.

We viewed a church that was built in 1854 and contains several interior murals that were painted by one of the prisoners. Nearby was a hospital building and, across from that, several of the cell blocks. We walked into one of the cells and tried to imagine spending years in an area that was a little bigger than a closet. In some cells rusted shackles could still be found on the walls. Reflecting on the oppressive heat and prevalent disease, it was no wonder that very few of the more than 70,000 prisoners who were transported here survived their internment.

After leaving the prison area we walked down a path to catch a glimpse of Devil’s Island. Along the way we saw the remains of a cable car tower that was built to run over to Devil’s Island because it was so dangerous to land a boat there. This part of Royale Island was not as developed and we marveled at the beauty of the jungle and the ocean. We reached a viewpoint where we were able to see Devil’s Island, which looked even less developed and was packed with tall palm trees. The waves crashed on the rocks below us, providing us with some indication of the treacherous water conditions around these islands. Before returning to the ship we took some time to sit above some of these rocks and look out over the water. It was a peaceful contrast to the tragic nature of this place.

We have just one more day in the open Atlantic Ocean before we will enter the Amazon River and make our way over four days, to Manaus, Brazil, and the end of our month of ocean transit.

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5 thoughts on “Experiencing Devil’s Island

  1. Tony Vaninetti Reply

    Thanks for the info on this famous place. I will go there by cruise ship this month on my way to Brazil and up the Amazon.

    • Darren and Sandy Post authorReply

      Thanks for your comment, Tony. Enjoy your trip!

  2. Dan & Susan Towarnicki Reply

    Very interesting article. Hard to believe a place with such beauty was used to detain prisoners in such horrible fashion. Strong currents, & the presence of sharks must have made escape near impossible. Similar situation, we have been told, existed at Alcatraz Prision in the San Francisco Bay Area.

    • Darren and Sandy Post authorReply

      Hi Dan and Susan –

      Yes, we have heard similar things about Alcatraz, although have not been there, even though we live just a few hours from it!

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