At first sight, Devil’s island looks benign and innocuous. With it’s surf kissed waterfront and ranging, impossibly tall palm trees, it could be the gateway to any tropical paradise. The whole place has more than a little of the lethargic, languid vibe and feel of the South Pacific; it brings images of Tahiti and Moorea straight to mind. Though the island sits only some ten miles from the coast of French Guiana, it feels as if it is somehow completely cut off from the rest of civilisation. But, for many, any vestige of civilisation was in short supply here.
Most former visitors arriving here would have been under very few illusions. For this is the former leper colony, turned into a penal institution, that became a byword for terror. Ile Du Diable- Devil’s Island- would acquire a reputation for stark, inhuman brutality that made Alactraz look like the Adlon by comparison.
The combination of sharp, rocky shores and vicious cross currents made any attempt at escape inadvisable, as did the fact that the waters all around are shark infested. Over the years, more than eighty thousand reluctant guests endured this dreadful place; few returned to tell the tale.
One of three small islands that form the territory of the Iles Du Salut, the island itself is relatively small; a mere twelve hundred yards long, and four hundred across. But that small space is awash with towering palms, and the shores of Guiana are full of old mangrove swamps that were such fertile breeding grounds for a whole raft of noxious diseases, such as dysentery and malaria. Scores died from exposure to the pitiless humidity.
The colony was in use for over a hundred years, from 1852 onward. The French dispatched their most feared and reviled state enemies here; spies, political prisoners and the like. But none was more famous than Alfred Dreyfus, the former army officer framed on trumped up charges. He arrived here in 1895, and over his four year stay he wrote more than a thousand letters, detailing the ghastly regime of this nineteenth century Guantanamo in chilling detail.
It was also the setting for Papillon, the fictional masterpiece that managed to recreate much of the fear, horror and misery so inherent in the real thing. Escape was almost impossible, and recapture meant the dawn walk to the guilllotine. Fear, casual brutality and rampant malaria did the rest.
Today, what remains of the old penal colony is a series of gaunt husks of buildings, many of them bleached a shade of bone white by more than a century’s exposure to a constant, pitiless sun. The gaunt, unyielding old hospital where so many gasped out their last moments is grimly stark; it still feels like somewhere that pity was as thinly rationed as water and any other kind of humanity. A place of tense, uneasy ghosts.
In fact, all three of the islands had prison facilities, but Devil’s Island was mainly reserved for political scapegoats such as Dreyfus. In 1938, a book about the island called Dry Guillotine was published, outlining in stark detail the brutish regime on these islands. It caused such a wave of revulsion across France that the entire complex was slated for closure in that same year; only the advent of the Second World war prevented it from happening. The last prisoners were quietly evacuated in 1953.
Today, there’s a serene patina of isolated beauty to the place. But it is a very thin veil indeed, and the memories of former times are seared into those stone walls. If buildings could, indeed, talk, then the sound emanating from those pitiless pieces of brickwork would be one loud, continuous wail of terror.