Day 62 of 68 – Île Royale/Devil’s Island, French Guiana

March 6, 2018 Paul Groves

Our stop today was at Île Royale. The islands of Île Royale, Île du Diable (“Devils Island”), and Île Saint-Joseph comprise what was once a notoriously brutal penal colony in French Guiana and was the subject of the movie “Papillon” starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.

Île Royale was the main prison and administrative center for the complex. Prisoners who attempted to escape or violated prison rules were sent to solitary confinement cells (total silence and darkness up to months at a time) on Île Saint-Joseph. Île du Diable (“Devils Island”), the most famous of the three, housed political prisoners whose most famous political prisoner was Alfred Dreyfus (“The Dreyfus Affair”). French writer Emile Zola’s letter, “J’Accuse”, revealed the antisemitism of 19th century France, leading to the exoneration of Alfred Dreyfus and legal reforms).

We were only able to tour the remains of the prison complex at Île Royale including, the Governor’s House, chapel, children’s cemetery, and hospital since tourists are not allowed to visit Devil’s Island or Île Saint-Joseph.

Devil’s Island lies a little north of Île Royale. It is surrounded by a rocky coastline, strong cross-currents and shark-infested waters. Landing on the island by boat was so treacherous that prison officials constructed a cable car system to connect the island to Île Royale. They used the cable car for years to travel the 600 ft between the two islands. The stone hut on Devil’s Island is reputed to be where Alfred Dreyfus lived while in confinement.

The prison was finally closed in 1953.

Today Île Royale is home to monkeys, agouti (described as guinea pigs on stilts), and tourists. It is also used as an optical and infrared tracking site for rocket launches from the space facility at the mainland city of Kourou.