Field of Relegated of Saint-Jean. French Guayana
Entrance to the Field of Transportation in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni. French Guayana
Islands of the Salvation: Real island, San jOse Island and Island of the Devil
Cliff in the Island of the Devil
Images of the Military prison, at the moment in ruins, invaded by the forest
Engraving made by Papillon in its cell of imprisonment
Sketch of Papillon made during its judgment.
If, PAPILLON in the cafeteria of the nightclub the MADRIGAL of Benalmadena Coast.
They are offering, of left to right: MARC MELMOUX, director-manager of MADRIGAL,
HENRY CHARRIERE ' Papillon', singer TONY MOOR and JOSE LUIS RODENAS,
public relations of the room and artistic representative at that time.
The Man behind the Story
Henri Charrière (aka Pappillion) (16 November 1906 Ardéche, France - July 29, 1973 Madrid, Spain) was chiefly known as the author of Papillon, a memoir of his incarceration in a penal colony on French Guiana. The book details his numerous escapes, attempted escapes, adventures and recaptures from his imprisonment in 1932 to his final escape to Venezuela, where he became a resident in 1945, married, and opened a restaurant in Caracas. The book's title is Charrière's nickname, derived from a butterfly tattoo on his chest (papillon being the French word for butterfly). The veracity of his account has been questioned but he always maintained that, excepting minor lapses in memory, it was entirely true. What follows is a summary of Charrière's life as recorded in Papillon.
Charrière was a safe-cracker of the Paris underworld, framed for the murder of a pimp, Roland le Petit. He was convicted and sentenced to hard labour for life on 26 October 1932. After a brief imprisonment in Caen he was sent to the penal colony in French Guiana where his extraordinary story was to truly begin. In 1933 he successfully escaped from a hospital on the mainland with two companions, Clousiot and Maturette, sailing along the coast via Trinidad and Curaçao to Riohacha in Colombia receiving help along the way from a remarkable island of lepers, a compassionate British family and several others. During this time, they would accept two other escapees to join their trio, and they were later let off in Columbia. Poor weather wouldn't allow them to leave the Columbian coast though, and they were all recaptured and imprisoned; Charrière managed to escape with the aid of a fellow prisoner and after several days and nights of putting distance between themselves and the prison, they went their seperate ways; he would soon come upon the country of Guajira. Here he spent several months living in a native village of pearl divers, for a young woman and her sister fell in love with him, and later became his wives and the mothers of his children. It was here that he spent several paradisaic months of the purest form of love and beauty, but driven to set to rights the injustice he was served, he eventually left and headed westward. Fortunes wheel was to turn though, and he was captured and imprisoned at Santa Marta, and later transferred to Barranquilla where he was unexpectantly reunited with Clousiot and Maturette. In spite of numerous astounding escape attempts, (one in which resulted in him breaking the arches of his feet; he was to be flat-footed ever after) he was unable to free himself from these prisons and was eventually extradited back to French Guiana in 1934 along with his two comrades. For the escape he spent two years in solitary confinement, darkly nicknamed the Devourer of Men by the island convicts, on the island of Saint-Joseph (the trio were originally sentenced five, the other three years added on for attempted murder charges because of the guards they knocked out in order to escape the hospital, but he was able to prove that the claims were false, thus resulting in the shorter two year sentence). His friends Clousiot and Maturette received the same fate, which ended with Clousiot's tragic death, mere days afer the trio's sentence had ended. Upon release he was transferred to the island of Royale, where another escape attempt was foiled by an informer. After another nineteen months in solitary for the escape attempt and the murder of the informer (he was at first condemned to spend eight years in solitary confinement, a sentence nearly impossible to survive, but was freed early after selflessly attempting to save a drowning little girl, Lissette, in shark infested waters, but because of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding his release from solitary, it was documented that he was let go for medical reasons.), he feigned madness in an attempt to escape from the island's mental hospital, which wasn't nearly as heavily guarded. Another reason for wanting to try to escape from the mental hospital, an important one, was, because of the start of the second World War, the punishment for attempted escape was now death for treason, reasoning that any man attempting to escape was trying to defect to the enemy. But a person considered mad is viewed upon as someone in no control of their actions, thereby making it impossible to punish them for anything-even escaping. Unfortunately, this escape attempt would prove fruitless, with Charriere being almost dashed to bits against cliff rocks and his companion drowning. After spending some time "regaining his sanity", he requested to be transferred to Devil's Island. Authorities were more than happy to oblige, for it was Devil's Island that was said to be inconceivable to escape from. And it was there that he finally succeeded, after deciding that all his past attempts were too complicated, too elaborate, that flinging himself into the ocean from a cliff with a bag of coconuts as a raft and drifting into the arms of Fate was what it would have to be. Having spent much time studying the ocean, he discovered that the waves rolled in a particular succession and that every seventh wave appeared much larger and more powerful than the others, and that it might be enough to push him into the sea far out enough to not be pulled back in. After several experiments with weighted down sacks of coconuts, he finally decided that this is what it would have to be. He named the seventh wave that would carry him out to freedom Lissette, after the little girl whose life he had tried to save, actions that miraculously resulted in his vicious sentence of eight years in solitary to be cut short after nineteen months, and he convinced a fellow convict, that as terrifying as the idea of what he wanted to do seemed, the plan would work perfectly. And it did. He and his companion, drifting on his own bag of coconuts, spent four days and three nights adrift in the sea, surviving on grated coconut pulp and sheer will. Sadly, his companion didn't survive; a mere three hundred yards from the promised land, he was sucked into the quicksand that surrounded the coast and was gone. Eventually having reached the mainland, Charrière came in contact with an elder Chinese by the name of Cuic Cuic, made known to him before he escaped Devil's Island by Cuic Cuic's brother, and together, (also in the company of a one-armed friend) they escaped by boat to Georgetown. Even though he could have lived there as a free man, he and five others later continued by sea to Venezuela, where they were captured and imprisoned in El Dorado where he was shocked to see the way prisoners were treated, similar to the way the French treated convicts in the galleys of the 18th and 19th century. Charrière was finally freed on 18 October 1945. He chose to live in Venezuela. He remained a fugitive from French justice till his death from throat cancer.
Papillon alive and well in a Paris retirement home
Hugh Schofield | Paris
26 June 2005 11:27
Is Papillon alive and well and living in retirement in the northern Paris suburbs?
The extraordinary claim surfaced after a French newspaper recently reported the 104th birthday of Charles Brunier, a former inmate of the Devil's Island penal colony, said to be seeing out his days at the Val-de-France old people's home in Domont, about 20km outside the French capital.
According to staff, the former convict is as tough as old boots and rarely communicates. But when he does, it is often with the same message: that it was he who inspired Henri Charriere to write his 1969 best-seller.
More intriguingly: that many of the adventures that Charriere claims to have lived through were in fact his.
Charriere's account of his 11 years in the "bagne" -- the French word for penal colony -- has sold millions of copies around the world and was turned into an Oscar-nominated film in 1973 starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffmann.
But from the start there were doubts about how much of the yarn -- the nine escape attempts, the two years in solitary confinement, the adoption by an Indian tribe -- was actually true.
Today there is a consensus that though Charriere did indeed spend time as a convict in French Guyana in the 1930s and '40s, he could not possibly have lived through all that he laid claim to when he wrote it up 25 years later.
Much of it was invented or told to him by fellow inmates.
"From time to time Monsieur Brunier tells us stories from his life. He certainly served in the 'bagne' with Henri Charriere, and knew him quite well. And he is utterly convinced that Charriere stole the idea for Papillon from him," said Isabelle Mesureur-Cadenel, the director of his retirement home, in an interview.
"The remarkable thing is that he himself has a tattoo on his left arm -- and it is a butterfly," she said. In the book Papillon won his nickname from a butterfly on his chest.
Brunier's life up to his deportation already bears similarities with that of Charriere, who was his junior by five years.
Born in 1901 in Paris, he joined the navy at 17 and was given the croix de guerre for gallantry in action in Syria. But back in France he was in trouble with the law. Mystery now surrounds the crime, but in 1923 he was given a life sentence for murder and transported to Guyana.
On Devil's Island he gave himself the name of Johnny King and on three occasions managed to escape. Once he reached Venezuela by boat and spent several months there before being recaptured. On the last occasion -- at the outbreak of World War II -- he reached the coast of Mexico where he enrolled as a fighter pilot.
He fought with the Free French in Africa where he was personally decorated by General de Gaulle, and finished the war with the rank of chief warrant officer. But that did not stop him being sent back to the Guyana penal colony, from where -- in recognition of his military service -- he was finally released in 1948.
"In later years he lived in Domont and all the children knew him because of the stories he used to tell. They all seemed so far-fetched, but they were true," said Mesureur-Cadenel.
Charriere meanwhile had arrived in Guyana in 1933 having been convicted of murdering a Paris pimp. In Papillon he claims he was framed, and the book is written from the viewpoint of a noble criminal struggling against the system.
Little can be established for certain about Charriere's time in Devil's Island, except that in 1944 he finally did escape to Venezuela where he and his wife Rita ran a series of bars and nightclubs.
Fortune came with the publication of Papillon, after which he bankrolled a flop film -- The Queen of Diamonds with Claudia Cardinale -- moved to Spain, wrote the follow-up Banco, and died of throat cancer in 1973.
Months after Papillon went on sale, two books appeared to debunk the legend. One -- based on police leaks -- showed that he was almost certainly guilty of the original murder in Paris. In the second -- A Butterfly Pinned -- Gerard de Villiers travelled to South America and unearthed major contradictions in Charriere's story.
"Far from being one of the outstanding tough guys in the penal colony, he was a comparatively well-behaved convict, who was contentedly employed for a long time on latrine duty. He never escaped from Devil's Island, and the heroic confrontation with the commander of the camp never occurred," according to a 1970 article in the New York Review of Books.
"The majority of the anecdotes he relates did not happen to him at all, but are adaptations of stories he heard about other people."
One of them -- quite plausibly -- a convicted murderer called Charles Brunier. - Sapa-AFP
No escape and no access at Devil's Island
Infamous prison is now closed to public; boat landings are too risky
By Ian James / Associated Press
OFF THE COAST OF DEVIL'S ISLAND, French Guiana -- Once there was no escape from Devil's Island. Now there is no access.
Four concrete blocks that used to support a guillotine remain atop a courtyard of Royale Island, once the administrative center and first stop for convicts. Until 1946, Devils's Island and its two sister islands were the most isolated penitentiary in the French empire.
The irony may be unintended, but visitors to what used to be the world's most infamous prison are now warded off by a sign saying: "Access to Devil's Island is strictly forbidden."
Year after year, from the 19th century and well into the 20th, inmates dreamed in vain of leaving the tiny island of palm trees and jagged volcanic stone and returning home across the Atlantic to France.
Now the ruins of their stone houses lie crumbling, but the island remains a byword for cruelty, immortalized in the memoirs of Henri "Papillon" Charriere and the notorious, anti-Semitism-driven miscarriage of justice against Alfred Dreyfus, a French army captain.
Devil's Island and its two sister islands are each separated by about 250 yards of water and lie eight miles off the South American mainland. Until 1946, they were the most isolated penitentiary in the French empire.
Today the Iles du Salut, or "Islands of Salvation," are the most popular tourist destination in French Guiana. Each year thousands visit Royale, the largest island, once the administrative center and first stop for convicts.
The tourists step off ferry boats within sight of a channel where jailers threw dead prisoners to the sharks, not bothering to give them a proper burial.
Of the three islands that rise from the Atlantic in a snug triangle, only Ile du Diable -- Devil's Island -- is closed to the public. There is no dock on the rugged shore that gave the island its name, and administrators say swift currents make boat landings too hazardous.
"I think it's better nobody goes," tour guide Bernadette Harlepp says as she sails past the island on a catamaran. "It has a very bad history. It's out of respect for the past."
Century of convicts
During nearly a century starting in 1852, some 70,000 convicts were sent to the "bagne," or penal colony, in French Guiana. Diseases such as yellow fever and dysentery killed thousands. Many died without ever seeing France again.
"Devil's Island and the bagnes' will always remain a shameful, indelible stain on France's history," says Denis Seznec, whose grandfather, Guillaume Seznec, was imprisoned on Royale for 14 years. "The cruelest thing about the islands was that they mixed the worst criminals with all the rest. Savage murderers were put together with petty thieves and those arrested for being vagabonds."
His grandfather was convicted of murder but proclaimed his innocence until his death in France in 1954. Seznec, 55, says the history of the islands is "a reminder that the greatest countries -- and the greatest ideas -- can produce horrible monstrosities."
Charriere, or "Papillon" (butterfly) for the tattoo on his chest, recalled the horrors of prison life in his 1969 autobiography, which later became the movie "Papillon" starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
Papillon described sharks answering a ringing chapel bell by rushing to the channel to devour convicts' corpses as they slid off the boat. The few burial plots were reserved for guards and their families.
Nowadays tourists bathe in the waters and sharks are seldom seen. Not long ago, however, one fisherman snared a 16-foot tiger shark, police say.
Space agency owns islands
The French National Space Agency assumed ownership of the islands in 1971 and launches Ariane rockets from the mainland carrying satellites. Infrared telescopes on Royale track the rockets as they arc toward space. As a safety measure, all 15 employees of the inn on Royale are evacuated to the mainland during launches.
There are no such uses for Devil's Island, which lies abandoned, thickly covered with coconut palms. And there are no plans to open it to tourism like that other famous island prison, Alcatraz.
Pierre Moskwa of the Guiana Space Center says Devil's Island should stay off-limits to visitors and serve as a monument to the past. "It's a sanctuary," he says.
Across the water, on Royale, is a sanctuary of a different kind, where tourists sleep comfortably in jailers' homes that have been converted into holiday cottages.
At Royale's prison compound, rust crumbles from cell bars and iron shackle rings. In a courtyard, four concrete blocks that used to support a guillotine lie on earth once stained with blood.
At that time all of French Guiana was a penal colony, and many prisoners never left the South American mainland, but hundreds of serious offenders were sent to the islands.
Devil's Island, the smallest of the three and most exposed to waves and wind, was reserved for political prisoners. Many were free to move about the island, a 15-minute walk from end to end.
Incorrigible convicts were sent to St. Joseph Island for solitary confinement in a compound that prisoners called "mangeuse d'hommes," or devourer of men.
Prisoners weren't allowed to speak a word and could only see guards pacing above them through barred ceilings. Sentences ranged from six months to five years. Some convicts went mad. Others killed themselves.
Papillon described a two-year stint in which he paced in his cell and lay still on his wooden bunk as poisonous centipedes crawled over him.
Prison welcomes tourists
More than half a century later, the roots of ficus trees as thick as thighs stretch through the corridors and down uneven stone steps. The air is eerily still inside high walls that block the breeze.
Madeleine Calcagni, who runs the inn and restaurant on Royale, stays away from St. Joseph. "I couldn't do business over there because people there suffered a lot, and you could feel it," she says.
It's an odd business turning a prison into a tourist attraction. Visitors pose for photos gripping cell bars, close themselves in dark solitary cells and bask in the sun next to a boulder-enclosed pool built with forced labor.
"It's like a paradise, but it's strange to know that before it was a prison." says Audrey Bruyere, 23, a student from Paris.
The islands teem with animals introduced by humans: macaws screech overhead, squirrel monkeys hurtle between branches and large rodents known as agoutis scamper in the underbrush.
Tourists sip wine at the open-air restaurant overlooking Devil's Island, where prisoners spent years receiving their provisions along a cable that stretched across from Royale.
Perhaps the most famous of those held on Devil's Island was Dreyfus, a Jew falsely accused of spying for the Germans and imprisoned alone on the island from 1895 to 1899. The victim of a paroxysm of French Jew-hatred and an army too proud to admit its mistake, he was isolated in a small stone house, tormented by mosquitoes, ravenous ants and loneliness.
"Impossible to sleep," Dreyfus wrote in his diary the night of April 14, 1895. "This cage, in front of which the watchman walks like a phantom that appears in my dreams, the itch of all the beasts that run across my skin, the anger that roars in my heart."
Dreyfus eventually returned to France when evidence pointed to another officer, and he was exonerated. His tiny house of raw stone still stands near the southern tip of Devil's Island.
His case brought infamy to the island, and its name became synonymous with the horrors of the penal colony. But the prison continued to function until public opinion finally forced its closing.
At least five prisoners successfully escaped from the islands, one using a canoe in 1921 and four using a stolen steam ship in 1944, according to historian Eugene Epailly.
Others died or were arrested while trying to escape. Most didn't dare brave the sea, Epailly says. "The sharks were the best guards."
Now the only escapees come in the opposite direction -- visitors like accountant Francis Soudine, who stretches out a hammock between palms on an outing from mainland French Guiana.
"We come here to escape," he says, grilling steaks just across the water from Dreyfus' house.
I didn't get a chance to read it all, but this stuck out.
A Frenchman? That line there proves it's all a lie.
by J. J. Maloney
As American politicians embrace a continually tougher stance on crime -- demanding longer sentences and tougher conditions, in the belief that such measures will cure the problem of crime, we might want to reflect back on the toughest penal colony of all time, Devil's Island.
The average American convict takes a perverse pride in having served time in a maximum-security prison. To many men it is a rite of passage, just as having served in combat is a rite of passage for others. Yet no American prison has ever been as tough as Devil's Island.
The most infamous prison in history, it was a desolate place of exile in French Guiana (Devil's Island was actually a small island off the coast of French Guiana, but the main prisons on the mainland, over time, became known collectively as "Devil's Island". Just as we have school children (and adults) who have never heard of Hiroshima, there are many more who have never heard of this most dreaded of all prisons.
During its existence as a penal colony (1884-1946), more than 56,000 prisoners were transported to French Guiana from France. Of this number, perhaps one-fourth returned to France. Many of those who evaded death in the jungle camps did so by escape—a feat that became increasingly difficult as the years passed.
At first the neighboring government of Dutch Guiana provided sanctuary to those who successfully crossed the piranha-infested Moroni River. Later, as a result of atrocities committed by "bagnards" (the prison was referred to as the "bagne"), the Dutch administration adopted a firm policy of returning all Devil's Islanders except those of German nationality (a policy instituted by Hitler on his accession to power in 1933). Thousands of the less imaginative convicts persisted in crossing to the Dutch side in an attempt to escape down the Moengo Road to Paramaribo, the only passageway through the dense jungle. Catching these convicts proved remarkably simple; Dutch soldiers merely stationed themselves along the road and waited. A Dutch soldier, stationed on the Maroni River, once heard a piteous screaming from the river after dark and went to investigate. About 25 feet from the bank he saw a convict struggling forward, with the water boiling beneath him. Fist-sized chunks of flesh were being torn from his arms, face and chest. The piranhas were skeletonizing the convict before the soldier's eyes; in short order, the convict sank screaming into the dark brown water.
No one knows how many convicts fell victim to the piranhas of the Maroni, but even this horror did not prevent them from trying to swim the river. Others were picked clean by army ants in the jungle; several were cannibalized by fellow escapees.
What a place this must have been to drive men to such desperate feats! Yet Devil's Island, like the French Foreign Legion, iniquitous and dismal in itself, gave rise to some of the great epics of human courage and fortitude.
In 1763, 12,000 Frenchmen were induced to accept offers of free land in the El Dorado of Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America. These 12,000 arrived expecting to scoop sacks of gold and diamonds from the ground. Unprepared for the tropical climate, they proceeded to die by the thousands. Lacking proper dwellings, they were caught in drenching storms. After the rains, they reeled through the steaming jungles, caught in floods, assaulted by clouds of malaria-bearing mosquitoes. Only 2,000 of the original 12,000 survived the first year. These were saved by taking refuge on three islands about 10 miles from the mainland of Guiana. These islands became known as the Islands of Salvation (Isles du Salut): Isle Royale, Isle St. Joseph and Devil's Island (the smallest, and separated from Royale by a vicious tide). It is alleged that Devil's Island derived its name from the clouds of black birds that nested on the island.
By 1775 there were 1,300 whites and 8,000 slaves. All three of the Guianas were dependent on slaves for their existence. This, in turn, resulted in thousands of blacks fleeing into the bush where, for more than a century, they formed renegade bands and made forays against the plantations and white settlements: killing, looting and liberating other slaves. These escaped slaves, and their descendants, constitute the "bush-Negroes" of modern Guiana.
The slaves of French Guiana were emancipated in 1794, only to be reenslaved when the fortunes of the colony dwindled. A second emancipation occurred in 1848. However, by this time the reputation of Guiana was so evil that white colonists could not be persuaded to emigrate.
Napoleon III decided to solve the problem by transporting political prisoners to the colony, which would henceforth be a penal settlement.
So awful were the conditions in the colony, the French government decided that only Africans, Arabs and Annamese would be transported to Guiana. Then, in 1884, after apparently laying its qualms to rest, the government resumed the transportation of white prisoners to Guiana.
The main penitentiary, and headquarters of the Penal Administration, was situated on the outskirts of the capitol of Cayenne. The next largest prison camp was at St. Laurent; those sentenced to a period in the dreaded solitary cells went to Isle St. Joseph. Upon release from solitary confinement, a convict had to spend a minimum of six months in the Crimson Barrack on Isle Royale.
Most of the atrocities of Devil's Island took place in the timber camps on the mainland. The prisoners were forced to work in water up to their waist, assaulted by malarial mosquitoes, baked by the sun. They were underfed and overworked.
Their daily work task was to cut one stire of wood (one cubic meter). Failure to meet the quota resulted in their being fed only dry bread that day. The next day the prisoner was confronted with the same quota he'd been unable to meet the day before.
There is always a certain type of individual who chooses not to die like a lamb. The brutal timber camps were not only scenes of degradation and despair, but also arenas for acts of extraordinary courage. Although the convicts in the punishment camps were made to work naked except for shoes and straw hats (to minimize escapes), there are cases on record of men running into the jungle, unarmed, pursued by Arab trustees. In spite of fantastic odds, such escapes occasionally succeeded.
The penalty for failing to escape was horrific. Three attempts to escape resulted in a classification of "Incorrigible." After completing their formal punishment in solitary, such "incos" were banished to the most dreaded camps where they worked like beasts all day; at night, they were placed in irons until the following morning.
At Kourou, the deadliest camp in the colony, four thousand convicts died in three years. The camp was known as the administration's "regulating camp." Convicts from the camp worked on notorious Route Zero. Kourou was opened every time the number of convicts in the colony passed the normal total that the penal colony was prepared to take care of. The work they were sent to do on the road was a sham; from 1907 until the colony shut down in 1946, the length of the road never passed beyond the 25-kilometer mark.
Kourou, like the rest of the timber camps, was located between the coast and the penitentiary at St. Laurent. There were only three ways to escape: by sea; via Dutch Guiana; or overland to Brazil, and then through hundreds of miles of swamp and jungle to the nearest settlement.To escape by sea required a slender Indian dugout canoe, provisions, a comrade with naval experience and the direct intervention of God.
Hoping to better understand the attempt to escape from Devil's Island by sea, I reread Kon Tiki. My admiration for those plucky convicts rose a thousandfold. The Kon-Tiki raft was fully equipped and staffed with people who knew about navigation. By comparison, the evasion (escape) from Devil's Island was by canoe, always undersupplied, almost always without navigational instruments, or, for that matter, a navigator who could use the instruments should they be available.
In 1969 an ex-Devil's Island convict named Henri Charriere published a bestselling book about his escape, entitled Papillon. His French publisher was Robert Laffont. The next year Rupert Heart-Davis Ltd published it in Great Britain. Some critics chided Charriere, contending he only tried to escape twice and not the nine times he claimed in what they termed his "hyperbolic autobiography." What kind of critic could sneer at a man who has braved the Atlantic even once, let alone in a flimsy raft made of two flour sacks sewn together and filled with coconuts? Charriere braved the unforgiving Atlantic and the blazing sun of the tropics alone for nearly 60 hours before reaching the mainland and later finding freedom. During his nightmarish escape he was at the mercy of the tides and with very little provisions. His determination to escape at all costs illustrates a human spirit that would rather suffer than endure life on the "islands of death," as the prisoners called them.
Had the critics actually paid attention to the book they were reviewing they would have realized that five of the attempts he recounts were from prisons on the mainland and did not involve the sea. In the book Charriere writes of only one escape attempt from Devil’s Island, which is successful. Of the nine total attempts, only the first, the seventh, the eighth, and the ninth are near the sea, or would have involved a raft. His first escape attempt was from the mainland at the prison of Saint Laurent, and involved more than 1,000-mile sea journey, although this journey was broken into stages that included stops on land. Another five attempts to escape occurred at prisons on the mainland, and were so botched that he never made it outside the prisons. Two further attempts were made from the islands of Saint Joseph and Royal but he was caught preparing for one, and abandoned the other when the companion he was making the break with drown while launching the raft.
The Charrière case poses several questions that have nothing to do with Charrière. For example, what is it about Devil's Island that so fascinates people everywhere, irrespective of culture or background? It's more than just the sordid conditions of day-to-day life in the bagne; conditions as bad or worse have existed in other penal colonies, as well as in several southern prisons in the American South (the timber camps of Florida, the chain gangs of Georgia, the infamous Cummins Farm in Arkansas).
The best book about Devil's Island is René Belbenoit's Dry Guillotine. It's not as well-written as Charrière's, but the reception when it was first published in 1938 was overwhelming; the book went through 14 printings in less than two months.
We are mesmerized, I think, by a double paradox: First, the appalling heartlessness of a Devil's Island maintained by the most sophisticated nation on earth (France); and second, the stirring picture of criminals, forsaken men, taking up the challenge and proceeding to "beat the system" against incalculable odds. Escape from Devil's Island seems to appeal to the primordial instincts of people everywhere who, though socialized and communized, inherently regret the loss of individuality that accompanies the socializing process.
The escape from French Guiana resurrects a picture of men battling the elements, men thrown back on their own resources devoid of technological assistance; it is, in short, the stuff of which legends are made. We can, with a straight face, compare such an undertaking to the Kon Tiki voyage, the flight of Lindberg, the battle of Thermopylae, the scaling of Everest. We know that thousands of men perished in the Atlantic trying to escape from Devil's Island in a canoe. They died of thirst, dysentery, hunger; they died in storms that swamped their fragile crafts; they died beneath the knives of sun-maddened comrades. To sail west along the coast past French Guiana and Dutch Guiana required 10 days—-10 days of constant exposure to the elements, tossed by the seas, drenched in storms, boiled by the sun. Upon reaching British Guiana it was safe to land; the authorities would permit you to stay for 10 days before they forced you to put back to sea. But landing on the coast of British Guiana might put you in the stew pot of hostile Indians, or you might land many miles from the nearest settlement and die in the jungle. But if you landed in Georgetown, the capital, in 10 days you were forced to push on, and this time you had to sail past Venezuela, a country that vacillated between granting sanctuary and shooting bagnards on sight. At any point in the voyage you might be sighted by a French ship, or inadvertently land on a French possession, in which case it would all be for nothing.
When I think of escape from Devil's Island, I think of a convict who weighed less than 100 pounds, who spent 15 years in the bagne, who finally escaped by sea, making his way along the entire northern coast of South America, lugging a 20-pound manuscript wrapped in oilskin...his J'Accuse against the horrors of the French penal colony. This diminutive convict made it to Panama where he spent nearly a year living with a friendly tribe of Indians. He then pushed on through the jungles of Honduras and Guatemala, eventually to Mexico. When he crossed the border into the United States he was toothless, emaciated and broken in health.
The 20-pound manuscript made its way to E.P. Dutton & Co., and was published under the title Dry Guillotine. The author was René Belbenoit. The book went through 14 printings in two months. A few years later Devil's Island closed. Whether or not the book hastened the closing of the bagne is conjectural. What is not conjecture is the fact that Dry Guillotine is one of the remarkable books of all time-—a testimony of fortitude, courage, despair, love.
It was only after reading this book that I began to fathom the charisma of the evil penal colony. I realized that it was a savage fantasy land peopled by forts-a-bras, boldly tattooed from head to foot, and guards decked out in colorful kepis and tropical whites. The coastline was a solid wall of green jungle; wide-mouthed rivers poured their debris into the sea, alligators lurked just under the surface, gaudy parrots screamed from the trees.
For years Karl Menninger has published books that describe mankind as a self-immolator, a self-flagellator, a self-many-things who tolerates himself only through the device of projection, by satisfying his internal needs for punishment vicariously. This may or may not be a valid hypothesis, but it offers at least one explanation of how a place called Devil's Island could be maintained by the French for so long. And would it be so terrible of me if, in a moment of romantic self-indulgence, I suggested that there is a place in the world for at least one Devil's Island?
Without Devil's Island, René Belbenoit might have spent his life lock-stepping around the corridors of a pedestrian penitentiary in France--a nonentity, a failure, a cheap footpad. He might have lived his life ignorant of his own capacity to endure, to suffer, to evolve in mind and spirit.
This is the key to Devil's Island--it was a garden of the soul. Only those of noble spirit stood a chance against the bagne. The imponderable element in any man's ability to survive was the quality of character he exhibited in the face of impossible adversity. In war we encounter a similar challenge. We abhor war; we polemicize against it; and yet, undeniably, we are fascinated by it.
Belbenoit alone has captured the essence, the soul, the zeitgeist of Devil's Island, which, however many parallels it might have with prisons anywhere, was unique in the heights and depths of its experience. Because of the inescapable presence of doom, ignominious death and degredation, Devil's Island begged for a noble response, and this more than anything explains the exquisite frustration felt by Jean Genet for never having been honored with deportation to the bagne.
I genuinely mourn the book that could have been written had Genet been transported to French Guiana. Belbenoit had his shortcomings: he splintered his prose with excessive exclamation marks; he tried to shock the reader with what Jean Genet would have rejoiced in, and in his rejoicing would have shocked us more genuinely than any other author ever could.
But, warts and all, Belbenoit provides the most insightful history of Devil’s Island. Consider this description of the Crimson Barrack:
It is here, in this barrack of evil reputation, that the celebrities and heroes of the colony have spent much of their time. Dreyfus was kept there before he was taken to Devil's Island. Dieudonne was imprisoned there for many years, together with his friend Jacob, who was the leader of the Amiens gang which used a Browning gun in France for the first time. The famous Mandat, France's first apache, lived there most of the time he was not in a cell. In recent years, new names have been added to the roll of the case rouge! Baratand, the millionaire murderer against whom the town of Limoges made a mass demonstration because he was not given the death sentence; Peter Klems....
The list goes on. It's a roll call with a special kind of honor. The likes of those who endured the torments of Devil's Island shall never be seen again. Belbenoit is gone. Henri Charrière is gone. The penal colony--the ultimate cauldron of the incarcerated men--is gone. There will be no more desperate evasions across the open seas. Yet, there are those who long to revive the bagne, or at least a version of it...that place of ultimate punishment and humiliation, of ultimate heroism.
Even more strange, there are those among us who long to be in the bagne.
Prison block on Iles du Salut, French Guiana
side view of the prison block
remnants of residence for insane
the smaller Devil's island as seen from prison headquarters
views of the kitchen and cable station serving devil's island
service building near the cable car to devil's island
Devil's Island as seen through the doorway