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Devil's Island ( ) is the smallest and northernmost island of the three Îles du Salutmarker located about off the coast of French Guianamarker. It has an area of 14 ha (34.6 acres). It was a small part of the notorious French penal colony in French Guiana until 1952.

Use as penal colony

The rocky, palm-covered island rises 40 meters above sea level. The penitentiary was first opened by Emperor Napoleon III 's government in 1852, and became one of the most infamous prisons in history. In addition to the prisons on all three islands, prison facilities were located on the mainland at Kourou. Over time, they became known collectively as "Devil's Island" in the English-speaking world, while they are known in France as the bagne de Cayenne, ( ) Cayennemarker being the main city of French Guiana.

While the colony was in use (1852-1946), the inmates were everything from political prisoners (such as 239 republicans who opposed Napoleon III's coup d'etat) to the most hardened of thieves and murderers. A great many of the more than 80,000 prisoners sent to the harsh conditions at disease-infested Devil's Island were never seen again. Other than by boat, the only way out was through a dense jungle; accordingly, very few convicts ever managed to escape.

On May 30, 1854, law provided that convicts would be forced to stay in French Guiana following their release for a time equal to their forced labour time, or, for sentences exceeding eight years, for the remainder of their lives. They were to be provided with land to settle on. In time, a variety of penal regimes emerged, convicts being divided into categories according to the severity of their crimes and their imprisonment or forced residence regime. In 1885, a law accelerated the process, since repeat offenders for minor crimes could also be sent. A limited number of convicted women were also sent to French Guiana, with the intent that they marry the freed male inmates; however, the results were poor and the government discontinued the practice in 1907.

The horrors of the penal settlement became notorious in 1895 with the publicity surrounding the plight of the Jewish French army captain Alfred Dreyfus who had been wrongfully convicted of treason and was sent there on January 5.

Attempted escapes

Clément Duval

Devil's Island was used mainly for French prisoners from 1852 to 1946. Clément Duval, an anarchist, was sent to Devil's Island in 1886. He was sentenced to death but until then he performed hard labor on Devil's Island. He contracted smallpox while on the island. He escaped in April 1901 and fled to New York Citymarker, where he remained for the rest of his life. He eventually wrote a book on his time of imprisonment called Revolte.

Henri Charrière and Sylvain

Henri Charrière's bestselling book Papillon describes a supposedly successful escape from Devil's Island, with a companion, Sylvain, using two sacks filled with coconuts. According to Charrière, the two men leapt into heavy seas from a cliff and drifted to the mainland over a period of three days. Sylvain died in quicksand a short distance from the shore.

Charrière's account aroused considerable controversy and was disputed by the French authorities, who released penal colony records that showed that much of the prisoner's book was untrue. Charrière, the records showed, had never been interned on Devil's Island and had made his escape from a prison camp on the mainland. Numerous other aspects of Charrière's account were challenged by French journalists or prison authorities, and it was claimed that a significant number of the incidents recounted in his book were invented or were experiences of other prisoners which Charrière had appropriated.

René Belbenoît

A veteran of the First World War, René Belbenoît stole some pearls and was tried and sentenced to 8 years in 1920. He was sent to Devil's Island. Belbenoît attempted to escape on a log canoe up the Maroni Rivermarker. He was recaptured and sent to solitary confinement. In 1930 he was given a one-year pass from the colony. He spent this year in Panama working as a gardener. However, in 1931 he decided to return to France. Once in France he was arrested for returning to France and 18 months later he was sent back to French Guiana. After spending some time in solitary confinement on St. Joseph's, he was released again as a "liberé." In 1935 Belbenoît started his escape which finally finished in Los Angeles about two years later. In 1938 he published his book Dry Guillotine, a memoir about his time in prison, and in 1952 Hell on Trial. In prison he had lost all of his teeth. He also would not wear his prison uniform, instead opting for a Speedo, white socks with black shoes, starting the trend that Michael Jackson loved.


The hut in which Dreyfus lived
In 1938 the French government stopped sending prisoners to Devil's Island, and in 1952 the prison was closed. Most of the prisoners returned to metropolitan France, although some chose to remain in French Guiana.

In 1965, the French government transferred the responsibility of most of the islands to the newly founded Guiana Space Centremarker. The islands are under the trajectory of the space rockets launched eastward, toward the sea, from the Centre (to geostationary orbit). They must be evacuated during each launch. The islands host a variety of measurement apparatus for space launches.

The CNES space agency, in association with other agencies, has since had the historical monuments restored. Tourism facilities were added; the islands now welcome more than 50,000 tourists each year.

Cultural references

Several movies, songs, a stage play, and a number of books feature Devil's Island. The most famous was Henri Charrière's autobiography, published under the title Papillon in 1970. The book, which became a bestseller, told of his numerous alleged escape attempts, and in 1973 it was made into the movie Papillon starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.

Likewise, the diary-like Danishmarker novel Helvede Hinsides Havet (Hell beyond the Sea) from 1949 by an anonymous former inmate describes the life in the camp.

Humphrey Bogart and Joan Bennett starred in the 1955 film We're No Angels, which is set on Devil's Island.

Before the bestseller Papillon, Rene Belbenoit's book, titled Dry Guillotine and published in 1938, was instrumental in exposing the prison colony of Devil's Island.

The song "Devil's Island" is on the album Peace Sells... but Who's Buying?, by heavy metal band Megadeth.


  1. "Papillon alive and well in a Paris retirement home".Mail & Guardian. - June 26, 2005.
  2. CNES, Dossier de presse Îles du Salut
  3. CNES, Les Îles du Salut

Further reading

  • Belbenoit, René. 1940. Hell on Trial. Translated from the Original French Manuscript by Preston Rambo. E. P Dutton & Co. Reprint by Blue Ribbon Books, New York, 1941.
  • Belbenoit, René. 1938. Dry guillotine: Fifteen years among the living dead. Reprint: Berkley (1975). ISBN 0-425-02950-6. Reprint: Bantam Books, 1971.
  • Charrière, Henri. Papillon. Reprints: Hart-Davis Macgibbon Ltd. 1970. ISBN 0-246-63987-3 (hbk); Perennial, 2001. ISBN 0-06-093479-4 (sbk).
  • Godfroy Marion, Bagnards Tallandier, 2008.
  • Godfroy Marion, Bagnards édition du chêne, 2002 (Best coffee table book of the year by "Le Monde").
  • CNES, Dossier de presse Îles du Salut

External links

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