Devil's Island

Summer 2022
John Andrews
Sun 13 Jan 2013 15:17

If it wasn’t for the desperate history of the Isles du Salut as a penal colony, these islands would be the perfect desert islands, fringed with coconut palms filled with birdsong and washed by trade wind driven waves. Most of the buildings of the penal colony are still there in varying states of decay. The governor’s house has been converted into a hotel where we were able to celebrate New Year, dancing along with the hotel guests and drinking devilish rum punches drawn from a variety of glass demijohns that were ranged along the bar. The next day we were able to wander around the remains of the prison camp. The church is still pretty much intact, but the hospital, a huge brick building has lost all of its floors and most of its ceiling. The prison cells, in particular the condemned prisoners cells are still there and are slowly being preserved, but not actually restored. As it is all still so authentic, you can almost sense the presence of the previous inmates. There is a huge reservoir that had been hewn out of the rocks by the prisoners which was fenced off and had dire warnings about keeping out because of the caymans. There is also a small museum that describes in often chilling detail the history of the prison, the daily lives of the prisoners and of the wardens. The next day we dinghied over to the smaller island, St Joseph, where the real trouble makers were kept. Unfortunately it is not possible to visit the decaying buildings which are being taken over by the jungle. There is a path round the island which we took, stopping at the cemetery where the prison wardens and other prison staff were buried. From there we could look over the water to Devil’s Island itself. Access to this island is ‘absolument interdit’. It is difficult to land there and you can see the remains of a cable car that was used to get supplies and prisoners to and from the island. We could see through the binoculars the remains of the house were Dreyfus was kept in solitary confinement for 5 years.

Back on the boat, it was noticeable that no-one seemed particularly keen to take a dip in the sea. We had all read about the impossibility of escape from the islands due to the treacherous currents and the voracious sharks. We had also seen pictures of the bodies of dead prisoners being deposited in the sea, slid in from a coffin that was used over again, where they were quickly devoured by sharks. The bay looked suspiciously like the bay we were anchored in!

One other yacht came in as we were at anchor, a large Turkish gullet called Albatros, flying a Panamanian flag. As we motored past her that afternoon, on our way overnight to St Laurent du Maroni, we hailed her to ask where she was off to next and discovered that they too were going to St Laurent. We will meet again!