The year is 1852. In France, Emperor Napoleon III, increasingly worried by rising crime and insufficient colonists to consolidate France’s empire, has a new and dreadful brainwave. Napoleon is uninterested in social reform or rehabilitation. He’s interested in social cleansing where criminals can simply be exported elsewhere and used as slave labour, preferably never to return to France. His brainchild will become the most infamous penal system in history. Even today it’s a taboo subject for many French people. His plan is for a system of penal colonies in French Guiana. Inmates call it ‘Le Bagne’ and are known as ‘Bagnards.’ Former inmate and escaper Rene Belbenoit called it the ‘Dry Guillotine’ and his 1938 book damned both the colony and the ideas behind it. The wider world still calls it ‘Devil’s Island.’
‘The policy of the Administration is to kill, not to better or reclaim.’ – Rene Belbenoit.
Many people today think of the Guiana Penal Administration in that way, three small islands off the Guiana coastline (Royale, St. Joseph and Devil’s) known collectively as the ‘Iles du Salut’ (‘Islands of Salvation’). They weren’t. Out of approximately 70,000 inmates sent there, approximately 50 were incarcerated on Devil’s Island itself. It was reserved for French political prisoners, not ordinary criminals. 70,000 inmates went out to Guiana, only 2,000 or so returned. Only around 5,000 survived to finish their sentences. The rest succumbed to disease, murder, execution, failed escape attempts and deadly animals populating the Guiana jungle. Conditions were so bad that between 40 percent and 80 percent of one intake would be dead before the next intake arrived.
Bagnards came from all over France, confined pending transportation at St-Martin de Re near the West coast port of La Rochelle. Twice a year an old steamer named ‘Martiniere’ left for Guiana. The inmates were escorted from the prison to the dock under military guard. Specially-trained Senegalese colonial troops with fixed bayonets marched them through the town where their friends and families would have their last sight of ‘Les Bagnards’ as they left, mostly never to return. To quote its most famous inmate Henri ‘Papillon’ Charriere:
“No prisoner, no warder, no gendarme, no person in the crowd disturbed that truly heart-rending moment when everyone knew that one thousand, eight hundred men were about to vanish from ordinary life forever.”
Their suffering began aboard ship, crammed below decks like sardines with only a half-hour a day on deck for fresh air and sunlight. The lack of hammocks forced many inmates to sleep directly on the steel of the ship. Any trouble below decks was met by punishment from the guards, turning hot steam hoses on the inmates. Guards could also flog inmates who disobeyed even insignificant orders. Inmates often murdered each other to settle grudges or robbed each other of whatever small possessions they had.
Life in Guiana, for those who made it that far, was immeasurably worse. All an inmate had to endure the voyage was issued prior to embarkation; a convict uniform, wooden clogs, a sunhat and a small secret device known to convicts as a ‘plan’ or ‘charger.’ A ‘charger’ was a small metal tube carried internally, perhaps containing money, gems, small escape tools, a map and maybe a small knife for self-protection. If an inmate was discovered carrying one, or indeed broke any other rule aboard ship deemed too serious for a mere flogging, they spent the rest of the voyage shackled in the bilges in searing heat and deafening noise, directly over the engine room and boilers.
New arrivals landed at St. Laurent, capital of the Penal Administration. At St. Laurent most inmates would serve their sentences unless they were interned on the islands or sent straight to jungle work camps. At St.Laurent they were classified according to security risk and criminal record. Standard inmates were ‘Transportes;’ transportees were inmates who had committed more serious crimes. Lower down were ‘Relegues;’ serial petty offenders with records for crimes like shoplifting or burglary. The few surviving their sentences were listed as ‘Liberes;’ in theory, freed inmates.
The worst of the worst were ‘Incorrigibles’ or ‘Incos.’ ‘Incos’ went straight to the feared jungle camps where food was short, work hard, danger significant, and life expectancy seldom more than a few months. If not the jungle camps, then a permanent posting to Royale was their most likely destination.
Inmates especially hated the system ‘Doublage.’ Any prisoner serving less than eight years had to spend the same amount of time in Guiana as a colonist. Anyone with more than eight years was barred from ever returning to France or leaving Guiana. A two-year sentence effectively became four, assuming the inmate survived.
Conditions were appalling. Food was barely edible and never enough for anybody performing forced labour. Medical care existed, but the prison hospital was poorly equipped and chronically under-staffed. Discipline was brutal, floggings, extended solitary confinement and the guillotine being the order of the day. In the jungle camps inmates worked to stiff daily quotas while underfed, malnourished, and brutally disciplined at the slightest infraction. The camps were also breeding grounds for disease. Yellow fever, dysentery, malaria, typhus, cholera, and leprosy were commonplace. The jungle was rife with jaguars, snakes, venomous centipedes, and carnivorous ants. The Maroni River was home to piranha and caymans. If these weren’t enough, mosquitoes, leeches, and vampire bats were capable of infecting their human hosts with rabies, malaria, and other deadly diseases.
Perhaps the worst aspect was the human factor. The Penal Administration wasn’t concerned about how staff treated inmates provided work quotas were met and the inmates kept in line. Inmates not meeting their daily quota one day would be fed a small amount of bread and water the day after. They also had to finish the previous day’s quota as well as meeting their current day’s quota. Every failed day after that meant no food at all until the inmate met a day’s quota and also cleared their backlog. Otherwise, they’d starve, weaken, and probably die.
Discipline was harsh, usually brutal. All guards carried pistols, many also carried rifles with orders to kill any inmate attempting escape. They also carried clubs and whips. Inmates could be publicly flogged even for minor infractions. Solitary confinement was a common punishment. Sentences lasting from six months to five years with multiple sentences served consecutively were standard. First escape attempts added two years in solitary to existing sentences. Second attempts added five.
For more serious offences, especially attacking or murdering a guard or colonist, the guillotine was freely used. It was operated by convict executioners who were the most hated inmates in the penal system. One executioner, Henri Clasiot, was so hated that other inmates tied him to a tree filled with flesh-eating ants, smeared him with honey, and left him to a slow death. At St. Laurent, inmates were paraded before the ‘Merry Widow,’ as the guillotine was known, and forced to kneel. The execution would take place and the executioner would hold up the severed head while proclaiming, ‘Justice has been done in the name of the people of France.’ It was a nauseatingly brutal spectacle designed to intimidate convicts as much as possible.
The first thought occupying many inmates at Guiana was the same as for inmates everywhere; escape. Naturally, Guiana was chosen to make escape as hard as possible. There were only two realistic ways to escape: through the jungle or across the sea.
The jungle was swarming with hazards; deadly animals, flooded rivers, unfriendly natives, diseases, search parties and, most hated of all, the ‘Man-hunters.’ Man-hunters were liberes-turned-bounty hunters, tracking escapers through the jungle for a flat fee per recaptured inmate, dead or alive. Being paid regardless of their prisoner’s condition, many of them killed recaptured inmates, delivering corpses was easier than guarding live convicts. Other liberes made a lucrative (if loathsome) living by offering to help escapers through the jungle before robbing and killing them. Very few escapers were heard from again once they entered the jungle, and those who were had either turned themselves in or had been recaptured.
The sea was as equally deadly, but the hazards were different. The border between French Guiana, Dutch Guiana and British Guiana was the Maroni River, itself infested with piranha and caymans, small crocodiles who took swimmers like any other prey. A boat was the only option. Dutch Guiana also handed back escapers found within its borders, while British Guiana only gave them two weeks to move on or be handed back. Boats could be stolen, but inmates with money could smuggle a bribe to liberes for a boat, compass, and provisions to last a few days. Assuming, of course, that the boat wasn’t wrecked in a storm, neighbouring countries like Venezuela and Colombia didn’t hand escapers back at their own discretion and the liberes didn’t take the bribe and still provide nothing useful. The sea wasn’t the best option for an escaper; it was simply the least lethal. As a former Warden once put it:
“There are two eternal guardians here; the jungle and the sea.”
Recaptured escapers faced harsh punishments. If a guard or civilian died during an escape, the guillotine was certain. A first failed escape added two years in the dreaded solitary confinement cells, known as the ‘Man-eater’, the ‘Devourer of men.’ on St. Joseph Island. Second failed attempts added five more years. The solitary block became known for its rule of silence, prisoners being forbidden to speak a single word unless spoken to by a guard or other official. The cells were cramped, hot, damp, mouldy, and disease-ridden. They were riddled with cockroaches, venomous centipedes, vampire bats, venomous spiders, and deadly snakes. Solitary prisoners were deliberately fed poor food, only sufficient to keep them alive without keeping them healthy. As a former Warden at St. Joseph described it when Henri Charriere entered for his first two-year sentence:
“Here we don’t try to make you mend your ways. We know it’s useless. But we do try to bring you to heel.”
A small infraction meant an extra 30 days with longer additions for each additional infraction. Other punishments included screening a prisoner’s cell, leaving them for months in total darkness, and perhaps cutting their starvation rations by half. Some inmates committed suicide and went unnoticed for weeks due to the rank conditions in the gloomy, disease-ridden cellblock. In short, an inmate didn’t so much live in the ‘Man-eater’ as exist until they died, took their own lives, or went insane — which, given the conditions, was highly likely.
Royale Island was the home of the ‘Incos.’ ‘Incorrgibles.’ If not worked to death in jungle camps like Cascade, Charvein and Godebert or along the unfinished roads ‘Route Zero’ and ‘Kilometre 42’ (which were never intended to be finished, existing solely as make-work for slave labourers) would be permanently interned on Royale. Some inmates and officials made a living taking bribes to have a prisoner’s status changed, making them a regular ‘transporte’ instead of an ‘Inco,’ allowing them stay on the mainland where escape was more likely. This was a confidence trick. ‘Incos’ had their status decided in France, not Guiana. Even the Guiana Penal Administration couldn’t have it altered. The most notorious inmates lived in the ‘Crimson Barrack’ where card games ran night and day, guards wouldn’t enter unarmed and unescorted, and blatant murders were regularly committed. The threat of violent death firmly discouraged informers.
Royale had its own hospital, albeit understaffed and under-resourced. It had a chapel, several workshops, was disease-free for most of its existence, and was generally the least awful part of the colony except for would-be escapers. The jungle didn’t guard the island’s perimeter and the staff didn’t have to do too much, either. Instead, guard duties were left to the nine miles of open water between Royale and the mainland, the rip tides that could force swimmers and makeshift rafts out past the islands to be lost in the Atlantic, and to the man-eating sharks infesting local waters.
Even the sharks served the penal system, both as guards and as a deeply macabre form of waste disposal. Convicts on Royale didn’t have their own cemeteries. Deceased inmates were taken out in boats and tipped overboard at dusk while a bell tolled. The sharks learned to appear at the sound of the bell, knowing a free meal was guaranteed. To make things even more macabre, the sharks themselves were hunted by local fishermen, sold to the island authorities and fed to the convicts, completing a rather revolting circular food chain. Inmates weren’t deemed worthy of a decent burial, nor did the island have the space to cope with their frequency. Burials at sea became the practical, if rather gruesome, solution.
The last of the three island prisons was Devil’s Island, also guarded by fierce rip tides and sharks with a few staff on hand. It’s odd that the smallest and least-used part of the Penal Administration became the totem for the entire network. During the 99 years of the penal colonies, only around 50 prisoners lived on Devil’s Island itself. They were all political prisoners, not felons. Devil’s Island owes its fame and symbolic status to having been the unwanted abode of Captain Dreyfus. Falsely accused of espionage, stripped of his rank and sent to Devils Island forever, Dreyfus was eventually pardoned and reinstated after a global campaign to prove his innocence and the rampant anti-Semitism of his accusers.
After over five years on the island, Dreyfus returned to France for a rehearing, pardon, and reinstatement in the French Army, but only after being framed and scapegoated by the country he loved and had served honourably.
Central to the campaign was famed French writer Emile Zola, whose famous essay ‘J’Accuse’ condemned the anti-Semitism in France and the French state’s treatment of Dreyfus while firmly supporting his claims of innocence. As a result of the Dreyfus case at the start of the 20th century, the world finally began to pay attention to Emperor Napoleon’s disastrously sadistic pet project.
Further unwelcome attention came from Rene Belbenoit and Francis LaGrange, both former inmates of the colonies. Belbenoit, a petty thief given eight years for a small-time burglary, escaped successfully at his fourth attempt and made his way to the United States. His 1938 book ‘Dry Guillotine,’ so named because the penal colonies killed as well as a guillotine only more slowly, was reprinted eight times in the first two months since its release and is a collectible to crime buffs and penal historians. LaGrange, a former art forger, also provided unwelcome publicity through sketches and drawings depicting life in the colonies and used in Belbenoit’s book. Increasing international scrutiny forced the French Government to stop sending inmates to the colonies in 1938 and their closure was scheduled until the Second World War intervened.
During the war the islands were taken over by the Americans, who feared the Vichy government might try and make them an Axis base of operations. In 1946 the camps and islands began to be gradually phased out. Between 1946 and 1953, when Devil’s Island itself finally closed forever, the camps were shut one after another and the inmates repatriated. Over 300 inmates refused to leave, many staying on in St. Laurent as French Guiana remained a colonial possession.They decided that they had been too changed by their experience to fit back into French society. Guiana was the only life they could remember.
They were probably right. Of those who were repatriated, many either returned to prison or were declared insane, unable to re-integrate into French society. Some even took their own lives. It was bitterly ironic that many of these men, men who had previously been cast out of French society, found it taking care of them in their last years.
It wouldn’t be right not to give a greater mention to Henri ‘Papillon’ Charriere. Papillon’s eponymous book, first published in the 1960’s after the colonies had closed, revived unpleasant memories for the French of an episode many would rather forget. Even today, the Guiana penal colonies are a taboo subject for many French people. Papillon’s honesty and whether or not he appropriated large parts of his book from other inmates’ experiences has been hotly debated, but his storytelling skills are beyond doubt. Although French authorities claim that only around 10% of his claims are true and it’s certainly true that he never served time on Devil’s Island (he was a safecracker convicted of the manslaughter of a pimp, a charge he always denied), the 10 percent would still be a damning indictment of the Guiana penal system and its purpose of socially cleansing France of its underworld. It even failed to do that, eventually.
There’s another irony in the penal colony story even today, one not recognised by many people. French Guiana is the site of France’s Ariane rocket space program. The rockets are launched from near Kourou, formerly one of the dreaded jungle camps, with control equipment being sited on Devil’s Island. The space project site is constantly under the guard of the French Foreign Legion who also use Guiana for jungle warfare training. Odd really, when you consider that many who joined the Legion at some point might very well have once found themselves in Guiana unwillingly, wearing a different type of uniform altogether.
Modern-day France is ashamed of the penal colonies. In the words of writer, ex-convict and former Foreign Legionnaire Erwin James:
“France is right to be embarrassed.”