An essay on the history of the most famous and dreaded prison of all time. Recommended reading for those who think a "get tough" policy on crime is a new idea, or that it works.
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.
Updated February 7, 2005