The Devil’s Island penal colony

The Salvation Islands were once home to one of the world’s scariest prisons. French convicts were sent to St. Laurent on the French Guiana mainland for a life of hard labor. And the most dangerous of them eventually ended up at the Salvation Islands. The main prison was on the Île de Royale, where we were anchored, so after seeing all the animals on our initial tours of the island, we made our way to the top along the prisoner-build road, where most of the ruins are located.

The place has now been converted to a hotel and a restaurant, and apparently you can even choose to sleep in one of the houses where the convicts used to sleep, right next to the guillotine (which is no longer there).

The guards lived with their families on the island, and apparently female convicts could choose to become a wife of a prison guard as part of their sentence. This wasn’t necessarily a better life than in prison, as the guards were known for their brutality, and the women were frequently rented out as prostitutes. The families lived in pretty little pink houses, which are located right across from the buildings that housed the convicts. This way the guards could always keep an eye on the inmates. These houses are now used as rooms for the hotel. And the area is incredibly lovely and serene these days.


The homes of the officers

The compound used to have a small church, which has been decorated Francis Lagrange,  one of the convicts, who was an artist – and who had been sent to French Guiana because he had used his talents to make false money. Visitors aren’t allowed in the church, for preservation reasons, but we were able to see the art from a distance.

The biggest building in the compound is the former hospital, where a group of nuns took care of the ill (until the state and the church were separated in 1904). When the convicts died, they were dumped in the water, and according to legend eaten by sharks, while the adult non-convicts were buried on Île St. Joseph. But the kids were buried behind the hospital, where the old cemetery can still be visited. The number of kids buried here clearly shows that the place wasn’t exactly healthy – and these islands were even known to be the better place to be because of the few mosquitos, and thus fewer mosquito borne diseases.

But the scariest place was the old prison. The buildings where the convicts were kept when they weren’t working, are located around the big courtyard, where the guillotine used to be located. Just one of the sleeping rooms is left. Here, prisoners slept in hammocks, with shackles around their ankles. And in some ways that was a good thing too, because killings amongst the prisoners was not unheard of at all.


The hammocks hung between the wall and the metal bar

If the officers wished to punish the inmates, one way was to lock them up in solitary confinement, either with a small window – or in complete darkness. Runa had tears in her eyes when we saw the cells. They stand pretty much like they were when the prison was closed almost 70 years ago, and make the stories we have heard about the place very real. Not surprisingly, many of the inmates went insane, and the island even has an asylum for them, located far from everything else on the island. We sneaked up to see it on the way back, but could not get in. It was in danger of caving in, and completely closed off.

The place is somehow incredibly fascinating, perhaps because of the books that tell us about life in the penal colony. In the hotel, we bought an english version of “Papillon”, and even though the story has been proven imagination for the most part, the author was a prisoner in St Laurent, and his description of prison life is accurate, most of the stories are even accurate – he just didn’t experience them himself. But the book did give us a different appreciation of life in the penal colony.


P.S. We later downloaded the new Papillion movie. Don’t do it. If you want to watch a Papillon movie, get the original one. The new one is awful.

2 thoughts on “The Devil’s Island penal colony

  1. We have Chopper Read here in Oz who wrote a lot of fact/fiction true crime books about himself. His movie is well worth watching.
    Do they charge you for visiting the island? I like the idea that you can just wander around and look at everything.


    • If you come with one of the day boats, you have to pay, but in your own sailboat it’s free, which is really nice. We stayed for quite a while, and went in to explore a bit more every day. Really cool, we found 🙂


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