After many visits to Île Royale, we figured it was time to visit Île St. Joseph; the island where inmates would be kept in solitary confinement and total silence for years. We took the dinghy across the small strait where the dead convicts used to be fed to the sharks, and soon realized that the island had no pontoon to land the dinghy, and that we would have to crawl up on the cement dock used by the foreign legion. Everybody got off without getting too wet, and we had a look around. The french foreign legion have a base on the island, and a couple of legioners waved as we passed by their living quarters.
On the museum on Île Royale, I had photographed an old map to help us find our way around the island, and when we saw an old paved road leading upwards, towards the centre of the island, we started the way up. Île St. Joseph has much fewer visitors than Île Royale, and this paved road was the most well preserved we had seen so far. When it became a broad staircase taking us upwards, we had some conversations about the hard work the convicts were forced to carry out – all the structures on the islands have been built by the convicts. And the number of large stones that has been moved around on the islands is not small.
At the top, a large structure appeared. The wide door that led in was titled “Reclusion”. We had arrived by the building of solitary confinement cells. The buildings had been completely taken back by the jungle, and had a sign outside warning us not to enter. But we went in anyways, and judging by the path that led in, we were not the only ones who had decided the visit was worth the risk. Inside, we walked into something that used to be a long corridor, and with intervals, secondary corridors led out to the sides from this main corridor. And along the secondary corridors, we could see cell after cell, meant for solitary confinement of the prisoners.
Once a prisoner was in one of those cells, he was supposed to be in complete silence – the guards even wore slippers to dampen sounds. The convicts were never allowed to leave the cells, they were only occasionally allowed to put his head out through a hole in the door – like when he needed a shave. The shortest time a convict would be in these cells was 2 years. This was the sentence you got if you tried to run away and were caught. The convict who spent the longest in solitary confinement spent 11 years in his cell. And many went crazy.
The cells were open towards the sky, meaning that the prisoners were at the mercy of the sun, the rain and especially the bugs. The prison guards walked on top of the cells and had a good view of the prisoners through the open ceiling. Scary place.
Later, we walked down past the “normal” cells, but here, we decided to not go in, as the walls looked like they could cave in at any given time. When we came to the end of the footpath we had chosen, we realized it was closed off, and we had to climb out over the gate.
We continued on the footpath that leads around the island, and suddenly bumped into a french film crew. They had come the island early in the morning, thinking that they would be alone, and were not too happy to see us. To help them get the shoots of the secluded island they wanted, we stayed with them for a while, watching them fly their drone above us.
When we moved on, we soon reached the cemetery for the officers and their wives. Most of the stones were too worn to read the text, but from the ones we could decipher, child birth was clearly more deadly back then than it is today.
These days, the little beach by the cemetery is the main goal for the few visitors to the island. Here, a “pool” was build by the prisoners, and though it is no longer complete, the big rocks still shelter the beach behind it from the big Atlantic swell, making it a pleasant place to spend the day.
As we got back to the dinghy, we came across a big sign telling us the rules of the island; basically don’t go to the ruins. I guess we took the tour backwards. And I don’t think too many people adhere to these rules anyways…
We only spent that one morning on St. Joseph (as opposed to the many, many trips we made on Royale), but it was a trip that made a lasting memory. We would just wish that the french would provide some more information about the buildings on these islands, google isn’t always your friend after all. Especially not if the little information you can find is in French 😉