In French Guiana, South America, you'll find the three Îles du Salut, or the Salvation Islands—so named because they provided a healthier environment than the mainland for the French gold seekers of the 1760s. About 8 miles off the coast from Kourou, the tropical islands known as Île du Diable (Devil's Island), Île St. Joseph, and Île Royale have abundant foliage and great views, and are home to a destination resort, but they haven't always had a luxurious reputation.
History of the Îles du Salut
From 1852 to 1953, the islands were the site of the notorious penal colony called "the Green Hell." Over the years, more than 80,000 men were transported to Devil's Island penal colony, coming from all walks of life. One of the most famous was French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was found guilty of treason, stripped of rank and honor, and sent to prison.
The prisoners were located according to status. The least threatening criminals were on Île Royale, the site of the administrative activities, along with the guard's barracks, chapel, lighthouse, and prison hospital. Dangerous prisoners were kept on Île St. Joseph, while those labeled the most hazardous and political prisoners like Dreyfus were on Devil's Island, the least hospitable area.
In later years, Île du Diable became part of the prison system developed in French Guiana. Other locations were on the mainland, and the other two islands, but over time, the entire penal colony came to be called Devil's Island.
Thousands died in the penal colony, whether trying to escape, or of natural causes, illnesses, and brutal treatment. Over the span of the Devil's Island prison system, only 30,000 prisoners survived. Those prisoners who made it through their term were still condemned to spend the rest of their lives in French Guiana.
Devil's Island in Popular Culture
Devil's Island has become a popular prison icon in film and literature. The infamous Dreyfus Affair detailing the French captain's unjust conviction has been retold in literature, film, and on stage.
Escape attempts from the "Green Hell" were common and mostly unsuccessful. Henri Charrière, the author of Papillon, later made into a famous movie, tells the story of one man's efforts to get away.
The prison was closed in the early 1950s, possibly as a result of the adverse publicity engendered worldwide by former prisoner René Belbenoît, who escaped to the United States and first published his book Dry Guillotine in 1938.
The Island Landscape
The Îles du Salut are separated by vicious tides and dangerous currents. The natural environment made the islands an ideal prison site.
Since rocky shores and rough seas made Devil's Island inaccessible, there was once a cable system from St. Joseph, which was 200 meters away, for goods and people.
Lush growth, palm trees, and forests covered the islands, obscuring the water beyond. Left to nature, the tropical growth covered most of the ruins of the infamous penal colony.
Reaching the Salvation Islands
The only way to and from the islands was by boat, and that hasn't changed. In Kourou, about an hour drive from Cayenne on highway N1, you can catch one of the many boat companies to Île St. Joseph and Île Royale. Access to Devil's Island, where the political convicts were held, is strictly forbidden. It is recommended to take a tour—with information usually available in both French and English—to see the ruins of the other islands in a half-day or day trip. Given the hot and humid climate, it is advised to bring water, sunscreen, hats, and appropriate clothing.
Deep sea fishing off the islands is good for mackerel, tuna, swordfish, marlin, and others, including sharks, though visitors have been known to swim in the protected water by one of the island's jetties.
Some well-rated hotels can be found in Kourou, where you can also tour the Guiana Space Centre, known as The Spaceport.
Île du Diable (Devil's Island)
Devil's Island, the smallest of the three islands, is where the most dangerous prisoners lived. Access to visitors is strictly forbidden on the now uninhabited territory. The currents are so strong that no ships are allowed to dock here; it is unsafe for visitors.
Île St. Joseph
Of the three islands, this medium-sized landform has the lowest elevation. Île St. Joseph is open for visitors wanting to see the historic prison building and an abundance of coconut palm trees. However, it is not possible to visit here nor Île Royale on days when the nearby space center has a rocket launch.
Île Royale is the largest of the three islands, and visitors to French Guiana may want to see the restored buildings like the chapel built by prisoners, the director's house, and former prison buildings. Tourists may stay overnight in the renovated director's house, which was converted into a hotel with a restaurant.
In contrast to the prisoners, the director lived in some comfort high on the hill, with scenic views over the water and pleasant breezes tempering the heat and humidity.