Tour Devil's Island in French Guiana

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    Îles du Salut

    Isles de Salut

    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 open to visitors. However, they were once the site of the infamous Devil's Island penal colony called "the Green Hell." 

    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 was called Devil's Island. Access to Île du Diable is strictly forbidden.

    Île Royale is now a resort destination for visitors to French Guiana who may want to see the chapel built by prisoners, the director's house, and the former prison buildings. There is also the option to stay at a guesthouse with a restaurant.

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    Rocky Coast

    Devil's Island Rocky Coast

    The three 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.

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    Devil's Island Convicts

    This undated photo of convicts give us some idea of what the penal colony was like during its operation. 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.

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    Devil's Island Ruins

    Imagine how difficult it must have been to live in a scenic locale with no hope of escape. Over the years, 80,000 men were transported to Devil's Island, coming from all walks of life. One of the most famous was French Army Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was unjustly found guilty of treason, stripped of rank and honor, and sent to prison. The infamous Dreyfus Affair has been retold in literature, film, and on stage.

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    Attempts to Escape

    Devil's Island Building Ruins

    The prisoners lived and worked in abominable conditions. Escapes 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 escape, but there were thousands more who perished in the attempt.


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    Devil's Island Arch

    Depending where they were imprisoned, people worked in the fields or in the forests felling lumber. They also built and maintained their prison site. No mercy was given to those who could not labor in the heat and humidity.

    The three islands were not the only facilities in the prison system. On the mainland, the principal penitentiary and administrative functions were near the capital Cayenne. The largest facility was at St. Laurent, but the one with the worst reputation was in Kourou.

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    Chapel on Île Royale

    Devil's Island Chapel

    The chapel may have provided solace and hope, but the penal colony was hard time for the prisoners.

    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 island. 


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    Devil's Island Foliage

    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.

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    Devil's Island Hospital

    The hospital was a busy place. Numerous prisoners would fall ill with tropical fevers, injuries, exhaustion, and other ailments.

    Thousands died in the penal colony, whether trying to escape, or of natural causes, illnesses, and brutal treatment.

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    Director's House

    Devil's Island Director's House

    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.

    The house is now a museum with documents relating to the penal colony's history.

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    Path and Ruins

    Devil's Island Path and Ruins

    Over the span of the Devil's Island prison system, of the 80,000 men sent there, only 30,000 survived. Those prisoners who made it through their term were still condemned to spend the rest of their lives in French Guiana.

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    Devil's Island Jetty

    The only way to and from the islands was by boat.

    Today, people swim in the protected water by this jetty. Visitors cross easily from Cayenne by motor launch or catamaran, enjoy lunch, and tour the ruins easily in a half-day or day trip. Sailing boats are available for charter, but access to Devil's Island where the political convicts were held is strictly forbidden.

    Cayenne, on the mainland, lacks a deep water port, so the islands, with the exception of Devil's Island itself, serve the purpose.

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    Devil's Island Shoreline

    Devil's Island is now a resort on Île Royale, not Devil's Island itself. It is possible to stay overnight in the former guard's mess.

    Fishing is good in these waters. Deep sea fishing off the islands is for tarpoon, mackerel, tuna, swordfish, marlin, and others, including sharks.