Forgotten and Decaying: Îles du Salut Penal Colony (French Guiana Part 1)

When in 2006 I was informed I would be one of the crew members for an archaeology project in French Guiana, I thought “This is so exciting!…wait, where is French Guiana? Africa?” This coming from a perfectly intelligent person (in my humble opinion) with good knowledge of geography, but in my defense French Guiana is somewhat of a forgotten country. Situated above the northernmost tip of Brazil, along the Atlantic coast, French Guiana is technically not even a country, it is an overseas department and region of France. But between you and me, it is the closest thing to a real life colony I have ever seen. It is also a place with strong and complex local identities, and in that it is a true nation. Nonetheless, the colonial past is within easy reach; it is etched in the landscape, in the people, and in everyday life.

French Guiana is not tourist friendly and very limited government spending is allocated to highlighting local culture and history. If you love travelling off the beaten track, then you are in for a treat, because that’s all there is. There are not even that many roads to explore; look it up on Google maps. With a population of roughly 250 000, road expansions are not a priority. Speaking of population, some of the earliest European “settlers” in French Guiana were prisoners from France sentenced to work and die in horrifying conditions. Many were sent to the penal colony of the Îles du Salut archipelago, the most infamous of those islands being l’Île du Diable (Devil’s Island, if you hadn’t figured that out yet). From its inception as a penal colony in 1852 until its closure in 1953(!), the islands received over 80,000 inmates, only 10% of which survived their sentence.

Prison structures, Îles du Salut, French Guiana, 2006

Prison structures, Îles du Salut, French Guiana, 2006

These islands of death are now open to tourists, but they are not your traditional attractions. Facilities are basic, and there are little efforts to preserve buildings or provide an educational experience. Simply put, this is still a prison, but an empty one filled presumably with 80,000 harried souls.

Prison cells in decay, Îles du Salut, French Guiana, 2006

Prison cells in decay, Îles du Salut, French Guiana, 2006

You can stroll through the overgrown island jungle and step across the decaying remnants of cell walls, doors, and chains. This is ruin porn at its best, if you are into that kind of thing. From behind barred windows you can gaze out on the beautiful ocean famed for being so filled with flesh hungry creatures that escape was impossible. And yet, visitors consisting mainly of locals swim in these waters, jumping off old docks and other unidentifiable structures. I myself ventured out and retained all my limbs.

But for those visitors who have an ounce of empathy, the lush foliage and exotic monkeys cannot hide the pain and sorrow that resonate from within the broken walls, hinted at in remnant scribblings. In the book Papillon (1970), published as a memoir by former prisoner Henri Charrière, the penal colony and its harsh realities are prominently featured. Violence, unsanitary conditions, and tropical diseases made these beautiful islands a living hell. And while many of these convicts were depraved murderers, thousands were merely political prisoners shipped off due to their inconvenience. That is something to keep in mind when wandering guideless along the dirt pathways. When contemplating the beauty do not forget the seeds of ugliness it grew from, and your experience will be that much more meaningful.

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Beauty beyond the ugliness


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