Devil's Island was an exotic hell hole

Of Cabbages and Kings

Even more than Alcatraz, the name of Devil's Island conjures a hell hole.

Established as a penal colony by France in the 19th century, this collection of three islands (Devil's Island, Isle de Royale and Isle St.-Joseph) lies off French Guiana in the Atlantic Ocean. If Americans know of the place, it is because of Papillon, the 1973 movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen, based on the book by Henri Charriere, an escaped prisoner.

My wife and I visited this lush, God-forsaken spot Feb. 7 as part of a cruise that eventually took us up the Amazon River.

We made our first commitment to this cruise in late 2007. The world and our world turned upside down in the meantime. At 7 degrees north latitude, the atmosphere is akin to a steam bath.After vacillating more than once, we kept the date for this journey that took us 1,000 miles up the Amazon.

At about 7 degrees north latitude, the atmosphere of these islands is akin to a steam bath. As we walked from the small dock on Isle Royale, we heard a loud, intense noise of insects and other animals in the island's dense jungle foliage. During our walk, we saw a small monkey and some colorful macaws as well as a large rodent called an agouti that is a frequent presence.

Visitors are not allowed on Devil's Island itself, which housed the most celebrated prisoner, Capt. Alfred Dreyfus. We visited Isle Royale, where the infrastructure of prisoners' cells, solitary confinement, insane asylum, a children's cemetery, church and nuns' quarters are quite apparent. Like a battlefield, the dominant emotion of a place like this is sorrow.

One senses its despair by standing inside a cell and seeing the single narrow plank (about 10 inches wide) that was the prisoner's bed. Or by seeing the prisoners' shackles for hands and feet that each must have weighed 20 pounds. Or seeing the room in which prisoners' hands were shackled to a wall while their feet were shackled to a rack in the middle. Or by entering the solitary confinement space and feeling its heat, humidity and darkness.

On one wall of the island's church is a cage from which a few prisoners were allowed to experience Mass. Imagine that brief moment in which you would be removed from a room in which you were defined as subhuman and moved into a cage from which you could watch the people whose job it was to torment you, families, a priest and nuns, as they indulged in a ceremony about eternity and immortality.

Who came here? The most celebrated prisoner was Dreyfus, the Jewish officer who was wrongly convicted of treason. He spent four years as Devil's Island's only prisoner. French President Jacques Chirac apologized to Dreyfus' descendants in the 1990s.

The island's prisoners ranged from those guilty of political crimes, capital offenses to even some infractions that appeared to be relatively minor.

The horrors of the French penal system off Guiana were revealed to the world in a remarkable 1938 work, The Dry Guillotine. That book and the Salvation Army's direct plea to the French president led to the penal colony's closure. France quit sending prisoners to the islands in 1938, but the last prisoner departed in 1952. More than 80,000 prisoners had lived there from 1852 onward.

As we motored back to our ship in a tender, I raised this question to my wife: If a medium were brought to this island, I wonder how many spirits she would raise and what they would have to say?

- S.A.F.

NEXT WEEK: On the world's most gargantuan river.

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