Last weekend a friend and I traveled to les Îles du Salut (Salvation Islands) off the coast of Kourou, French Guiana. (Kourou is where the Centre Spatial Guyanais—space center—is located, about an hour outside of Cayenne). Les Îles du Salut are known for their dark, mysterious history as the site of France’s old penal colonies. If you have read the book Papillon or seen the film, you know the basics.
We left early on Saturday morning, toting our hamacs, bottled water, bread, salami, fruits, and granola (there is only one place to buy food and water on the islands, the Auberge des Îles, and it is horrendously expensive). After getting dropped off at the dock by a taxi collectif, we waited for a couple of hours for the catamaran to take us to the islands, about a 45-minute ride on the open water of the Atlantic.
The catamaran was huge—it had a maximum capacity of 80 people. Luckily the morning’s rain showers ceased by the time we boarded the boat, so we were treated to blue sky, sun, and stunning (though a bit cloudy) turquoise water (quite different from the sediment-filled waters of the coastline). Despite the beautiful weather, the water was rough. For such a huge boat, the destabilizing effect of the current was incredible. The craft was tossed violently by waves coming in the opposite direction. I love boats, and I normally do not suffer from motion sickness, but this was the most nauseous I have ever felt due to movement. My friend and I were laying on the nets at the front of the boat, so we probably felt the most swaying, but it was impossible to avoid the fresh air and the stunning view. I could have kissed the ground when we arrived.
The islands that make up les Îles du Salut (Salvation Islands) are Île Royale, Île Saint Joseph, and Île du Diable (the infamous Devil’s Island). Île Royale serves as the main island, as it is the largest and the only one to have guest lodgings (a hotel, old guards’ barracks, and hammock rooms). Île Saint Joseph is still occupied by military personnel, and it is open to the public (accessible from Île Royale by catamaran and a small shuttle), but it is uninhabited. Île du Diable is no longer maintained and is therefore off limits to the public, except for a few private boat owners who brave the vicious currents between the islands to explore the notorious prison site. Each of the islands is quite small, and can be circumvented in under two hours. For this reason, when people stay overnight on the Île Royale, they travel in large groups and bring coolers filled with food and wine to enjoy the ambience of the islands en famille.
Once we hung up our hammocks in the carbet, we set out to explore Île Royale. After descending a steep stone staircase from the Auberge to the rocks and sea below, we were greeted by an imposing view of Île du Diable across the thick slabs of black volcanic rock and milky turquoise waters. There were signs warning visitors of the dangerous current (which I did not question given our experience on the boat crossing). We relaxed on the rocks and ate a papaya, watched a rainbow form over a thundercloud in the distance, and laid in the sun. We returned to our hammocks after about two hours, just in time to escape a sudden rainstorm that lasted until dark. Feeling hungry and bored, we trekked acrosos the old guards’ barracks with headlamps and flashlights to the Auberge, where we ate ham sandwiches and waited out another downpour. Newspaper clippings on the wall recounted tales of monster fish being caught around the islands, including sharks. Eventually we meandered back to the carbet and tucked in for a long night of pouring rain, ceaseless snoring, and the haunting feeling of being watched from long ago.
The next morning, I awoke suddenly at 6:30 am to bright sun streaming in through the bars on the window and the sound of something clambering across the rooftop. Monkeys! We quickly dressed and went to the trail with bananas and granola bars. One monkey greeted us amicably from his branch, and when we offered a piece of banana, he shook the branch and cried out. Within minutes, we were surrounding by twenty of them, cautiously wandering over to us and holding out their tiny hands (like a child’s) for pieces of food. We tried to build a rapport with them, distributing the food equally and not teasing. Shortly after, I placed a piece of banana on my shoulder and had a monkey jump down from his branch onto my arm, as if he were my pet. It was an incredible experience that verified how much monkeys are like humans. They took the food with their hands, rather than with their mouths, and made little noises in acknowledgement of our gift. When they looked at us, which they did—making full eye contact—their eyes were full of wonder and emotion, just like a child. When they finished our last bit of granola, they ran back into the trees, disappearing high into the branches to avoid the daily incoming tourists.
Later that day, we boarded a small shuttle to Île St. Joseph, the only other island open to the public. That was where we saw the cells. In the center of the island, atop a large hill, thick concrete walls now permeated by winding tendrils of jungle plants marked where men had slept, waited for eternity, to be freed from that inferno. They represented that despite the beauty of the islands, they had a haunting past that could not be erased in any amount of time, even as those walls decayed into the surrounding environment. The rest of the island was bordered by huge black rocks, made smooth by the pounding waves of the Atlantic. There was a little beach of crushed shells next to an old cemetery overlooking Île du Diable, where we stopped to sit and watch children playing in the knee-deep water. After a little while, we meandered back to the dock, where we boarded the shuttle back to Île Royale, to wait for the catamaran to take us back to the mainland. That crossing, too, was nervewracking. The little boat, at its maximum capacity of twelve people, was tossed by the waves, declaring just how impossible escape was for those imprisoned on those islands nearly a hundred years before.
What we discovered that weekend was a seemingly untouched tropical paradise, juxtaposed with the ruins of the penal colonies that used to inhabit the “salvation” islands. I am currently reading a book called Au Bagne by Albert Londres, a journalistic inquiry into the prisons that was published in 1923, one year before they were shut down (largely because he had exposed their horror). As my proprietor Maryse said, “Il décrit la folie des hommes.” (“He describes the insanity of mankind”). What she was talking about was not the crimes of the men who were imprisoned there, but rather the incomprehensible, inhuman torture that was inflicted upon them by those who claimed to be agents of justice. Prisoners, once they survived the long trans-Atlantic voyage by boat, had to face malnutrition, disease, an inhospitable climate, and unspeakable punishments: torturous inquisitions, heavy manual labor, animal treatment. In cells that were open to the sky with merely a metal grate to prevent escape, they endured the impossible heat of direct sun, as well as the pounding rainstorms that plague the region from December to April. And during that time, the mosquito-borne illnesses that are not as prevalent in Guyane today were rampant: malaria, yellow fever, dengue.
Albert Londres shares some of the words he observed carved into the walls of the prison cells:
“J’ai vu. J’ai cru. J’ai pleuré.”
(I saw. I believed. I cried.)
“Le Passé m’a trompé
Le Présent me tourmente
(The Past has cheated me
The Present torments me
The Future terrifies me.)
For what is now an island sanctuary for those who want to “escape” from the working life in Guyane was once a living hell, from which one could never escape. So many committed petty crimes or were accused of wrongs they did not commit at all. And when you are at Îles du Salut, you cannot forget its past: the ruins of the old buildings still stand, hauntingly overgrown by the wild jungle around. That history is undeniable.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
–F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby