Idleness and curiosity make dangerous bedfellows. So it was, a few years back, that I finally decided to visit French Guyana, a curious semi-country on the northeast coast of South America.

As a boy, I was completely fascinated by the book Papillon. It is the tale of a convicted murderer from Paris, sent to the penal colonies of Guyana in the 1930s. The book is a ripping yarn of improbable escapes, punishments, and eventual deliverance, but sufficient to grasp the attention of a teenager and keep the image alive for decades.

I flew first to Cayenne, the capital of the colony. It is a marvellous mixture of shabby belle-époque with contemporary France. Hot, humid, and languid, a pleasant place to spend a day or two wondering how on earth you ended up there. 

But my destination lay an hour to the west; Les Iles du Salut, the three islands that comprised the ultimate punishment options of France’s dreadful penal system. Three islands, lying about ten miles off shore from Kourou,
now (in an improbable juxtaposition) the centre of the European Space Agency.

Ile Royale, the central island, home of the administration and a prison complex that housed a thousand inmates. Ile St. Joseph, a forbidding island still, and home to the infamous place of solitary confinement. Ile du Diable, or Devil’s Island; fifteen houses and home to prisoners of last resort. 

Today, lying in the tropical sun, with a few tourists wandering through the grounds, it is hard to remember that until 60 years ago, men were sent here to be punished and forgotten. It was harsh and brutal, and the islands’ gentle facades belie the ugly reality. 

Visiting the islands as a tourist is simple. Day trips by catamaran offer visitors time to explore the two main islands. One can overnight, or spend even longer, at the small auberge on Ile Royale, and armed only with an imagination and a book or two, hours blend to days that blend into a powerful historical torpor.

Wandering through the partially reconstructed prison buildings is moving. Graffiti is still visible on the cell walls, rusting leg clamps still dangle where the last prisoner had been released. It is raw and compelling. 

The buildings themselves are beautiful: the hospital, a grand structure of the late 19th century, and the administrative buildings are great examples of colonial, clapboard architecture. 

The Ile St Joseph, in almost complete contrast, is haunting, and much less tidied. This was the prison where men were sentenced to years of silence, the pitiless price for crime in the camp.  Still home to a small garrison of the French Foreign Legion, the island’s solitary cells have been left to slowly rot. Nature is reclaiming the land from the prison, and seeing the huge tree roots growing into and through the abandoned cells, looking for all the world like huge silent snakes, is an extraordinary sight. 

After spending a couple of hours lost in contemplation, and anxious not to miss my return trip on the boat, I decided to spend a little time swimming. Relaxing in the sea, cleaning the images from my skin in the salty water I silently hoped that there was not an old, old shark with a long, long memory of the days when bodies were disposed of by the guards by being thrown into these same waters.

It was a long day; worth the trip, and just the beginning of the journey.

Three hours further west, St Laurent du Maroni lies on the massive Maroni River that forms the border between French Guyana and Suriname. 

This was the administrative centre of the entire penal colony, and it’s a fascinating town to explore. The town is, or was, most obviously a “company town.” From the remains of the dock where every arriving prisoner caught their first glimpse of their new home; to the well laid out avenues of colonial officials’ accommodation; to the massive prison itself, St Laurent is a living museum. 

The camp, now developed a little for visitors, houses both contemporary office space for a few creative businesses and the old gallows and punishment cells. The massive courtyard dominated by a massive guava tree is peaceful now, yet redolent with the sounds, smells, and imagery of its colourful past. 

Little happens in St Laurent today. There are a couple of decent hotels, some reasonable restaurants, a colourful market, and more memories than you can imagine. It is worth a day or two of anyone’s time, before continuing west across the river into Suriname, one of South America’s most unusual countries.

And what of Papillon? He is not appreciated in the colony. There is another book, Dry Guillotine written in the 1930s by René Belbenoît, that appears to be the basis for Henri Charrière’s Papillon. 

It seems that Charrière was a plagiarist as well as a murderer, but he is forgiven. Without his book, I would never have ventured to this remote corner of the world.

Devils Island. MAX JOHNSON
Dreyfus House. Devils Island. MAX JOHNSON
Ile Royale. The Workshops. MAX JOHNSON
Ile St. Joseph. Tree reclaiming the convict cells. . MAX JOHNSON
Ile St. Joseph. Nature reclaiming solitary confinement. MAX JOHNSON
St. Laurent. The Convict. MAX JOHNSON