Called ‘The Salvation Islands’ this small group lies 8nm off the coast of French Guiana, and consists of 3 separate islands, Ile Royale, Ile St Joseph and Ile du Diable. The port of Le Kourou is on the mainland, and the EU Space Station not far away.
Because this was only considered as a short stop off just before we left St Helena, and we were only interested in a safe anchorage to break our passage to Grenada, for once we had not done our homework about the location. It turns out that it played a significant role in French colonial history, beginning in the late 15th century, when France sent an ill planned expedition to Kourou in an attempt to claim a large part of South America as its territory. The islands were used as a staging post because of the relatively sheltered harbour and deep water access.
Once the infrastructure had been created, in 1852 a penal colony was established on Ile St Joseph.
The former Prison Commander’s residence on Ile Royale houses an informative museum where we learned in the 19th century the islands were used to house several famous French prisoners, Dreyfus among them. The Dreyfus Affair was a famous political scandal at the end of the 19th century involving Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was wrongly convicted of treason. None other than the writer Emile Zola came to his defence in an open letter which helped force the reopening of his trial. Papillon, the autobiography written by another wrongly convicted prisoner, Henri Charrière, recounts the story of his long incarceration there before and during World War II and subsequent escape. Thousands of prisoners were shipped here from France, convicted for anything from petty crime to murder. Apparently their lot was considered better here than back home. All prisoners were eventually shipped back to France in 1953, and the prison closed. But not before 80,000 convicts had met their death there.
Magnus and Sara on Mahimahi had arrived 36 hours before we did and Lori and Robert on Apogee sailed in at the same time. Once we had anchored, we four weary sailors were invited to lunch on Mahimahi so after a frantic boat clean-up, we enjoyed a very convivial and relaxing get together!
A dinghy trip to explore Ile St Joseph followed. Getting ashore can be hazardous, and we had not even taken cameras. These photographs were taken on a different day. On the top of the island is the prison, where the cells are small, a few rocks in a corner of each cell served as a toilet, double bars across the window, and bars across the ‘ceiling’ so that patrolling guards on top could prevent prisoners smoking! 350 convicts were housed on this island. On the north coast is a cemetery for adults who had died on the islands, but not for prisoners – their bodies were fed to the sharks! Children were buried separately on Ile Royale.
Quite an introduction when we were least expecting it! The next day was spent diving on the hull in the morning to remove heavy barnacle growth on the prop and shaft incurred at Jacare, and a brief visit to Ile Royale to book dinner at the Auberge des Iles for the six of us, and do a tiny bit of exploring. Here we found the original cells dating back to the early 19th century, together with a hospital room, and solitary confinement cells. Set apart are the warders’ bungalows. The local gendarmerie and other buildings are located next to the church. Peacocks, agoutis and monkeys roam around, and the former fresh water reservoir is now home to caiman lizards.
The Ile du Diable (Devils Island) was never developed to house prisoners, but some were sent there without any accommodation at all. There is no landing stage, and the currents and waves in the area are fierce.
Today the only use that we could see for the islands is tourism and fishing. Cruise ships visit, and catamarans bring visitors over from Kourou on a daily basis. The Auberge has a number of rooms for visitors who want to stay overnight, and has substantial restaurant facilities.
It was an interesting and educational brief stop but depressing at the same time, not helped by the weather, and while Mahimahi and Apogee set sail again, we stayed an additional day to allow heavy rain and strong winds to pass by.