Saint-Laurent du Maroni
Camp de la Transportation
A large prison complex in French Guiana
on the eastern banks of the Maroni River, i.e. the westernmost part of the territory, on the border with Suriname
. The prison, or ‘camp de la transportation’, as the terminology went, was the principal arrival point for most convicts who were processed here and then assigned to other parts of the penal colony, in particular the Îles du Salut
, with the infamous Devil’s Island. But the camp in St-Laurent was no less brutal. Today it stands a brooding vast stone complex in the centre of the colonial town – and it can be visited, the more interesting parts by guided tour only.
More background info:
The camp goes back to a decision taken in France
in 1850, namely instead of housing their amassed prison population at home with no purpose, to send them to the colony
for work – and, allegedly, the prospect of improvement and forgiveness. Well, the latter would never have been more than wishful thinking, euphemism or plain lying propaganda.
It also so happened that France had abolished slavery for good in 1848 and thus didn’t really have any use for its far-away colony. So this was a new idea to make its existence worthwhile.
Incidentally, the ideas of abolishing slavery AND that of sending convicts here weren’t new. In the wake of the French Revolution slavery had already been temporarily abolished, but the freed slaves were soon re-enslaved. Moreover, enemies of the revolution were already sent to Guyane as essentially political prisoners, and most of them perished here as result of tropical diseases and the humidity.
But from 1850, the penal colony idea was industrialized. Initially some 6000 convicted criminals left their regular prisons in France
and were shipped over here. (By the way, the prisons were often called “bagne
”, after the bathhouses once used to lock people up in, and the prisoners were referred to as “bagnards”.) Following Napoleon III
’s coup, an additional 27,000 detainees had to be dealt with.
Soon a reception prison had to be built and St-Laurent du Maroni was chosen for this. Opened in 1858, the Camp de la Transportation was a massive facility. In addition to housing convicts it was the place for processing them, sorting them into categories and dispatching most of them to other camps for work, or even stricter confinement, such as to the Îles du Salut
. The work the convicts had to do was either pointless or produced nothing more then endless numbers of bricks – used all over the colony. You can spot some in the walls of the prison, stamped “AP”, for ‘administration pénitentiaire’.
In the first few decades of the system the death rate amongst inmates was as high as about half. There was also a racist element involved, namely in that initially no whites were sent into this sweltering disease-ridden hell, only Africans and Arabs – i.e. from France
’s other colonies. In the early 20th century the death rate had been reduced but was still over 10%. By then whites were also shipped here. Amongst them were serious criminals and gangsters, but also political prisoners. The most (in)famous case was that of Alfred Dreyfus
– see under Îles du Salut
! But there were others too.
Of course the system was not actually intended for betterment and forgiveness, nor was the work the convicts were forced to do ever profitable. Instead the whole regime was there to break people. They lost their names, their past, their dignity, much of their health, and in too many cases their future.
Not only did many not survive the harsh conditions, even after serving their sentence there was the rule of “doublage”, i.e. after release the “freed” convicts had to stay in the colony for the same number of years again – but now fend for themselves, while not being allowed to set up a business of their own, so they had to try and survive on menial jobs or as gold miners. Few ever made it back to France. And that was the point – banishment, to be forgotten, spewed out and left to rot.
There were several places the convicts had to work at, other camps some deeper inland, e.g. at St-Jean to the south of St-Laurent (not commodified for visitors today). Many a convict tried to escape, but the question was where to. In addition to prison guards making escape almost impossible, what made it almost pointless was that there was only dense and deadly jungle all around or the shark-infested sea. Still some attempted escape. Of these many were returned by Amerindians, who were paid rewards for every returned escapee. Others were never seen or heard of again. Those returned to the prison could expect additionally harsh treatment and extra punishments …
One famous case of a successful escape is of course that of Henri Charrière
, alias “Papillon
”. The book of that name – and later the movie of the same name starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman – made the story of French Guiana’s penal colony system world famous. The real Charrière was definitely imprisoned at the Camp de la Transportation in St-Laurent, but it is widely agreed these days that much of the rest of his story was more a compilation of various other convicts’ fates than all his own experience. See under Îles du Salut
for more on this.
it is estimated that between 65,000 and 80,000
people passed through the Guianaise penal system and the camp at St-Laurent. What is most astonishing is how long it lasted – it wasn’t until 1946 that the system was abolished and the last prisoners didn’t leave until well into the 1950s. That is, this French system of imprisonment in far-away camps and a personality-breaking harsh prison regime to boot, lasted beyond the Nazi
era and their concentration camps
The transportation camp at St-Laurent was so solidly built that it still stands largely intact. The cells may be empty and covered in mould and moss, but structurally very little has changed. You almost get the impression that if need be it could be converted back into a working prison without much effort at short notice. Instead, though, it has become French Guiana’s principal tourist attraction out here in the westernmost parts of the territory.
What there is to see: Quite a lot. The complex is vast and the associated stories manifold. There’s a lot to take in as well as to just see.
From the outside there is almost nothing to see, though. The whole complex is hidden behind a high stone wall, and only a chimney and some rooftops can be made out from the outside. There are no windows looking out from the inside.
The camp has basically two parts, the regular part and the special sections, an extra prison system within the prison. The former is in part freely accessible and includes some of the in total 12 regular two-story cell blocks. Between the single gate to the complex and those blocks is a wide open square with a single tree in the middle. Flanking the gate are administrative or ancillary buildings, and along the western wall the former kitchen block. Onto this grim black-and-white portraits of prisoners behind bars have been painted.
I late found out that apparently there would also have been an exhibition, all in French only, for an additional admission charge. But we were not even offered the chance to see this, so I cannot comment on what this exhibition might be like.
Instead we were met by a guide, a short, squat black guy dressed in an attire that included a t-shirt with a prisoner number on the back and a straw hat. Actual prisoners of the day would also have had straw hats, but wore the typical striped prison “pyjamas”. Our guide spoke English, though often so heavily accented that at times I struggled to understand the narration. At other times, though, it was clear and evident enough, and much of what you get to see pretty much speaks for itself anyway.
We were taken straight to the prison-inside-the-prison part, which is accessible only by guided tour. It is surrounded by an additional wall and only one steel door leads in. The guide unlocked this and in we stepped. Here we learned that this was a point of segregation, of sorts.
Here there were three gates to subsections: one was marked “libérés
”, i.e. for those who had finished their regular sentence and then were bound to serve the same period again as “free men” (see above
). The gate next to it was marked “relégués
”, i.e. repeat offenders, which may have included returned escapees. The quarters thus marked looked remarkably similar – grey courtyards of small single cells and a big stone sink.
The house with the gates also served as the “tribunal maritime special
”, the special prison-internal court that judged on offences committed by convicts, as well as meting out punishments for escapees. Judges as well as “lawyers” were all chosen from amongst the penal system’s staff, so it’s little wonder the accused couldn’t expect much of a defence, as a plaque by the door explained here, in both French and English – this was one of only very few such information panels I noticed (there was also a general one outside the main gate). The plaque also pointed out the usual sentences: death by guillotine or six months to five years in special isolated work camps or in total solitary confinement, either here or in the special “reclusion” camp on Île St-Joseph (see Îles du Salut
We were then led into the “quartier disciplinaire” where those unfortunates would have been sent to here at St-Lautent. There were different types of cells here as well. First there were the communal blocks called “blockhaus” (an originally German word commonly used in French for ‘bunker’ as well). Here dozens of convicts would be chained together at night on large stone “beds” with a metal bar at the foot end in a large room with only one small barred window letting in any light. There was one single squat toilet in a corner. Allegedly this is also where seasoned prisoners would take sexual advantage of new arrivals, hence the toilet was cynically nicknamed “chambre d’amour”.
And then there were the long rows of solitary confinement cells. One of them has been reconstructed to contain a wooden “bed”, basically just a flat plank and a wooded wedge for a “pillow”. Again, the feet would be shackled to the bed at night. Our guide asked if would like to try it out – and while I declined, my wife volunteered. It was certainly not comfortable, as she could confirm.
In addition there were the cells marked “quartier special” with the cells for those condemned to death. Our guide also pointed out some graffiti, or rather scratchings, inside some of the cells. One read “adieu mama”.
At the far end beyond the solitary confinement cells and the well, was a patch of concrete in the lawn – this, we were told, was where the prison’s guillotine once stood. Executions would have been attended by prisoners for maximum effect.
One cell towards the rear of the complex was especially pointed out. There was another barely legible inscription etched into the floor and our guide asked us to decipher it. It took me a while to make out a “P” followed by an “a” and I guessed the rest: “Papillon”. Indeed this was presented as THAT Papillon’s cell, i.e. Henri Charièrre’s. It is, however, not so clear if this was indeed his cell. Apparently the nickname “Papillon” was used by other prisoners as well.
At the far end of the complex a building was clearly undergoing refurbishment and looked freshly painted. But it was behind a fence and not open to the public (yet). So we headed back and left the special camp and returned to the main part and gate. All the while there was just one other group of visitors, a French group of about 15 or so on a regular guided tour. We, i.e. my wife, our guide Gladys and myself, instead had the privilege of having had a private tour as it were.
Afterwards we wandered down the street immediately outside the prison camp’s gate, an area called “Little Paris” – see below
, before driving off again towards Kourou (see under French Guiana
All in all
, even though this Camp de la Transportation may be second in importance and infamy to Devil’s Island and the Îles du Salut
in general, this is in a way an even grimmer sight to behold. It lacked the overgrown atmospheric-ness of the ruins of the “reclusion” camp on St-Joseph, but it made up for that by its sheer size. The prison complex at St-Laurent has the dimensions of a factory. And in a way it was – a factory for breaking down prisoners. The fact that the structures were still so intact, certainly added an extra layer of eeriness as well. As did the graffiti/inscriptions – the only vestiges of the souls who passed through here. Otherwise they have indeed been “disappeared”, no trace left, all forgotten.
This is an extremely sobering sight, and absolutely not to be missed when travelling to these parts of the world, as a must-see add-on to the Îles du Salut
The Camp de la Transportation is in the heart of the colonial town of St-Laurent du Maroni, which is located on the western edge of French Guiana
on the border river with Suriname
, called Maroni in French but Marowijne in Dutch. By road to Kourou to the east it’s about 120 miles (190 km), and ca. 160 miles (250 km) to the capital Cayenne.
Access and costs: remote, requiring transport; not too expensive
When I visited this place it was as part of a longer organized trip to the “Three Guianas” – see under Guyana
for details – in fact it was the first site my guide and driver took us to in French Guiana
(after a lengthy lunch, that is – they do get their priorities right!). At the camp, an English-speaking guide had been arranged for us, and it was all included in the overall tour price.
But it is of course possible to do this independently, especially if your knowledge of French is sufficient for just joining a regular tour in that language. I’ve researched online and it seems that currently the price for a regular tour is 6 euros per person. Additionally admission to the exhibition is said to be 8 euros.
Times for these vary, and there is a long lunch break. So it may be best to arrive early and enquire. The tourist information centre, by the way, is just outside the camp to the north-west, near the older ferry pier. This is open from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 noon, and from 2:30 to 8 p.m., except on Sundays when it is only open in the morning, and Mondays when there is apparently no lunch break (but I wouldn’t rely on this). Try and request an English-speaking guide if you need this. But note that their English may not be all that good, esp. in terms of pronunciation, so it may be a little hard to follow. But still better than nothing.
As there are no fixed departure times for tours it’s best to go first to the tourist info and enquire, and come with sufficient time on your hands to allow for a bit of flexibility.
Part of the complex is freely accessible, but that won’t give you more than a fraction of the impressions you get on the guided tours. So do not miss out on them.
The guided tour lasts about an hour to an hour and a half, but you may want to add a little time to look around the freely accessible parts and the street in front (see below
Combinations with other dark destinations:
most obviously, of course, the Îles du Salut
(with Devil’s Island) have to be named here. These were the most infamous part of the whole Guyanaise penal colony system, and also the most developed for tourism. At Kourou on the mainland, the spaceport may also have certain dark aspects for some …
Across the river to the west in Suriname
, the Moiwana monument
is quite near the border town of Albina just a good six miles (10 km) inland, right by the main road.
Conversely, in fact, a visit to the Camp de la Transportation in St-Laurent can quite easily be tagged on to a visit to Albina on the Surinamese side even if you do not intend to spend much time in French Guiana
. It’s easy to find a river boat taxi to take you across. In the past it was even possible to bypass immigration, as the first passport checkpoint on the French side would have been 20 miles down the road towards Cayenne, as our guidebook to Suriname
(published in 2015) still explained, and boat traffic on the Marowijne/Maroni River was so busy that it was difficult for the Surinamese officials to distinguish between boats just going upriver or downriver and those that crossed the official, invisible borderline in the river.
When I visited, however, we did have to pass through an immigration booth right by the jetty on the French side. For EU passport holders there is no problem entering, of course, as nominally French Guiana is part of the Union. But it’s different on the Surinamese side. Most Suriname tourists just get a tourist visitor card on arrival or a single entry visa. If you cross over to French Guiana through official channels (i.e. not illegally), then you’d be re-entering and hence will have to obtain a multi-entry visa before leaving home (they’re NOT available at the Albina border post!).
Combinations with non-dark destinations: right outside the camp’s gate is what’s been dubbed “Little Paris”. That’s a bit of a hyperbole, but there is indeed a row of rather grand buildings along the street outside the gate heading east, including a “palais de justice” (‘Palace of Justice’ – a rather cynical sounding designation given the history of the place), a grand government building, a very European-looking solid-stone bank and a red-brick church.
Otherwise St-Laurent isn’t overly touristy, but sports good facilities, shops, and at least one rather brilliant restaurant on the river (called “La Goëlette”), in the shape of a boat, so all maritime style and polished wood, and good food & drinks
- St-Laurent 01 - gate to the Camp de la Transportation
- St-Laurent 02 - main part
- St-Laurent 03 - kitchen building
- St-Laurent 04 - grim outlook
- St-Laurent 05 - guide taking us to the restricted parts
- St-Laurent 06 - grim segregation
- St-Laurent 07 - does not look like freedom
- St-Laurent 08 - is not freedom
- St-Laurent 09 - old prison
- St-Laurent 10 - old cells
- St-Laurent 11 - section for the real hard cases
- St-Laurent 12 - it is getting grimmer here
- St-Laurent 13 - blockhause entrance
- St-Laurent 14 - inside the blockhouse
- St-Laurent 15 - not much light comes in
- St-Laurent 16 - chambre d amour
- St-Laurent 17 - disciplinary cells
- St-Laurent 18 - special quarter
- St-Laurent 19 - special quarter with well
- St-Laurent 20 - penitentiary administration brick
- St-Laurent 21 - locked up
- St-Laurent 22 - single cell
- St-Laurent 23 - farewell note
- St-Laurent 24 - Papillon note
- St-Laurent 25 - rear of the camp
- St-Laurent 26 - back outside
- St-Laurent 27 - Little Paris
- St-Laurent 28 - pretentious justice
- St-Laurent 29 - pretentious bank
- St-Laurent 30 - church