Îles du Salut
Devil’s Island (Île du Diable), Île Royale, Île St-Joseph
This was the most notorious part of the penal colony that France
operated in French Guiana
from the mid-19th century to just after WWII
. Owing to some prominent names, it is also the best known part of that system today. And whereas it once was one of the remotest spots on Earth, these days it’s developed for tourists and can be quite easily visited. Well, that applies at least to two of the three islands. The infamous Devil’s Island, however, remains off limits to visitors – but then again there wouldn’t be all that much to see there. The actual highlight of a visit to this archipelago is Île St-Joseph with its extremely atmospherically overgrown ruins of the solitary confinement cell blocks. More remnants are on the largest of the three islands, Île Royale, where there are also options for overnight accommodation.
This archipelago of three small granite islands
off the shores of the “Wild Coast
” of the Guianas derives its rather unlikely name, which in English translates as ‘Salvation Islands’, from some European survivors of an early settlement expedition in 1763 who after weeks of dysentery and malarial exhaustion sought refuge on these islands. But apart from dry land and a sea breeze meaning fewer mosquitoes here, there isn’t really much salvation to be found on these islands. There isn’t even a fresh water supply (so these days all water has to be imported and stored in tanks). But the isolation of the place made it attractive as a place of extreme exile when France developed its idea of a penal colony in its far-away South American possession.
And so the first prison infrastructure was set up and the first batch of convicts arrived in 1852. The three islands assumed different roles. The highest and largest of the trio, Île Royale, became the main prison colony and home to not only cell blocks but also a hospital, a church, warders’ bungalows, a commandant’s mansion and a grand officers’ mess. It was also here that workshops of various sorts were located, as well as butchers, bakers, and other such facilities to support the outpost.
The somewhat less accessible Île St-Joseph was reserved for extreme punishment: it was here that the cell blocks for solitary confinement were established. The official name of this compound was “réclusion”, but apparently it was also informally known as the ‘man eater’ and as the “guillotine sèche” (literally the ‘dry’ guillotine, meaning without the blood). Here, inmates deemed “incorrectibles” would be kept from between six months and several years in total isolation, in small square cells with no windows but a grille of metal bars instead of a roof from where they were also overseen by the warders. Not a word was spoken, making any noise or even minor offences like just touching the walls could result in extended punishment (longer terms, reduced rations). This was the place designed to really break the men’s spirits. No wonder that many who didn’t die as a result of the treatment here simply went insane.
And then there’s Île du Diable, or Devil’s Island
, the most infamous of the trio. This was for political prisoners. And the best known case was that of Alfred Dreyfus
, a military officer from Alsace who was wrongly accused of treason in 1894, convicted under dubious circumstances and sent to Devil’s Island in 1895, where he was housed in a specially constructed cottage surrounded by a wall, and with zero human contact, except for the warders who were not, however, allowed to speak to him. The case caused a scandal back in Paris
: novelist Émile Zola famously wrote an open letter to the president in which he lamented the miscarriage of justice and argued that Dreyfus was innocent and a victim of blatant anti-Semitism. Zola had to flee into exile himself after this, but the raised awareness of the case resulted in Dreyfus being returned to France
in 1899 for a retrial, in which he was initially sentenced again, but then was first pardoned and in 1906 finally exonerated. The case is the subject of a recent film by famous Polish/French film director Roman Polanski, entitled “J’accuse
”, just like Zola’s open letter.
There were many other political prisoners too, less well known, including French anarchists as well as resistance activists from France
’s colonial possessions in the Arab world and Indochina (see e.g. Algeria
Another famous case that really brought the story of the penal colony to the attention of the wider world was of course Henri Charrière
, whose allegedly autobiographical book “Papillon
” about his time in the penal colony was published in 1969 and instantly became a best-seller. The book later also formed the basis for the 1973 Hollywood movie of the same name starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. The story is set between the years 1931, when Charrière was sent to French Guiana
for murder (he claimed he was innocent, though), and his final escape to Venezuela
in 1945. The movie allows itself a bit of artistic licence (e.g. changing the escape destination inexplicably to Honduras), but despite not having been shot at the original locations (though still images of them appear in the background during the end titles and credits), conveys a convincing picture of the penal colony, and especially the prison buildings – as I can confirm after having seen the real thing and just re-watching the movie. There’s also a 2017 remake of “Papillon”, which received at best mixed reviews, but I haven’t seen that version myself yet.
Anyway, the story, featuring many escape attempts, also covers two periods of solitary confinement on Île St-Joseph, and a final period on Devil’s Island. However, it is contested whether all elements of the book/movie are genuinely part of Charrière’s personal story. It’s probably only semi-autobiographical and he had woven other prisoners’ stories into the book. He may in fact never even have been on the Îles du Salut himself, and stayed only on the mainland parts of the penal colony (see St-Laurent du Maroni
). Apparently he was also not the only one to have used the nickname “Papillon” (‘butterfly’). In any case his account is nevertheless the most vivid insight into the prison regime in French Guiana
Another noteworthy inmate was Francis Lagrange
, a forger and wheeler-and-dealer from Lille who in 1938 was sent first to St-Laurent
and then to the Îles du Salut and who may have been the real-life model for the character played by Dustin Hoffman in the “Papillon” movie. Some of Lagrange’s paintings remain on Île Royale in the church. These works, while artistically not of the highest order, still provide a good visual impression of the penal colony.
the colonial government of French Guiana
decided to side with the Nazi
-collaborationist Vichy regime, and although no new prisoners were sent there they continued to run the penal colony, despite shortages of supplies due to the blockade of the Guinanese coasts by the USA
(in part to protect their bauxite supplies from neighbouring Suriname
, the then Dutch
It wasn’t until 1946
that the penal colony
was formally closed
, though prisoners remained there until the 1950s. At the same time the territory was declared an overseas department of France
. For a while the islands were more or less abandoned.
But after the spaceport
was founded in the 1960s at Kourou
, the islands became important again, as they lie right under the trajectory of the rockets launched on the mainland. Hence the islands were turned over to the administration of the CSG (Centre Spatial Guyanais – see under French Guiana
) and some tracking devices were installed on Île Royale.
In more recent years, the Îles du Salut became more of a tourist destination
, with accommodation options available on Île Royale and regular boat connections to the mainland (see below
). Cruise ships stop by too, but the islands are primarily a destination for locals from the mainland seeking a bit of tropical island holiday atmosphere (never mind that this is somewhat at odds with the islands’ grim history) as well as European French and Belgian tourists. In fact when I was on the island, most of the other guests at the auberge/hotel were white and French. The black Caribbean Guyanais mostly chose to self-cater and make do with camping.
that Devil’s Island is off limits
. Allegedly this is so because of the dangerous currents around the shores and because of sharks. It didn’t seem so inaccessible to me when I was there, though, with several small pleasure boats bobbing calmly no more than twenty yards from the shoreline. I presume landing on them wouldn’t have been all that difficult. But as various signs make quite clear it’s off limits and landing there illegally could get you into trouble. Apparently, the island is military territory, so who knows what real reasons there may be for banning visitors from it. Nevertheless, the stone cabin that Alfred Dreyfus (see above
) was housed in is apparently well maintained by the government/military – even though nobody else is allowed to see it. It’s a bit bizarre, but so what.
The convicts, prison warders and staff are long gone, only two police officers (“gendarmes”, to be precise) are the only law-enforcement personnel left on Île Royale nowadays. They have a cushy posting, really, eating every meal at the auberge and driving the few miles of cobbled tracks on the island in a CSG-marked jeep, overseeing the embarkations and disembarkations and otherwise having a relaxed time with little to no crime to attend to. It’s part job, part two-year tropical holiday … No wonder the two young gendarmes I encountered on Île Royale looked rather content ...
What there is to see: Quite a bit – enough to make an overnight two-day trip worthwhile, even though many visitors only come for day trips. But for a serious dark tourist, more time than that is needed unless you really want to rush it (and the climate here is not conducive to anything rushed). Staying longer also increases your chances of making it to Île St-Joseph, which may not always be accessible if the wind and surf are high.
On my August 2019 trip to French Guiana
(see also below
), we were picked up from our hotel in Kourou
in the morning and driven to the boat pier for the islands. For independent travellers there’s also a local bus service. It was a Saturday and so it was quite busy – locals apparently often make a weekend trip to the islands. So it was quite a lively atmosphere at the pier, where we all had to wait outside the gate next to the ticket booths. When the time came for our boat to set sail, we were first led down the pier, had our luggage hurled aboard, and had to take off our shoes and socks while on board. A brief safety speech was given in French for everybody, and a summary of it in English for us afterwards (my wife and I were the only non-French speakers). Then we were off. The weather was fine and the sea not too rough, so it was a pleasant ca. 45-minute crossing.
Before landing at Île Royale, the boat did one circumnavigation around the island which also brought us fairly close to Devil’s Island, affording us the most close-up view of the cottage where Alfred Dreyfus had been held in solitary confinement in 1895–99 (see above). Landing on Devil’s Island is not allowed.
After disembarking at the pier of Île Royale, we made our long and sweaty way up to the plateau atop the granite outcrop that forms the centre of the island. This is where the “Auberge du Îles” is located and forms the centre of life at the top. This is also where we had rooms booked so we checked in. We were lucky that were were able to change from a regular hotel room in one of the modern annexes to a room in the historic “auberge” itself, which cost a bit more but came with the added benefit of being the more historically authentic option, as this used to be the officers’ mess and administrative heart of the Îles du Salut penal colony. The rooms were appointed with modern amenities, but looks-wise and feel-wise did have a very olde-worldy colonial atmosphere.
We were given a short guided tour of parts of the plateau and later also explored the island more comprehensively on our own. The main things to see are the following:
Only visible from a distance is the infamous Île du Diable, Devil’s Island. The best view of this is actually to be had from the auberge’s open-air restaurant. You can clearly make out the Dreyfus stone cabin. On the shore right opposite the island is a stump made of brick which used to be Île Royale’s end of a ropeway that used to connect to Devil’s Island. But that’s gone. Today there are only warning signs spelling out that the island is out of bounds to visitors.
Back up on the plateau
, just to the west of the auberge is an overgrown hollow in the ground which used to be the island’s water reservoir
. It’s large and apparently was once referred to as “la mer” (‘the sea’) and according to John Gimlette
once had crocodiles living in it. When I was there there was hardly any water visible and certainly no crocodiles or signs warning of them.
Beyond the nearly empty reservoir is the compound of former warders’ cottages. These days, most of them are rented out as self-catering holiday units. To the south of these is a large two-storey empty brick building that used to be the hospital. Directly adjacent is the island’s lighthouse, whose bottom half is concrete, the top part a cast iron structure.
Also part of this section is the island’s church, a low stone-built structure with a wooden steeple. Inside a few paintings by Francis Lagrange (see above) can be found. One of the other ancillary buildings now serves as the Gendarmerie.
What’s left of the old cell blocks is in the north-west section of the plateau. One block is still largely intact, while others are roofless and semi-derelict. But they certainly ooze a grim atmosphere. In one section you can see the metal bars that convicts would be shackled to.
To the east of the plateau, along a cobbled walkway down the slope is the building that these days houses the small museum about the islands and the penal colony. There are no artefacts, only a few panels with reproductions of historic documents, photos and explanatory texts. The documents are all in French, but the explanatory texts come with translations into English. The info is brief but illuminating. Worth the ca. 15–20 minutes it takes.
Towards the eastern end of the lower plateau is a ruin that I was told was once the lunatic asylum of the penal colony of Îles du Salut. Although there were probably as many who went insane while in solitary confinement over at St-Joseph. The ex-asylum building is in a bad state of disrepair and you can’t enter.
The rest of the island, the lower parts, are accessible by two walking paths. These lead through the old coconut groves and jungle that is inhabited by monkeys and other animals. It seems rather peaceful really … until you come to the cemetery. This is no ordinary burial ground, though. It was only for children. The birth and death dates on the tombstones are testament to often short lives in the colony …
On the northern and eastern side of the island are yet more vestiges of buildings, mostly in ruins these days, and you also pass the little cove that visitors from the mainland turn into a little beach holiday centre at weekends.
For me the absolute highlight of my visit to the Îles du Salut was the excursion to Île Saint-Joseph. We were ferried across by the same boat that had taken us to Royale and started our walk around the island along the path that follows the coastline. But not far from the few houses next to the landing stage (formerly the housing of the warders of this part of the penal colony I presume), some steps led up deep into the forest. This is the way to the solitary confinement cell tracts. Nominally a sign tried to restrict access to this part, but the bad English translation would have given me an excuse (I could have said that I did caution the slippery rocks and did not intend to build falling rocks ;-)).
At the top of the steps we entered the complex from the rear. There was first a large former hall, now roofless and overgrown by strange hanging roots like net curtains. Through the back and an anteroom with barred windows was a small clearing – where you could watch leaf-cutter ants forming a busy highway of moving bits of green! A small guardhouse stood outside the grim gateway to the main part here: “RECLUSION
” it says at the top (see above
). Beyond it were rows upon rows of small cells along narrow corridors. Some still had their barred doors, most still had their metal grille “roof/ceiling” but all over the jungle was reclaiming the place. And that in often dramatic fashion!
There were creepers creeping in, trees growing out of cells
, and some even bursting through the cell doors as if wrestling their way out into freedom. Some tree roots formed clusters along cell walls that I found reminiscent of
the famously and fantastically overgrown temples of Ta Prohm
! There were few other tourists there and much of the time we had the place totally to ourselves. The urbexer in us took over and we excitedly spent over an hour exploring and taking atmospheric photos – a few examples are below in the gallery. It was one of the most awesome ex-prisons ruins I’ve ever seen anywhere!
After we dragged ourselves away from the “reclusion” we retraced our steps to the coastal path round the island. Most of it is peaceful, shady and quiet. And then we suddenly came to a wide open field of graves. This was the main cemetery of the colony. No convicts were ever buried here, though. This cemetery was only for warders. If convicts died, they were simply chucked into the ocean – to the delight of the sharks.
Eventually we got back to the landing stage and were ferried back to the main island. Full of deep impressions we then had a nice dinner at the auberge and an early night. Next day we explored the old cell blocks and other parts of Île Royale in more depth until the weather turned and it got rainy – and that despite the fact that the rainy season should have long been over. Weather patterns are clearly changing here too (cf. Guyana
). Fortunately the rain had drifted away by the time our boat back to Kourou was due.
All in all
: I had wanted to visit the Îles du Salut for decades, so finally making it there was very fulfilling for me. Like Jonestown
it was a bit like a pilgrimage, except that these islands came with pleasant add-ons like decent accommodation and nice food and drink. In that sense it was more dark-tourism “light” (in maximum contrast to Jonestown!), yet the grimness of the place’s history is still pretty much palpable, most dramatically so on Île St-Joseph. All that made the time and expense involved in getting there fully worth it! Highly recommended.
some 8 miles (13 km) offshore from the mainland coast of French Guiana
, and 10 miles (16 km) from Kourou.
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: remote but regularly accessible by boat, except Devil’s Island, which is off limits to tourists; not cheap.
To get to the islands you have to use one of the boat services from Kourou
; there are several. On weekends these may fill up, so advance reservations are a good idea. Several operators can help with this. I used the Georgetown-based company Wilderness Explorers (see under Guyana
) for this, and like everything else they organized it worked perfectly. My French Guianaise guide gave us a short walking tour of both the main island (Royale) and St-Joseph, but we had the second day on Royale on our own. Of course you can also get there independently, especially if you speak sufficient French. The boat crossings cost
in the region of 50 euros, with slight variations between different boats. There are motor boats and sailing boats, mostly catamarans. Timings
: the sailings from Kourou start in the morning between 8 and 9 a.m., and return sailings from Île Royale leave for Kourou at ca. 6 p.m.
If you want more time, there’s the option of overnighting
on Île Royale. The old officers’ mess building has been converted into an “auberge
” and offers the best level of accommodation
. It’s also the option with the most historic authenticity – except that the rooms have air conditioning these days. Slightly cheaper are the newer hotel rooms in separate bungalows, which only come with fans. In addition the old warders’ cottages can be rented as self-catering bungalows, camping
is also possible, and there’s a hall for hanging up hammocks. The latter options are obviously the more affordable ones, whereas the “auberge” and hotel rooms cost in the region of 90–130 euros per night B&B. The auberge also serves lunch and a nightly dinner, both buffet style, which each cost an extra 29 euros per person. The bar also serves imported wine as well as local beer (even a few craft beers made on the mainland in French Guiana
The auberge also runs a free luggage shuttle that is co-ordinated with the boat arrival and departure times. Unfortunately I didn’t know this (nor did my guide) when we arrived; it could have saved us from lugging our heavy case up the steep tracks and steps to the top of the island, which in this humid tropical heat is very sweaty work indeed. In general, the climate may be a little fresher thanks to sea breezes, and at the auberge’s open-air restaurant overlooking Devil’s Island this is nice and welcome. But once you clamber about the island and its ruined historic buildings, you will get sweaty. There’s no escaping that.
If you don’t have your own guide but would like a tour, you can join public group tours for guests (in French), but as far as I could tell these cover only the plateau at Île Royale.
The auberge also has a well-stocked (but pricey) souvenir shop selling T-shirts, postcards, books, all manner of trinkets, crafts and jewellery and even luxury boxed bottles of Guyanaise white rum.
Time required: at least one full day, better two.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
A trip to Île Royale is for most visitors, especially locals, rather a non-dark short holiday break offering the opportunity for a mini-beach experience in clear blue waters in a small semi-sheltered cove. This is indeed popular, especially at weekends when whole families come over from Kourou equipped with camping and beach gear and cool boxes of supplies. Reason: on the mainland coast and along the rivers the waters are always brown from all the silt and mud washed down from the rainforest and/or from the Amazon. So the Îles du Salut offer the only chance for clear water in all of French Guiana
Moreover, the islands’ animals provide entertainment, in particular the semi-tame monkeys and the (not so tame and) skittish agoutis as well as some parrots and lizards. Boat trips round the islands and sea fishing trips can also be arranged.
Back on the mainland, the town of Kourou is obviously also the gateway for tours of the spaceport, the CSG (Centre Spatial Guianais) – see under French Guiana
- 1 - boat from Kourou
- Ile Royal 01 - arrival at the pier
- Ile Royal 02 - the plateau seen from the sea
- Ile Royal 03 - former warders quarters on the plateau
- Ile Royal 04 - former reservoir
- Ile Royal 05 - ex-hospital
- Ile Royal 06 - lighthouse
- Ile Royal 07 - church
- Ile Royal 08 - inside the church
- Ile Royal 09 - police station
- Ile Royal 10 - the islands are now part of the CSG admistriation
- Ile Royal 11 - flying the flag of the Grande Nation
- Ile Royal 12 - cobbled
- Ile Royal 13 - museum
- Ile Royal 14 - crumbling former lunatics block
- Ile Royal 15 - childrens cemetery
- Ile Royal 16 - short life
- Ile Royal 17 - cell block
- Ile Royal 18 - cell door
- Ile Royal 19 - inside the cell block
- Ile Royal 20 - more cells
- Ile Royal 21 - ruins
- Ile Royal 22 - iron rails for shackles
- Ile Royal 23 - bagne in the bagne
- Ile Royal 24 - privileged accommodation
- Ile Royal 25 - the Auberge today
- Ile Royal 26 - very colonial
- Ile Royal 27 - souvenir shop, reception and bar area
- Ile Royal 28 - restaurant
- Ile Royal 29 - pleasure boats cruising
- Ile Royal 30 - a tiny bit of beach holidaying
- Ile Royal 31 - inland path
- Ile Royal 32 - monkeys
- Ile Royal 33 - suitably grumpy monkey
- Ile Royal 34 - agouti
- Ile St-Joseph 01 - seen from Ile Royale
- Ile St-Joseph 02 - former warders and adminstrative buildings
- Ile St-Joseph 03 - rules
- Ile St-Joseph 04 - steps leading up
- Ile St-Joseph 05 - yet another prison
- Ile St-Joseph 06 - years of construction
- Ile St-Joseph 07 - deserted hall
- Ile St-Joseph 08 - hanging down
- Ile St-Joseph 09 - broken
- Ile St-Joseph 10 - behind bars
- Ile St-Joseph 11 - guard house
- Ile St-Joseph 12 - reclusion
- Ile St-Joseph 13 - now empty
- Ile St-Joseph 14 - new life
- Ile St-Joseph 15 - new inhabitant
- Ile St-Joseph 16 - big trees growing in the cell blocks
- Ile St-Joseph 17 - Ta Prohm style
- Ile St-Joseph 18 - tree breaking out of a cell
- Ile St-Joseph 19 - rows of cells
- Ile St-Joseph 20 - now empty
- Ile St-Joseph 21 - no roof
- Ile St-Joseph 22 - atmospheric
- Ile St-Joseph 23 - open cell doors
- Ile St-Joseph 24 - new vegetation
- Ile St-Joseph 25 - the jungle will reclaim it all
- Ile St-Joseph 26 - hellish ruins
- Ile St-Joseph 27 - pond
- Ile St-Joseph 28 - rocks and palm trees
- Ile St-Joseph 29 - Iles Royal and Diable seen from St-Joseph
- Ile St-Joseph 30 - guards cemetery
- Ile St-Joseph 31 - broken
- Ile St-Joseph 32 - entrance to the cemetery
- Ile St-Joseph 33 - cobbled track
- Ile St-Joseph 34 - ferry
- Ile du Diable 1 - looking deceptively lush
- Ile du Diable 2 - semi-hidden building
- Ile du Diable 3 - Dreyfus cabin
- Ile du Diable 4 - access forbidden
- Ile du Diable 5 - former transportation
- Ile du Diable 6 - a change in the weather
- supply ship