French Guiana is a department of France even today. Swathed in rainforest, this obscure state’s journey into Western consciousness was as a penal colony, made notorious by Henri Charrière’s autobiographic book, Papillon.
It was published exactly 50 years ago and detailed his prison break from Devil’s Island, but is a tale with more holes in it than Saint Laurent’s crumbling penitentiary buildings (used between 1852 and 1953).
At Saint Laurent, local guide Daphne explained that the convicts built this prison from the jungle. “Mortality was almost 30% due to tropical diseases like malaria,” she said, and even when the prisoners had served their time, they were forced to remain and work.
“Really, it was a life sentence; the fare back to France cost a fortune, so they rarely returned.”
Inside the complex were six two-storey stone dormitories. In bright sunshine, the cell blocks’ warm, pinkish stone is now shaded by mango trees, and scarcely captures the living hell endured by inmates.
In solitary confinement, prisoners spent up to five years in cells little more than the size of wardrobes. I shuddered at the thought of the cells’ dark confines, where convicts were manacled by the ankles to a wooden plank for up to 23 hours each day.
“Can you imagine the smell in the tropical heat: the disease, the toilets, no washing?” said Daphne, pulling a face. These cells were occupied by the hardened ‘transported’ criminals, who’d tried to escape previously and awaited offshore transportation to French Guiana’s offshore Îles du Salut.
Into the wall of cell 47 is carved the word Papillon (Butterfly) – the nickname of Henri Charrière. In his book he claimed to have escaped from Devil’s Island (one of Îles du Salut’s three islets), but Daphne disputes this.
“Devil’s Island was only for political prisoners, and he was a common criminal. He definitely escaped, but probably from a mainland work camp, and made it to Venezuela. Much of the book is fiction,” she said.
I shared a taxi thereafter to French Guiana’s bijou capital, Cayenne. A quiet coastal town, it is quite modern and, like the other 3G capitals, ethnically cosmopolitan.
There’s a nod to France: fluttering tricolours, gendarmes wearing hatbox-round caps and locals playing boules by the seafront. In the market, Vietnamese and Hmong serve pho soup; both are now integrated communities, settled by the French after the Vietnam War.
An hour from Cayenne, at Kourou, I joined a catamaran tour to the Îles du Salut with Nathalie, a local tour operator who cannot find English-speaking guides, so usually takes her clients around herself.
“I don’t think Papillon escaped the islands on a sack stuff ed with coconuts,” said Nathalie, poo-pooing Charrière’s narrative. “There’s too many sharks in the water and the currents are dangerous.”
Yet, after St Laurent’s perceived depravities, my first impression on circling these little islets was of a paradise found: coconut palms topping glistening black lava cliffs and circled by a turquoise apron.
Two of the islands can be visited, and each has picturesque circular walks. Royale Island’s green alleyways wend through forest redolent with scurrying iguanas and macaques.
There’s an old abattoir where guards once let blood run into the sea to attract sharks and deter potential escapees, and the claustrophobic solitary confinement cells had bars for a roof so convicts were subject, for years on end, to all the elements.
“They usually went crazy inside these, with only 30 minutes’ exercise allowed each day,” added Nathalie.
Scarier tales surround neighbouring St Joseph’s Isle – yet another potent manifestation of a tropical idyll – of prisoners thrown to sharks during a rebellion in 1894 and a convict called Roussenq, who spent 3,779 days in solitary confinement in silence.
Yet this was how the French contributed their DNA to the 3Gs’ tumultuous origins, alongside Jewish plantation owners, escaped African maroons and Indian and Chinese labourers, as the Amerindians watched on and retreated deeper into the rainforest’s protective embrace.
During my travels in the north-east Amazon, my stays at eco-lodges that helped to safeguard biodiversity and support local communities felt ever more relevant – especially as Brazil’s rainforest increasingly comes under threat courtesy of its wrecking-ball of a president, Jair Bolsonaro.
Following so many different vivid narratives within the 3Gs, I experienced South America as I’d never seen it before.