Each minute that goes by only strengthens my determination to escape, despite all the possible dangers. We are too young and too full of determination to allow our future to be irremediably barred. Entertaining any hopes here is pure fantasy.”

G. Tomel, Les évadés de la Guyane, 1899.


The first convoy of convicts arrived on Ile Royale on 10 May 1852. Sarda-Garriga, the government’s Commissioner General, placed great hope in them, writing to the Minister: “Today the transportees are not the same men as I saw in Brest. Their health has strengthened and all they want now is to work”. He thought they would set an example, “they will build a column on the plateau of Ile Royale which will bear the inscription: repentance is salvation”.

The convicts, however, only had one thing in mind: escape. Barely 6 months later, Sarda-Garriga’s initial hopes were lost with the escape of four convicts. “In driving rain, convicts Ananos, Ximenes, Therren and Portat managed to escape. We have no news of them thus far,” he wrote to the Minister. A few days later, another attempt to escape from Saint-Joseph resulted in the death of a convict. Prison violence, yellow fever and “the deadly boredom of endless captivity” (P.  Zaccone) all pushed people to flee, but escaping from the islands was a real feat.

Escape was so improbable that the convicts were left unguarded on Devil’s Island. In 1855, Governor Bonard explained he had had all shippings and other means of escape removed. For political prisoners, he wrote: “There is no choice but resignation and, for the moment, on their own, unguarded and with no police on Devil’s Island, they can freely debate their theories”. When Charles Delescluze (1809-1871) arrived in 1858, things had changed. After several escapes, “the authorities lost their temper and took their anger out on the trees,” he explained. All of the trees on the island were cut down. The prisioners started making dinghies with the rafters of their houses. The authorities had the buildings destroyed. (‘De Paris à Cayenne, journal d’un transporté’, 1869)

Despite the vigilance of the overseers*, who were under orders to open fire, nothing deterred would-be escapees. Gerrit Verschuur tells the story of the escape of six convicts who managed to head off to sea on the islands’ whaling ship in 1884. He tells how another one set to sea in an abandoned barrel he found on the beach: “This end of the century Diogenes was none the happier. A current drove him (…) ashore in Sinnamary, where he was welcomed by a representative of the authorities who sent him straight back” (‘Voyage aux trois Guyanes’, 1894). In February 1902, two convicts escaped from Saint-Joseph by making a small vessel with the remains of old packing cases, coconut leaves and hammocks. In June of the same year, six men left Devil’s Island on a raft made from coconut trees and liana.

There were some champion escapees. The prisoner known as Lupi escaped four times from the islands, despite being in double chains. The anarchist Duval (who arrived in 1887) clocked up eighteen attempts in his fourteen years of reclusion on the islands. The young Emile Vally was not of the same calibre. Sentenced to 20 years’ hard labour, he managed to escape but did not enjoy his freedom for long. The police arrested him in Paris in July 1889 when he was leaving his mistress’ house.

Can Dreyfus escape?

In the pages of Le Matin newspaper on 20 June 1895, the columnist was adamant: “Everybody who knows the place agrees. It is certain that Dreyfus will escape, it is merely a matter of time unless suitable steps are taken“. “Not at all”, retorted a colonial civil servant when asked by Le Figaro newspaper upon returning from French Guiana on 20 June 1896. “The islands are under constant surveillance and the waters are infested with sharks.”

On 3 September 1896, however, the reputable agency Havas announced that Dreyfus had escaped from Salvation Islands aboard an American ship. Captain Hunter of the Non-Pareil steamer told the whole story from Newport. He had been on Le Connétable Island loading phosphates when he heard of the escape. Mrs Dreyfus had arrange dit all. The American schooner had also taken the guards who had, in fact, been his accomplices (Le Figaro, 4 September 1896). The story was quickly denied. On 4 September, a journalist from Le Matin newspaper went to see a member of the deportee’s family: “You can adamantly refute this sensational news,” he replied. “Like all of us, Mrs Dreyfus is actively opposed to any attempt to escape by our relative. We are convinced of his innocence and are patiently waiting for justice to be done and for his release by legal means.

Of course, in Le Petit Parisien newspaper on 6 September 1896, Jean Frollo wrote: “What strikes us in the tales of famous escapes is the ingenuity, the courage and the presence of mind required to flee. What was achieved seemed impossible if you considered the dangers beforehand. (…) It would appear that the desire for freedom can give you wings.” But Dreyfus was too closely guarded. Frollo continued: “The theory remains of a buccaneering expedition organised to free him with a boat approaching under the cover of the night and pirates springing ashore, killing or bribing the guards, and snatching the prisoner. But that is pure fiction and vaudeville drama, and not a serious proposition. Real life is not like the last act of a farcical play”.

The anti-Dreyfus camp threw oil onto the flames, however. The rumour of escape was no doubt initiated by family and friends and was done, according to the Journal du dimanche newspaper, “to provoke a shift in public opinion in his favour, so as to obtain his pardon. Luckily, the press has revealed what was really going on and is calling for heightened rigour against him, should it be necessary. (…) Dreyfus’ crime (…) is such that there can be no pity.” (J. du Dimanche, 11 October 1896).

In the evening of 6 June 1897, the alarm was raised. A schooner was making its way between Devil’s Island and Saint-Joseph. A salvo of three (blank) shots was fired. The schooner changed course and headed north-west. The revolver cannon on Devil’s Island was ready and the men were at their battle stations. The duty officer even thought that he saw a pair of binoculars trained on him. On 29 December, a ‘suspicious-looking’ yacht took one day to sail past the islands. The commanding officer of the prison was worried and asked for a steamship to be sent. The yacht disappeared.

Even though enquiries showed that these yachts had simply drifted off course, the rumours persisted. The Minister of the Colonies intervened and decreed that no ship could communicate with the islands without written authorisation. It was also expressly forbidden to land or to pass within three kilometres of Devil’s Island. These measures arrived too late. “We have learnt of the escape of several convicts held on the Salvation Islands. The escape took place on January aboard a prison authorities vessel that is thought to have landed in Dutch Guyana. Are we to conclude that Salvation Islands are not a safe place to hold Dreyfus?” asked La Croix in its edition on 5 February 1898. In the same year, a yacht which sailed too close was fired upon by cannon.

At the time, Le Petit Parisien newspaper estimated that this exceptional surveillance cost 100,000 francs per year.

Like papillon

Since the Dreyfus affair, the reputation of Devil’s Island has spread internationally to such an extent that the prison of French Guiana is known as ‘Devil’s Island Penal Colony’ in America.” René Belbenoit, 1938.

With Alfred Dreyfus, Devil’s Island became notorious. René Belbenoit (1899-1959) cashed in on this thirty years later. Dry Guillotine, the book which he wrote from the United States in 1938, immediately became a bestseller with over 1 million copies sold. In it, Belbenoit tells of his twelve years spent as a convict and five attempts to escape. His story was taken up by many magazines and, in 1943, Belbenoit became adviser to the film “Passage to Marseille”, which starred Humphrey Bogart. To the Americans, he was known as the person who escaped from Devil’s Island. Belbenoit never sought to conceal the fact that he had not been incarcerated there, however. In his opinion, it was not even worth thinking of escaping from the islands: “It is so perilous an adventure, with so little chance of success, that only madmen or those who are at breaking point attempt it. For that matter, there are very few attempts – not even two a year – and as for successes…”. Several decades later Belbenoit’s story went on to inspire the most famous escapee from Salvation Islands, Henri Charrière (1906-1973), known as Papillon.

Charrière was a small-time crook and procurer of prostitutes sent to the penal colony in 1931 for murder. He stayed on Salvation Islands from 1937 to 1944 but never escaped from there. He managed to breakout by escaping from the coast. He started a new life in Venezuela, where he had the idea to write his autobiography. In the words of his publisher, Robert Laffont, talking to Libération in 1999: “His talent as a writer came from summarising the exploits carried out by other convicts in Cayenne”. The book was published in 1969 and was an immediate success, selling 2 million copies in France and 11 million worldwide. It was made into a film, Papillon (1973), which starred Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. The escape scene is well known, with Steve McQueen waiting for the right wave to jump from the top of the cliff – something you will not find on Devil’s Island.

As Belbenoit wrote, however, there are men “whose daring is more fantastic than anything the human mind can imagine”. As an illustration of this, he tells the story of Launey’s escape, who was known as ‘La Pomme’, in detail. He arrived on Ile Saint-Joseph in 1923. After having smoked quinine to fake illness, he escaped from the Ile Royale hospital on the spare planks which were used for beds. Belbenoit did not conceal his admiration for Dieudonné either. The only thing Eugène Dieudonné (1884-1944) did wrong, other than being an anarchist, was to encounter the famous Bonnot gang. He was sent to the penal colony in 1913 without any proof. Albert Londres met him in 1924. At the time, he was being held in a cell at Saint-Joseph. He paid for his second escape and reckoned he had been lucky – the naval court had only sentenced him to two years of solitary confinement instead of five. The warden introduced him: “He escaped from Royale,” the warden explained. “It is one of the finest exploits here in the penal colony. You have 95 chances out of 100 of being eaten by sharks. How did they catch you on the mainland?” To which he replied, “In a state of exhaustion, Sir.” (A. Londres, ‘L’homme qui s’évada’, 1928.)

On 3 October 1921, Dieudonné had managed to escape using a raft made from logs and empty barrels. He was captured after forty-eight hours at sea just as he was about to land. For his second escape, he left on two banana tree trunks and floated for three days without reaching land. He then got lost in the forest before stumbling across the prison camp of Charvein. In 1926, it was third time lucky for him. Ten years later, Albert Londres interviewed him in Rio de Janeiro. ‘You only had two years and nine months left,’ observed Londres. ‘I couldn’t take any more,’ answered Dieudonné.

Albert Londres wrote: “In passing, I request that the islands lose their name. It is not salvation there, but punishment.” (Le Petit Parisien, 10 August 1923).