11 kilometres north-west of Cayenne, a light suspended between the water and the sky sweeps its beam across the ocean. This is the Enfant Perdu lighthouse. Seen from the continent, the arch holding up the jetty gives the islet an intriguing silhouette. This arch was built to support a long boom which pivoted out enabling supply ships to stay well away from the reefs.

The rock has always been an excellent landmark for ships wishing to enter the channel leading to the river in Cayenne.

This rock used to be called Meyoû (cassava), maybe because the island is flat and perhaps acted as a perfect spot for Amerindians to halt and eat their cassava. It was in late 1863 that the Governor, Tardy de Montravel, inaugurated the fixed lighthouse. In the days of the Penitentiary Administration (Administration Pénitentiaire, or A.P.), two convicts were in charge of its maintenance. One day the authorities forgot to supply them and the flame went out amidst general indifference. The starving convicts built rafts and washed up on the coast at Sinnamary. True to form, the A.P found them guilty of abandoning their post.

Lighthouses and beacons were originally run by the Navy until Napoleon entrusted them to the Ponts et Chaussées (the state Corps for bridges and roads) in 1806. The Lighthouse and Beacon authority was granted autonomy in 1869 and is nowadays part of the Ministry for Public Works. It was under their auspices that Julien Prudent was employed – the last lighthouse keeper in French Guiana.

He was born in Saint Esprit (Martinique) in 1923, before going to the mainland in 1943 to do his military service at the age of twenty. The youngster found himself caught up in the conflict which kept him away from his island until 1946. He is still proud of having helped liberate France. On returning home he was offered the opportunity to join the Lighthouse and Beacon authority of Cayenne, and he jumped at it.

Aged 87 now, Julien is enjoying a peaceful retirement with his wife Mildred, living in a little house in the Bonhomme district. The couple reminds us that when they moved in, there were nothing but clearings and forests all around. The situation has changed somewhat since then. On a Sunday afternoon, when the neighbourhood was abuzz with news of the elections in Haiti, we discussed memories of their daily life. Mildred came from Saint-Lucienne and arrived in Cayenne at 19 years of age.

As a man who spent many long years on the two main lighthouses of French Guiana, Julien Prudent has retained a retiring, thoughtful and solitary character. Like all those in daily contact with the sea, he displays a certain reserve when it comes to sharing his memories, and he is sparing in what he says about the joys and the difficulties of his career. “There were always two lighthouse keepers on the island. Initially we worked one-month shifts and received supplies every fortnight. That was a day we took seriously. We went down onto the arch and the boat stayed at a distance and we were very careful in using the swinging boom. Supplies and keepers had to be placed on a “chair” and rapidly unloaded but we sometimes received a few knocks!

The weather paid no heed to schedules and sometimes at the end of a shift it was not possible to land the relief team. “The size of the swell is related to whether or not there are mudflats. Sometimes the sea pounded against the keepers’ lodgings and even the top of the lighthouse,” he recalls.

In 1960 it was decided to build a protective wall between the lighthouse itself and the keeper’s lodgings “the worst periods were the months of January and February. The sea roared and wind blew so strongly that the rock trembled, but we had to go and clean the lenses every morning and light the flame every evening. The wall was intended to act as a breaker for the biggest waves, and the rocks required to build it were unloaded in sturdy sacks in good weather”. For a reason that no one can recall, the wall was never completed.

Mildred adds that her husband was careful to attach himself to a rope strung out between the lighthouse and the arch: “True to his name, Julien has always been very “prudent” (smile) as life is more fragile on that island than elsewhere“.

The weeks passed to the rhythm of daily tasks. First among these was maintaining and cleaning the lenses. Gas replaced oil in the 1950s for producing the flame. The lodgings also needed to be maintained as sometimes the pressure of the waves forced salt water through the slightest cracks in the masonry. Lastly and most importantly was the fishing. M. Régis was renowned for his skill as a fisherman, especially with cast-nets, which he used to make himself when he had a free moment. They also fished with rod and line. “It was quite common to catch weakfish, swordfish, and even some fine sharks,” which must have made landing and going aboard that bit more exciting.

Julien is delighted to see my latest photos of the lighthouse but surprised to see the state of the arch, which is on the point of final collapse.

One day in 1967, an inspector came and decided that safety conditions were not acceptable for the keepers,” Julien says. The lighthouse was abandoned in 1971 and Julien Prudent carried on working until 1983 at the lighthouse on the Ile Royale.

NB: the island is hard to get to due to the many reefs and currents around it, and you are strongly advised not to land there.