Hell in Paradise

Ronnie Vorswyk spends most of his days in a Napoleonic jail at the edge of the Amazon jungle. A guide in the sprawling, long-disused Transportation Prison in Saint Laurent du Maroni in French Guiana, the 60-year-old is originally from the former Dutch colony of Suriname, just on the other side of the Maroni River. For the last 10 years he hasn’t been short of guiding work around the prison and museum, partly because he can tell its dreadful stories in French, Dutch and English.

In an ordinary year he would be here most days, but in 2019 it will be difficult for him to take much time off at all, thanks largely to former prisoner Henri Charrière. Perhaps the most famous convict to ever pass through Saint Laurent, Charrière would eventually write a semi-autobiographical novel, Papillon, which was first released 50 years ago, before being made into a movie starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in 1973. It was remade last year with Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek taking over those roles for a film that almost no one saw.

Neither feature was actually shot in French Guiana, but then much of what Charrière wrote never actually happened to him, either. With so much obfuscation, knowing what to believe about the Papillon myth is a tricky business. “But he was definitely here,” says Vorswyk. “You will see – his cell is still here.”

France abolished slavery in 1848, but, just four years later, began shipping out convicts to Guiana to build a new colony. This system had seemingly worked well for the British in Australia and soon tens of thousands of French criminals were crossing the Atlantic to begin hard-labour sentences. Over the next 100 years, around 70,000 prisoners would make the crossing. For almost all of them, it was a one-way journey.

“They were all processed here,” explains Vorswyk under the branches of a colossal mango tree, “before being sent to plantations or the railroads, or to the Îles du Salut.” This bagne system was only abolished in 1953 and for the following three decades, the Transportation Prison was partially devoured by the jungle. 

Today it is an eerie, albeit well-kept, monument to the bleak cruelty of that period. The area reserved for extra punishment was full of macabre practises: the pouss-pouss was a cart on rail tracks that prisoners would have to push for 15km, barefoot, while officers sat atop it; the cachot was an entirely dark dungeon in which some prisoners were held for up to five years. Some left mad, some blind. Many died.

Solitary confinement was common, and prisoners would often gouge their fingernails into the wall to keep track of how many days they’d been alone. Those misbehaving were put in shackles for a minimum of three days, the heavy iron eating away at their ankles. They received no food, water, or access to a toilet for those 72 hours. People must have died like that?

“Sure!” Says Ronnie, a little too cheerily. “Many many. Sometimes people come who had family who were convicts and it’s very upsetting for them to see all this.”

The stillness today may be unsettling, but it must have been lot worse at the time. Papillon – meaning butterfly, in reference to a prominent tattoo on Charrière’s chest – was placed close to death row, within sight and sound of the guillotine. Across from his cell another lies open, a grim farewell scratched into the floor: ‘Adieu, Maman.’

Perhaps prophesising his own legend, Papillon instead inscribed his nickname into the floor of his cell, twice for good measure. He had no plans to stay there for long. Within a few months of beginning his sentence for the murder of a pimp in Paris in 1933, Charrière had escaped via the prison’s spartan hospital.

Though the escapee hadn’t received a death sentence, other prisoners did indeed get the guillotine – officially 50 in 100 years in Saint Laurent – or were beaten to death by other prisoners or guards. Many more watched their bodies disintegrate through disease and malnutrition or be eaten away by parasites. Little wonder Papillon and others became hellbent on escape – even the terrifying uncertainties of the jungle would have seemed preferable to wasting away in the dank prison or collapsing through exhaustion on the railroad. 

The colony never really functioned as the French authorities wanted it to, but it wasn’t quite a failed state, either. Three hours south along the coast, the city of Kourou seems to prove that French Guiana never really had a middle age. Officially an ‘overseas department and region of France’, Guiana quickly transformed from the Medieval brutality of the bagne system into something thrillingly new. 

Amid international outcry, the prison colonies had been shrinking for years before they were officially disbanded in 1953. However, despite much of the rest of the world liberating its colonies in the post-war period, France held onto their South American nation. For a time the territory seemed to sit in stasis, then, in 1964, it was beamed into the future with the creation of the Centre Spatial Guyanais (CSG). A couple years after that, rockets were being launched into outer space – French Guiana had exemplified mankind’s most squalid cruelties, then just a decade later, our grandest galactic ambitions.

Kourou today still straddles those two eras. The CSG fires launchers carrying satellites into orbit on an almost monthly basis, each one a national event. For the Îles du Salut, or Salvation Islands, they are also a major inconvenience.

The islands are now effectively owned by the CSG, but in Papillon’s day they were reserved for prisoners not risked being put to hard labour in the jungles. Though the population now only extends to visitors and those employed by the Auberge des Îles (the only accommodation option) each time there is a rocket launch, the islands must be evacuated for a couple of days.

Charrière’s descriptions have some inaccuracies – the Îles du Salut are only 30 miles from Cayenne, not 60 as he claimed – but he was broadly right in writing: “There are three. Royale, the biggest; Saint-Joseph, which has the settlement’s solitary-confinement prison; and Devil’s Island, the smallest of them all. Apart from a very few exceptions, convicts don’t go to Devil’s Island. The people there are political.”

From a distance, they look idyllic, three palm-filled triplets gently rising from the massive expanse of the Atlantic, reached by an hour-long catamaran from Kourou. The water around the coast of French Guiana is often brown, owing to silt and outflow from deep inside the Amazon, but around the Salvation Islands it is a satisfying turquoise, home to dozens of sea turtles. As Charrière put it: “There were very tall coconut palms everywhere, very green too. The little red-roofed houses made the island look particularly attractive, and anyone who didn’t know what was on shore might have wanted to spend his life there.”

Île Royale has always been the busiest, most developed island. Today, as well as the Auberge des Îles, it has the most complete remnants of the prison buildings, and the most abundant wildlife. Dozens of red-rumped agoutis scurry through the undergrowth, kept healthy by abundant fruit fallen from trees above. They also pick up scraps discarded by capuchin monkeys high in the canopy, and battle with a couple of competitive peacocks for scraps on the lawn near the hotel. In the air there are dragonflies, hummingbirds and, yes, butterflies.

“Some years ago, the authorities started to bring over animals which had been seized from illegal traffickers in the interior.” explains Pascal Ufferte, site manager of the Auberge, “As a result, we see many colourful things here.” The Frenchman relocated to the islands a little over a year ago but had heard rumours of their dreadfulness as a child. “If you were misbehaving at school they would say ‘you’re going to end up in the bagne.’ This was a scary place, somehow.”

Now that he lives here, this sense of foreboding hasn’t entirely left him. “Some of the buildings around really are still scary. Over on Saint Joseph, I’m sure it wasn’t a very nice place to stay… There’s a sentence that stays with me: it’s hell in paradise. If you look at the sea and the islands it could be so nice, but what we created in Napoleon’s era must have been very terrible for the people jailed here.”

Down in the museum in the heart of Île Royale, exhibitions confirm that were a lot of bad men who lived on the Salvation Islands. Some were convicts, some were guards, but given the climate, the fear and the violence, they perhaps all felt like prisoners. 

They lived together, and many died together, too. Guards sometimes brought their families, and some of them also passed away here. A short walk from the Auberge, near the guards’ old quarters on the apex of the hill, a solemn cemetery for children is still maintained. Meanwhile, over on Saint Joseph, a much larger site is the resting place of many guards and their wives.

There are no plots for convicts. Instead, they were fed to the tiger and hammerhead sharks that patrol the narrow channels between the three islands. As well as being man-eating coastguards, the prison authorities must have looked at the sharks as waste-disposal. Charrière writes that these sea burials happened with such frequency that the sharks developed a Pavlovian response to hearing the church bell ringing.

Like many claims in his book, this is probably untrue, but anyone visiting Saint Joseph Island is left in little doubt that they were as nightmarish as Charrière described. While it’s forbidden to visit Devil’s Island (the French military still uses it for training), it is possible to pay catamaran captains to make the short hop to Saint Joseph from Royale. 

It takes under an hour to walk the circumference of the island, a pleasant stroll under the palms, but the Reclusion cells at the top of a hill in the interior retain some of their original horror. 

It was here Papillon was sent as punishment for his original escape, here too that some of the very worst convicts were sent for years of silent isolation. Their cells often didn’t have roofs, leaving them exposed to the elements and to guards who would walk along the dividing walls, ensuring that they kept quiet. In the Papillon films, the toll they take leaves the protagonist with a shock of white hair.

Now the old place is more noiseless than ever. Original beams still straddle some buildings and into them trees have taken hold, dropping strange tendrils down in search the ground. They’re joined by hundreds of spiderwebs and dozens unblinking lizards, the island’s last sentries. Madness never seems far away.

Quite what really happened to Papillon here can never really be known. Though he was only pardoned in 1970, he left prison in 1944, after which he went to British Guyana before finally settling in Venezuela. French authorities deny that he was ever sent specifically to Devil’s Island, much less escaped from there.

The first Papillon film was shot in Jamaica (the more recent version split between Montenegro, Malta and Serbia) and the former convict was consulted on the production and met some of the cast and crew. Unfortunately, the grim shadow of cancer was cast over the rest of his story, for Charrière who died of throat cancer before the film was released, and for screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was diagnosed with it in his lungs a few months later. Within a few years, lead man Steve McQueen would have his own tumours to deal with. 

This wasn’t all they had in common – each made their fortunes through borrowing from the lives of others. The difference with Charrière is that he didn’t admit it. Many of the ‘adventures of Papillon’ actually belonged to other prisoners. By never admitting this, by profiting off the deeds of others while claiming them as his own, Papillon was more a caterpillar than a butterfly. As Pascal Ufferte puts it: “All of those crazy things could not have happened to only one man. The story of the bagne is a true story, but it is not Charrière’s alone.” 

A version of this piece was published in the Culture Trip Magazine in February 2019.

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