One of our stops was a curious one. You probably know about Devil’s Island from the 1973 movie Papillon with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, or perhaps from the recent re-make of 2017. 

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What we think of as Devil’s Island is really three islands about six miles off the coast of French Guiana. Collectively, they are known as les Îles du Salut, or Salvation Islands. They are the site of the notorious, deadly French penal colony, which operated from 1852 to 1953.

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We visited L’Île Royale, which housed the main administration for the prison, as well as the cells for most of the prisoners. Close by is L’Île Saint-Joseph, which housed the most violent prisoners, mostly in solitary confinement. Completing the cluster is Devil’s Island, which held political prisoners. The most famous political prisoner was Alfred Dreyfus, who spent five years there at the end of the 19th century after having been falsely accused and convicted of spying and treason, largely because of anti-semitism.

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Devil’s Island, viewed from Île Royale

Today, most of the buildings from the penal colony are ruins or in decay. A non-air-conditioned hotel with its restaurant and gift shop stands amid the ruins. We wondered who would elect to spend nights here among the ruins and memories — perhaps writers and historians?

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As we climbed stairs in the jungle, walked along rock walls, and stepped into ruined stone buildings, we tried to imagine the forced labor to build this place. Most people sent here did not leave alive. Cruelty and malaria killed many.

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Even though the ruins are quiet, and the jungle is fresh, the brutality of the people in charge and the pain and despair of the condemned left us awfully cynical about our fellow humans.

On the other hand, the jungle and its non-human inhabitants have happily reclaimed the islands. While on our walk under the tree canopy, we spied a few residents:

A pea-hen and a peacock meandering and oblivious of the camera-toting cruise tourists.

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The ruins and the jungle seemed full of agoutis, which are brown-furred rodents. They typically weigh between 6 and 12 pounds.

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A troop of spider monkeys trundled across the main path just before we arrived. Some of our fellow travelers reported that they stopped to grab Cheetos from a tourist’s hand, but disdained fruits and nuts. We saw them scampering through the tree canopy above us. We think they threw seed pods at us. They fascinated us; apparently we amused — or annoyed — them.

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From atop the island, we could see the coast of French Guiana, and the launch structures of the European Space Agency’s facilities. What a contrast between this infamous prison and today’s optimistic spaceport.

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