The Salvation Islands are located off the coast of Kourou (14 km), but they fall under the governance of Cayenne. They consist of 3 islands: Royal Island (in memory of Louis XV), Saint Joseph Island (in memory of the explorer), and Devil’s Island.
Although close to the coastline, these islands are nothing like the coastal landscapes: the climate there is drier, and the water is blue (compared to the brown water along the entire Guyanese coast due to the constantly stirred silt by the marine currents along the shore. This color gave the name to the Maroni River). However, this paradisiacal aspect does not make us forget the tragic past of these islands, which housed convicts…
It should be noted that the law for creating penal colonies outside the mainland dates back to 1854. After the abolition of slavery in 1848, French Guiana lacked a workforce. In this context, French Guiana became a land of penal colonies: on the Salvation Islands, Saint-Laurent du Maroni, and Montsinery (penal colony for the Annamese).
Albert Londres, a journalist and photographer who spent a year in French Guiana in Saint-Laurent du Maroni and on these islands in 1923 (just 100 years ago!!), was the first to expose the horror of the convicts’ lives with numerous articles published on the subject at that time, and a book recounting the convicts’ lives titled “Au Bagne”. Albert Londres’s reports had a bombshell effect, reinforced by the publication of his book in 1924.
His stay in French Guiana among the convicts would haunt his nights for a long time: “I still dream every night of that time in the penal colony… It’s a time I spent outside of life.” He wrote a letter to the Minister of Colonies, Albert Sarraut: “It’s not reforms that are needed in French Guiana, it’s a complete upheaval!” Albert Londres demanded wages for the convicts, as practiced in other countries such as the United States, medical care for the detainees, and the abolition of the “doubling” punishment.
The “doubling” punishment involved, convicts sentenced to less than 8 years of forced labor, remaining in French Guiana for an additional period equal in time to their sentence. They would then stay in designated quarters in Cayenne or Saint-Laurent du Maroni and had to check in at the penal colony twice a week. Once this second period was completed, they could return to France, but the price of the return was too expensive, so most of them generally remained in French Guiana. For convicts sentenced to 8 years or more of forced labor, they had to stay in French Guiana for life after their sentence was served… The law on transportation was finally abolished by the Popular Front in 1938. 75,000 detainees had been incarcerated in French Guiana since 1852. The detainees in French Guiana at the time of the abolition of transportation remained there and were only repatriated in 1953!!
We visited several penal colonies during our stay in French Guiana: on the Salvation Islands, in Saint-Laurent du Maroni, and I believe the worst cell size (2 m2) was the one for the Annamese. These visits were impactful and revealed the hell experienced by the convicts.
We won’t show you the remnants of the penal colony in this video, but rather the paradisiacal side of the Salvation Islands, which Albert Londres described by saying: “They have turned paradise into hell…”