Photographing around Devil’s Island

by Reinhard Thomas
December 28, 2016

Devil's Island map

Map of the archipelago

Off the coast of South America lies the small archipelago of Iles Du Salut or Salvation Islands consisting of 3 islands. The islands belong to the French overseas department of French Guiana (Guiana) located on the North East coast of South America. Guiana has only about 270,000 inhabitants but since it belongs to France is it part of the European Union and is the most prosperous territory in South America. The reason for the prosperity is a satellite launching station in Kourou from where nearly half of the world’s commercial satellites are launched. A small satellite tracking station is also located on Royal Island.

Royal Island by Reinhard Thomas ©

View from Royal Island onto Devil's Island

In 1852 French Emperor Napoleon III opened the most infamous and feared French penal colony on the Salvation islands and it served as a horrific place of exile until 1953.

Walkway around Royal Island

Although the best known of these islands is Devil’s Island, 99% of the prisoners were actually held on Royale Island. This largest and highest of the 3 islands is the only one that is still inhabited by care takers and maintenance personal.

Settler's and children's cemetery

The 3rd island, St. Joseph was also part of the prison system. The penal colony of Cayenne, (as the area was officially named), had locations along the coast of French Guiana and the 3 islands but Devil’s Island was the most well-known because of its brutality. About 80,000 prisoners were sent to this tropical hell and only 30,000 survived the harsh treatment, unrelenting heat, forced labor, malaria and other tropical diseases. 

Church Devil's Island Reinhard Thomas ©

The church is still in good condition.

Church Devil's Island Reinhard Thomas ©

inside the church

The “undesirables” (prisoners) could actually move around the islands relatively freely since the islands are small and were considered inescapable due to extreme ocean currents and shark-infested waters. Sharks apparently liked and frequented these waters because the prisoners that died were unceremoniously thrown into the sea.  

Storage shed Devil's Island by  Reinhard Thomase ©

Old storage shed along the way

Devil’s island continues to be inaccessible today because of the extreme currents and the fact that it has no boat landing facility. This island was a place of banishment and was reserved for political prisoners. Imprisonment on this island was an almost certain death sentence with over 70 % of the prisoners not surviving their sentence on the island.

Prison Devil's Island by Reinhard Thomas ©

Prison building with cells

The best-known prisoner on Devil’s Island was Captain Alfred Dryfuss, a French Officer who was wrongly accused of treason and spent 5 years on Devil’s Island before he was released. Devils Island was connected to Royal Island by a cable on which supplies were moved between the islands.

Salvation Islands by Reinhard Thomas ©

Leaving the Salvation Islands

When we walked around Royal Island under tropical coconut palm trees, we encountered groups of the beautiful White-Throated Capuchin Monkeys, Agouties and enjoyed colorful parrots, flying overhead.

Parrot by Reinhard Thomas ©

Colourful parrot looking for seeds on the ground

The Agouti, a rodent that looks like a 6 kg Guinea pig on stilts is intensely hunted all over South and Central America because its flesh is prized by indigenous people. Agouties bury seeds in the ground and therefore are an important seed dispenser for many species of tropical trees.

Agouti by Reinhard Thomas ©

Agouti looking for food

We had the pleasure of watching leafcutter ants carrying their “sails” across our path and Iguanas playing in the former warden’s swimming pool which is now a dry pond. 

Iguanas Devil's Island by Reinhard Thomase ©

Iguanas in the warden's pool

The island has a souvenir/rum tasting shop located in the tiny hotel where you can watch Devil’s Island and the ocean from your “hammock room”.

Flowers Devil's Island by Reinhard Thomas ©

Beautiful flowers grow all over the island

Capuchin  monkey by Reinhard Thomas ©

Capuchin monkey relaxing in a tree

The jungle is reclaiming some of the crumbling buildings but others are in fair condition and you can walk into parts of the original prison cells to see how the inmates lived.

Hospital Devil's Island Reinhard Thomas ©

Old hospital and lighthouse

There is also a lighthouse, staff quarters, the leftovers of a hospital, a church in good condition and a small cemetery that contains the graves of non-prisoners, children, and of early settlers. The early settlers fled the disease-ridden islands in the 1600s. A small museum is open that displays some interesting artifacts of the past.

Prison Devil's Island by Reinhard Thomas ©

Left: Prison cell on Royal Island Right: Inside of a cell block

Several songs, books and movies feature Devil’s Island, with the most well-known book, written by an ex-convict named Henri Charriere. His book “Papillon” was published in 1970 and was made into a movie with the same title starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in 1973. In this book and movie, Charriere describes his life on the prison island and his numerous attempts to escape. He claims that he was the only convict to escape from Devil’s Island alive (watch the movie to see how).

Parrot Reinhard Thomas ©

Parrot saying don't touch me

After watching the movie “Papillon”, it was very interesting to visit these tropical islands which have seen the worst of humanity first hand, although fascinating to visit, I was glad to have the freedom to sail away again.

All images were taken with a Canon SX200IS pocket camera. Lens: 5.0-60.0 mm, f 3.4-5.3

Related Links:

Devil's Island - World Atlas
Devil's Island Wikipedia
Devil's Island Smithsonian
Papillon film Wikipedia


Authors Biography & Contact Information

Reinhard Thomas portrait

Reinhard Thomas is a photographer living in Calgary. He specializes in travel photography. Between travels he creates animal and landscape images and has a comprehensive collection of barn and grain elevator pictures.




Previous articles by Reinhard Thomas

Photographing Brazil’s Pantanal the Unknown Gem
Photographing in the Western Prairies
Photographing Madagascar
Photographing Cambodia, Kingdom of Wonder 
Photographing the Spice Island of Zanzibar

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Phone: 403-239-3278

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