Heaving on its axes and caught between the charcoal strata of sea below and cloud above at 1600, the tiny Royal Princess penetrated no-man’s land, that portion of ocean beyond the Caribbean Sea and its multitude of islands densely trafficked by cruise ships unleashing tourists by the thousands on a daily basis, and the desolate morosity of the northeastern quadrant of ocean off of South America where few ventured, destined for the pinpoint specks of the Salvation Islands, the gem of which, Devil’s Island, had “sparkled” with a penitentiary-inhabited population which had vacated the landmass in 1953, leaving a desolate, although tropically lush lilly pad visited only a few times per year by this very vessel. I had indeed made a statement concerning the relative allocentricity of my travel, a decision whose steps I urgently needed to re-examine in order to re-establish how they had connected with each other and how they had somehow led to the current one. Perhaps the brain’s logic of progression had failed to incorporate emotionalization in its deduction process. Yet, here I was, and the idea of turning back now had been less logical than the one which had led me here.
Despite my internal hesitations, the ship externally plowed on at 15 knots…
At 1300, the Royal Princess began its final approach to the Salvation Islands’ Pilot Station, their almost-gray silhouettes, devoid of an appreciable, topographical distinctions, appearing ahead and to the right of the bow beneath the mostly cloud-draped sky. Reducing speed to little more than a crawl, it moved past St. Joseph, whose sandy perimeter received periodic onslaughts of white, foamy surf from the ocean, and embarked its local pilot at 1332, who maneuvered it into a starboard approach to its anchorage off of Ile Royale’s leeward side in the thick, humid, almost oppressive air.
Located on the northern coast of South America between Suriname and Brazil, French Guiana, which had been settled by the French during the 17th century, is both an Overseas Department and an Overseas Region and constitutes the largest portion of the European Union outside of the European continent itself.
Its three main geographical regions comprise the coast, where most of its 209,000 population is concentrated; its dense, almost-impenetrable rain forest, which gradually gains elevation as it approaches the Tumac-Humac Mountains on the Brazilian border; and the two island groups off the coast, the Iles du Salut and the Ile de Connetable, the latter a bird sanctuary.
The Barrage de Petit-Saut hydroelectric dam, located in the north, provides power, while fishing, gold mining, timber, and eco-tourism are its predominant economic activities. The Guiana Space Centre, in Kourou, employs 1,700. Principle transportation includes the international airport in the suburbs of Cayenne, the capital; the Degrad des Cannes Seaport; and an asphalt road from Cayenne to the Brazilian border.
The Iles du Salut, or Salvation Islands, lie eight miles northeast of Kourou in the mid-Atlantic and comprise Ile Royale, Ile St. Joseph, and Ile du Diable.
Settled by French colonists seeking to escape the disease-ridden jungle of the low lands on the continent proper in 1760, they subsequently served as outposts for ships too large to dock in Cayenne, and were initially known as “Iles du Diable” or “Devil’s Islands.”
Ile Royale, the largest of the three and the only one still inhabited, had been the headquarters of the prison governor of the infamous 19th-century French penal colony, which had housed more than 80,000 prisoners in the 101 years between 1852 and 1953. Its current hotel had been the prison warden’s mess hall.
The actual Ile du Diable, the smallest of the three and measuring 1,320-by-3,900 feet, accommodated the leper colony. Among the most famous prisoners, which had encompassed spies, political prisoners, and World War I deserters, Alfred Dreyfus, a French Army Officer, had been falsely accused of treason, completing more than four years of his sentence on the hot, humid, rain-deluged island from April 13, 1895 to June 5, 1899, and Henry Charriere, allegedly the only prisoner to have escaped and to have lived to tell the tale in the now-famous book, Papillon.
A June 17, 1938 decree abolished prisoner transportation to French penal colonies, although it had taken another 15 years before the last one had been removed.
St. Joseph, which grew in size as the ship approached it, sported dense, tropical vegetation above its rocky perimeter, in which several pink, wooden cottages, almost choked by the flora, pierced the green canvas. Ile Royale, a short swim away, had been thresholded by a small pier and several anchored sailboats. Civilization beyond the prison population had somehow established itself here and the boats had provided its maritime entry.
Grinding engines eight minutes later indicated the release of the starboard anchor with four shackles at a 50-degree, 16-minute north latitude and 52-degree, 35-minute west longitude position. Considerable time ensured before it had been determined that the sea state would permit safe tender operation, upon which a voice over the ship’s public address system ultimately pierced the safe, vacation-oriented delusion with the words, “Welcome to the penal colony of Devil’s Island!” The miles covered through no-man’s land (or sea) from the Caribbean to the northeastern edge of South America had deposited me here, and the “tourist route” had been well behind me now.
To put a foot on tiny Ile Royale, or “Royal Island,” which had been more popularly known as “Devil’s Island,” where 80,000 had, until 1953, been accused, correctly or incorrectly, and imprisoned, and whose sole goal, amidst the brutal conditions, had been to escape, had certainly constituted one of the definitions of “exotic travel.” That step both contrarily and paradoxically served to fulfill the opposite of the prisoners’ intentions and desires, of escape. The island, upon retrospect, had nothing to do with the desire and, hence direction of, travel to or from it, but instead personal will which, upon further examination, took on diametrically-opposed directions when the action had been self- or other-determined, the former pertaining to my circumstance to travel here and the latter to the prisoners’ to flee it. To remove that core of the soul, that self-determination, had been the equivalent of removing the soul itself, since the essence of will, direction, and action had been the propelling force behind every living human.
A rocky, inclining path, leading from the single-boat pier to the island’s interior, yielded to a cobblestone, green moss-overgrown one and threaded its way through dense palm trees, lush vegetation, and thick humidity. Hack out a clearing in a malaria-ridden jungle, I had thought, and man will find a use for it, as the French had with the penal colony they had established here.
The island’s sole museum, located half-way up the path, had been a dual-floored, wrought-iron balconied cottage with an off-red and cream façade, shuttered windows, and a wooden shingled roof, and displayed island-related artifacts, models, and diagrams.
A walk to the path’s summit had been met with a treed, green grass expanse of the island proper, and several penal colony-remnant structures, such as the two-story, balconied “Gendarmerie Poste des Iles” or “island police station,” and the brick and block “Eglise Classee,” or church, which had been constructed in 1854. Its “Chapelle des Iles – espace de liberte” or “island chapel – area of freedom,” sported a stone floor; a wooden, slated roof; painted, wooden murals depicting prison life; an upper floor; and a steeple.
The island’s many antiquated, decaying stone walls and pillars had provided testaments to the equally fading memory of this historical period, relics which had been intentionally eradicated from the memories of the souls which had been enslaved by them.
The prominent, orange lighthouse hailed from 1934.
The small, crumbling, moss-overgrown children’s cemetery, sporting cross-adorned graves, provided a strong statement of injustice: the hot, humid, cruel, harsh, disease outcrop, coupled with the premature deaths of those who had never made it to adulthood and therefore had never begun to forge their life paths, had resulted in a final resting place, on the far side of the island not far from the ocean, which had been isolated, crumbling, and seldom-visited. How, indeed, can one be remembered for his contributions and achievements when he had never lived long enough to create them?
The summit-perimeter path led round the cottages of the island’s only “auberge,” which featured stucco walls, shuttered windows, corrugated metal roofs, and small front porches.
Amid the decaying ruins, half-walls, and cells had been the “quartier des condamnes” which featured the rusting, wrought-iron bases once used as beds and the wall-connected bars to which the prisoners had been nightly shackled. It had been in the narrow cells with their small, single, high-arched windows covered with wrought iron bars where the prisoners had awaited the completion of their sentences or death, both of which had served as “releases.”
The solitary confinement cells, which were located across the way and were equally small, offered no window and, hence, when their doors had been closed, were reduced to total blackness. Channels of human senses and perception had served no purpose during these times.
A weed-overgrown reservoir had been dug by the prisoners, who had done so while braving the oppressive, breath-inhibiting humidity; torrential rains; disease-transmitting mosquitoes; and skin-tarring rays of the equatorial sun, one teaspoon at a time—the only “tools” they had been given to complete the project.
A walk through the small hotel’s lobby, which had been the prison warden’s mess hall and now housed the bar and a tiny gift shop, led to a tabled, outdoor patio where patrons eat the daily three-course “menu,” quoted in euros, and enjoy views of the actual, rock, palm-covered, 131-foot-high Devil’s Island across the water, which had served as the Emperor Napoleon III’s decreed penitentiary.
The collective, three pinpoints known as “Devil’s Island,” had, more than any other place, been a study of cruelty, torture, endurance, and survival inflicted by humans to humans, which used the planet’s existing, natural elements to heighten it, and hence forced one to examine that fine, instantaneously severable line between life and death, the island’s conditions often inducing one to think “beyond” that line as the sometimes only viable alternative of “escape.”
As a study, it had offered two paradoxes over and above the one already contemplated upon arriving here. The first of these involved past primitiveness and future advancement. Its harsh, uninhabited conditions, only now overgrown with lush flora, beckons of the bowels of human behavior—criminality—yet its present tracking station serving the Ariane Space Program whose launch pad, located 12 miles away on the French Guiana mainland, hinted at its future, as it now plays a role in manned and unmanned missile and rocket launches which transcend the boundary of the planet itself, an example of humans fostering advancement for the benefit of humans, and hence the diametric opposite use of the island for humankind’s goals. The world is, according to Shakespeare, indeed a stage, and its people only players in whatever scenario it is deemed most appropriate for its current cause. Time and intended goal are the parameters which had distinguished Devil’s Island from past to future, from penal colony to space program, from planetary prison to planetary escape.
The second of the latently discovered paradoxes had been created by my ship itself, the Royal Princess, anchored in the distance and visible as I descended the cobblestone path back to the pier. Appearing an infinitesimal speck in the vastness of ocean already sailed, it had, at the same time, served as the “bridge” of connectivity, the floating path I had walked to travel here, re-linking civilization. Because of Devil’s Island’s population scarcity, and its very uncivilized historical use, it had, in essence, been civilization—and hence seemed grossly out-of-place.
As I crossed the short distance from the island to the anchored vessel on the ship’s tender filled with thoughts, lessons, and paradoxes, of one thing I had been quite sure—namely, that I had performed a feat its 80,000 prisoners had only dreamt of—the rapid, effortless, unimpeded, willful departure from it, without a single hindrance or hesitation.
Obstacles in life are, indeed, only insurmountable when another person’s will is contrary to your own—the ultimate source of planetary conflict.