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Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Devil's Island by Harry Hayes. The Salvation Army's involvement in the French Penal Colony.


Devil's Island
Centuries ago in France, it was decided that criminals should be made use of, instead of merely being shut away from society. Many were sentenced to a life of slavery, to serve on galleys, sea-going ships powered by oars, but when galleys were superseded by more modern means of sea-travel, the French government built huge prisons in seaports. The men were chained together in pairs and were given an unbearable life of forced labour. When slavery was abolished in 1848, it was decided to use criminals to colonise the French overseas possessions.

French Guiana, discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1496, is on the North coast of South America, and it was decreed that a convict settlement be established there. By 1852 the settlement was in operation and by the end of the year 2,220 convicts had been imprisoned there. They were allowed to be hired out for work, and to exercise trade to some small degree, and when their sentences were served, they were given a piece of arable land, a house, and tools. This was designed to restore them in due course to normal citizenship.

The Islands of Salvation, which were chosen for the worst of the criminals, consisted of three islands; Royal, St. Joseph, and Devil's Island. Few convicts were able to escape across the shark-infested seas, and there were many man-traps in the jungle to deter them. Disease was rife, and wild animals took their toll; mosquitoes spread malaria, and accidents whilst working in the forests added to the death toll. The criminals fought amongst each other, and were often killed. Devil's Island was a human, equatorial inferno. Convicts who died there were buried in their chains. Convicts caught trying to escape were sentenced to 200 lashes; shirking workers were likely to be stripped naked, coated with molasses and staked to an anthill all day, as an incentive to their fellows. Devil's Island was largely unknown to North Americans until Dustin Hoffman and the late Steve McQueen were portrayed as two of its inhabitants in the film Papillon. Whilst serving their sentences, the men had to clear the land for farming, work in the immense forests cutting down trees for export, clear the swamps for fruit growing, and build their own huts, usually whilst chained in pairs. The prisons were in very poor condition, and many of the huts housed eighty prisoners or more. Medical attention was minimal, and medicines almost non-existent. The heavy cost of their return to France was an enormous deterrent, for the convicts had to pay their own return fares, and most of them only left the settlement by death, or by escape. The climate was very poor indeed, disease was rampant, most of the country being untamed jungle. For many years stories had come back to France, telling of the inhuman conditions in the Islands, and in 1928 the Salvation Army in France sent out a young officer called Charles Pean to see for himself the life in the penal colonies and report back to Paris HQ. Charles, a youthful, fun-loving and high-spirited officer, who once snipped off a fellow cadet's moustache and later mailed it to him, was never to forget his time on Devil's Island. He stayed in Guiana a month, and was given every chance to see the way the convicts lived. The worst jungle camp was New Camp, which had 268 men, all with little hope of surviving for long. The governor begged him to get the prison closed down. It was said that after 80 years, when many thousands of lives had been lost, it had cost the government tens of millions of francs, and the land was worse than at the start of the colonisation.

Born in 1901. Charles Pean first heard of The Salvation Army in Algeria, where he saw in 1912 a report of the death of William Booth. General of The S.A. Back in France at the age of 18, he learnt to drive a car, and took a holiday job as a chauffeur with the S.A. to earn some money. He attended a campaign meeting, and was converted as a Christian; he then offered his services to The Salvation Army, and took his old Ford car 500km (300+ miles) to Paris. After the three-day journey, he presented himself at the Training College and was eventually allowed to stay at the College on three months' trial. Officership followed. and after his military service Charles was appointed to Marseilles, then back to Paris. One day Commissioner Albin Peyron called him into his office and said "We have prayed much and decided to send you to Devil's Island." General Bramwell Booth directed him to work for the salvation of the convicts, and to set up a colony for any who were liberated from the prisons; if possible to reunite them with their families and to organise their repatriation to France. Pean saw the desperate plight of the prisoners. On his arrival in 1928, there were 12,000 prisoners. mostly imprisoned for long terms. They were locked up at 6pm and then allowed out of their huth at 6 am next morning to start their day's work in the forests and jungle; on the farms and in the fruit-growing areas. Groups were instructed to clear vegetation from the roads in the camp, but hardly managed more than a few yards a day, because of the sultry heat, and because many were ill with tuberculosis and other diseases. Their clothing and shoes were inadequate, and often discarded in the height of the day, when the heat was unbearable.

Punishments were savage for those who disregarded the rules, ranging from extra work to execution by guillotine. One convict, Hespel, operated this savage instrument on more than thirty occasions, until the day when he himself was sentenced to death. He pleaded that he would be allowed to set up the machine for his last time, but was refused permission. Instead, he had his neck tattooed with a line of dots, and the inscription "cut along this line" — very black humour indeed!

At last the visit came to an end, but not before Pean himself had a severe bout of fever. It took another five years for the Army to prepare for the official opening of its work there. Meanwhile, Pean had married and become a father of two small children, and was generally quite happy doing evangelical work in his homeland, "But", he said, "My heart was on Devil's Island and it was there, at the request of the Army and those who were volunteering for the work, that I set forth to organise the endeavour in 1933." At last, he was able to take out a group of officers and to set up hostels for those who had served their sentences.

Initially, a farm was commenced, and was soon self-sufficient in food, and shark meat from the surrounding seas. Soon 500 mouths were being well-fed. Further centres were opened, then on the mainland a hostel was opened, with a restaurant and a workshop, where the men could make things to sell and pay for their keep. A farm was started, with 20 ex-convicts, who cleared land, built huts, and planted bananas. Pineapples and maize. As land was cleared, more men joined them, and then pigs were kept for food and for sale. Pean, who was not accompanied by his family at this time, recalled in his writings that there were 12,000 male convicts roaming the islands, where there were no women. At least 100 had been condemned for sexual violence and the murder of children, and there was no protection for the Army women or the eleven children born to officer couples in the colony. "Yet", he said "in twenty years we never had a problem. Isn't that a miracle?"

Over the next few years, Charles Pean gave some 600 lectures throughout France and North Africa, about the Army's work on Devil's Island, and wrote four books, and in 1938 the French Minister of Justice stated in all honesty that the work in closing down the penal colony could not have been started without the work of The Salvation Army. Although progress was soon made in closing down the camps, criminals were still being sent out to Guiana. It was then decided that as time-served prisoners had no desire to stay in the country, the colony was to be closed down, and by mid-1939, 804 men had returned home under the auspices of The Salvation Army. Unfortunately, with the outbreak of war, these plans were dropped, but with peace came the resumption of the plans to close down all the Guianan penal settlements. All those who had served their terms would be set free in France; those still with time to serve would finish their sentence in France. Soon the camps themselves began to die, as the jungle swiftly closed in, obliterating a hundred years of misery.

The Salvation Army took over the work of sending men home, going with them, helping them to settle down again with their wives and families, and finding them work. In August 1946, the ship Athos reached Marseilles with two thousand passengers - of which 144 were repatriate convicts - and an escort of Salvation Army officers, together with the repatriates' entire possessions. Four military lorries took them to the S.A. People's Hostel, and at one o'clock everyone sat down to a hot meal. In the afternoon, the trucks transported their passengers to the railway station. Seven boats arrived that day, and five the next day Some of the men had served 35 years or more on Devil's Island or one of the other convict settlements. Others were taken to Oran, in Algeria, at that time also a French colony, where officers and soldiers of the Oran S.A. Corps gave them food and drink. Two days later, further repatriates were landed in other North African ports, including Tunis. They were escorted by S.A. officers, many of whom, recorded Pean, had given the best years of their lives in the sacrifice for the convicts of Devil's Island, some of them women, who went out with fair hair - and came back white!

From 1946 to 1948 boatloads of liberated people went back to France, the last batch arriving home in October, 1952. The Army's repatriation work in Cayenne, the French Guianan capital on the mainland, was wound up by the end of 1949, and in St Laurent by the end of 1952. The last convict left Devil's Island in August 1953. In all, about 2,000 men were now freed, out of the 70,000 who had been sentenced to long terms in Guiana, by far the larger number of whom died there. An account written in 1953 states that several of the repatriated men had already achieved high positions in commerce and industry; very few had fallen again into trouble, and the S.A. had remained easily available to all of them.

Devil's Island once housed Albert Dreyfus, the celebrated French Jew, an army captain. Dreyfus, with few friends amongst his brother officers, was convicted in 1894 for supplying Germany with military secrets. As a Jew, and therefore an 'alien', Dreyfus was the ideal suspect, unlike the real traitor, Ferdinand Esterhazy, a fashionable and witty scoundrel, whose marriage into the French aristocracy concealed a deep loathing for France. Emil Zola, eminent French author, fought for years to get Dreyfus's conviction overturned, was subsequently tried for libel, forced to flee the country and died without seeing his caused vindicated. In 1906 Captain Dreyfus was released and rehabilitated with the rank of Major, but his twelve years in solitary confinement left him permanently scarred. It was only as recent as 1998 that President Chirac apologised in the name of France to the descendants of Dreyfus, for the "dark stain, unworthy of our country and our history".

Today, French Guiana has a new function to play as a missile tracking station, with a space rocket base at Kourou, on the mainland, 15 miles from Devil's Island. In 1960 the French Government put Devil's Island up for sale; there is a hospital, a fortress, and forty cell blocks. As yet, there have been no offers, and the island remains a memorial to seventy thousand men who lived, slaved and died there.

1 comment:

Quentin Castle said...

A wonderful account of our work in the last days of that terrible place. may we never see it's like ever again.