What the Devil!

We sailed out the enormous maw of the Amazon River and headed north.

Our good ship began to roll with the waves of the broad Atlantic. I headed for sick bay and picked up a few tablets of meclizine for myself and my wife. That was a good move, because crossing the ocean from Brazil to French Guiana becomes a long haul. 

Alfred Dreyfus in 1894, photographed by Aron Gerschel. Public domain.

On the morning of our third day at sea, we stood a few hundred meters off Devil’s Island.

And there we stood. 

Our cruise itinerary noted a brief excursion, on foot, over the grounds of the now-defunct penal colony, where Captain Alfred Dreyfus had been imprisoned from 1895 to 1899.

The French Army’s counter-intelligence section discovered a leak of military secrets in 1894. Suspicion quickly settled on Dreyfus, the only Jew on the general staff, and he was convicted of treason. Even after another officer confessed to having been the spy, it took years for Dreyfus to regain his freedom and clear his name. So “the Dreyfus affair” became France’s most celebrated case of miscarried justice—justice colored by more than a tinge of antisemitism.

As background to our projected trek on Devil’s Island, Viking Cruises had shown us the film Papillon—the 2017 film starring Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek, not the 1973 classic with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman—which was based on a mostly fictitious memoir by Henri Charrière, one of the few Devil’s Island prisoners ever to make a succcessful escape.

Our disappointment was palpable when, after this buildup, we were not permitted to land. The only way ashore was by ship’s tender. We would have had to step from the large, stable ship into a small lifeboat bobbing on the tremulous sea. Had we been a shipful of young Olympians, Viking might have chanced the maneuver, but hardly a passenger aboard was under seventy. The captain’s decision was undoubtedly correct; the swells were too great.

Émile Zola in 1902. Self-portrait. Public Domain.

The thing is, Dear Reader: We cannot know precisely what we missed. No guided tour was planned—only self-guided exploration of some ruins, perhaps bearing explanatory signs. But would we have been exploring the real Devil’s Island, the place where Dreyfus languished until a nationwide campaign led by literary lion Émile Zola prompted the reconsideration of his case?

The answer is not clear, Gentle Reader. “Devil’s Island” is one of those terms that has several varying degrees of precision. 

For example, if you say, “Mâitre Renard, convicted of stealing cheese from Mâitre Corbeau, was shipped off to Devil’s Island”—you may be referring generally to French Guiana. The whole colony was a large penitentiary, to which more than 80,000 prisoners were banished over the 101-year period from 1852 to 1953. Devil’s Island, the most notorious part of this penal colony, has come to stand in common parlance for French criminal punishment in general.

Mâitre Renard prepares to grab Mâitre Corbeau’s fromage. Public domain image.

One small part of this large penal system was the group of three small islands—the Îles du Salut or Salvation Islands—collectively known as “Devil’s Island.” The three islands are Île Royale, Île Saint-Joseph, and Île du Diable. All three of these islands held prisoners, but only one of the three was the Île du Diable—Devil’s Island. This island was originally the colony for prisoners with leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease. Later, it was reserved for political prisoners, of which Dreyfus was one.

Devil’s Island seen from Île Royale. The small cottage at right is where Dreyfus was imprisoned. Photo by Christian F5UII, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Our cruise director, David, called our planned excursion site “Devil’s Island,” but he also called it “Isle Royale.” I conclude that, had the excursion happened, we would have been landed on Île Royale, which appears to have a pier where our tender could have dropped us. From there, a short hike would have taken us to the back side of the island, where we could see Île du Diable across six hundred meters of water, as shown in the photo above. So we would not have set foot on Devil’s Island, but only on “Devil’s Island,” in the plural sense.

But we’ll never really know, will we? 

The best thing about Devil’s Island would have been the simple opportunity to set foot on land after three days at sea.

The second best thing about Devil’s Island—speaking more generally—is the 1955 movie We’re No Angels, a wry comedy in which three Devil’s Island escapees—desperadoes played by Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, and Aldo Ray—come to the rescue of a bumbling shopkeeper and his family in the mainland town of Cayenne at Christmas. 

If you haven’t seen We’re No Angels, do yourself a favor. Pop some corn, put your feet up, and make a highly enjoyable two-hour escape into Devil’s Island.

Next week: Up the Caribbean.


Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage: A Tale of Immigration and Liberation

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)