“Are the French secretly so ashamed of Devil’s Island that they want the jungle to swallow it up?” wonders Correspondent Paul Lewis at the first stop of his New Year’s island-hopping adventures in the Caribbean.
“The name is now shorthand for one of the harshest penal colonies in history, which flourished here between 1852 and 1946 on three tiny islands off the coast of French Guiana, ironically known as the Salvation Islands.
“The faux-traitor Alfred Dreyfus was its most famous inmate, spending five years on Devil’s Island itself, the smallest and harshest of the three and reserved for political prisoners and the most violent criminals. But the prison’s notoriety was boosted by Henri Carrière’s best-selling account of his escape from the islands, ‘Papillon,’ which became a successful movie. ‘Dry Guillotine’ by René Belbenoit was an earlier best-seller about the appalling conditions on the islands.
“The colony was opened by Napoleon III after he declared himself Emperor, to house dissenters. But it was also an instrument for colonizing Guiana. Prisoners completing sentences of up to eight years had to spend an equivalent time in the colony, while those with longer sentences could never leave.
“Today, the prison buildings have been declared an historical monument that the French government is supposed to maintain. But it is doing nothing to preserve the place, and, if present trends continue, the hell-hole that was Devil’s Island is unlikely to survive another 20 years.
“Visitors arriving at the pretty little jetty on Royal Island (Isle Royale), the largest of the three, climb a jungle path amid monkeys, egrets, and colored birds to reach the prison colony’s former headquarters. This pile of coral blocks and rusty tin roofing is now cheap hotel called the Auberge des Isles with a largely backpacker clientele.
“But the rest of this monument to man’s inhumanity to man is fast disappearing into the voracious forest.
“In the infamous solitary confinement block, which daylight barely entered, the cell doors are falling off their hinges, and the building looks on the point of collapse. Several other cell blocks have collapsed completely, as has the prison hospital. The crumbling, rubbish-strewn chapel is closed to visitors, while the cemetery, for guards and their families carried off by fever, is a jumble of broken stones and cracked open graves. (Dead convicts were fed to the sharks.)
“The original Devil’s Island and Dreyfus’s prison hut are off-limits to visitors because the cable-guided ferry through the treacherous currents that surround the island is no longer working. And all three islands have to be evacuated every time France’s nearby Kourou Space Station fires a rocket into the heavens, lest it fall back onto them.
“Although France clearly has good reason to want to forget about Devil’s Island, locals at the Auberge des Isles say a restoration plan has been promised, but money is scarce and costs high. Some wonder whether the U.S. might help. ‘The Americans restored Versailles so maybe they will help here, too,’ says a Frenchwoman who works in the hotel.”
P.S. With both temperatures and frozen white stuff falling across North America and Europe, the idea of a Caribbean island escape is tempting right now. We’ll continue reporting on Paul’s sun-filled island-hopping adventures throughout the week, therefore, with stops in Trinidad and Toboga, St. Lucia, and Sint Maarten/St. Martin…
“Kathleen, please pass this along to Tom S. who wrote on Friday to express his worry that your Panama conference might turn out to be little more than an infomercial.
“Tom, it is just as Kathleen says. No pressure sales. Just good information. You can act on the information as you choose. Then do more research on your own. I know. I have been there.”
— Elmore S., United States
“Is it possible have residency in several Central American (or maybe Caribbean) countries at the same time–for example, Panama, Belize, plus say one other?”
— Joel N., United States
Yes, you could have official residency status in more than one country at a time. Generally speaking, though, this isn’t necessary. It’s possible to move around from country to country to country without being a legal resident of all of them. Typically, you can spend up to six months a year in a country without establishing yourself as a full-time
I know someone who is living and working in the Dominican Republic but who has established residency in Uruguay. The eventual intention is to apply for passports in both countries, in the interest of keeping options open. I’d say, though, that, unless a passport is your end game, official residency in more than one country at a time doesn’t make sense…especially if any of the countries in question require you to pay taxes on your worldwide income as a foreign resident. Of course, that wouldn’t be an issue for Belize or Panama.