Once an infamous penal colony, French Guiana is the heart of the space race, and an eco-paradiseby John Gimlette / June 22, 2011 / Leave a comment
It’s said that no other room in the world has seen so many murders. The old convicts’ block on the island of Royale, off the coast of French Guiana, was once a sort of human mill: a great machine for grinding down the human spirit. Until 1946, 120 bagnards lived in here, cooking, brawling and dying.
Royale itself is improbably pretty. The sides of the island are covered with hanging gardens and neatly cobbled roads, scattered with coconuts and fruit. Up on the peak is a clearing where monkeys, agoutis and giant iguanas graze among the mango trees. Sometimes, long-legged pigs appear, as bristly and crude as the convicts of old.
Around the clearing is the old penal community: a church with a Norman spire, the barracks, a tiny lighthouse and the warders’ mess, now an auberge (€100 a night). “Strange,” I thought on first seeing the place, “an enchanted prison.” The madhouse has been overwhelmed by creepers. The floors of the old hospital have long since turned to dust, and sifted into the cellars.
Each evening, I ate at the auberge: a small filet and a pichet of wine. The only other diners were the archipelago’s policemen. Both officers were from the Alps, and said they’d never imagined a job like this: a network of empty roads, just one old truck, and a population of pigs. I slung my hammock in the old convicts’ block. I soon realised I was not a natural hammock-dweller. My rope was elastic and by 4am I was scraping the concrete and starting to itch.
While not as chic as some French territories, French Guiana—and Royale—are endlessly intriguing: a bit of France stuck on South America’s northeast coast.
Like British and Dutch Guiana (now Guyana and Suriname), it has never felt part of its continent. The Guianas are the odd ones out; they’ve never been Spanish or Portuguese; they’ve never known machismo, or Bolívar, or liberation theology; and they’re so isolated that there’s only one road that links them to the rest of South America (and that’s in Guyana).
Together they’re an awesome proposition. A 900-mile coastline of mud and mangrove gives way to some of the world’s densest, darkest forest, which covers 90 per cent of the Guianas. Huge areas are only vaguely described, and new species regularly tumble out of the dark. Even the more common ones make unnerving companions: here are the world’s largest ants and biggest freshwater fish—not to mention jaguars, anacondas, stingrays, electric eels and clouds of insects. For some, this is hell; for others, an ecological paradise.
Of the three, French Guiana—Guyane in French—is the smallest, about the size of Ireland. It’s also the hottest, dampest and most difficult. The country is criss-crossed by vast rivers and has no natural harbour. Even in 1947, France still unloaded its ships with rowing boats. This wonderful land is not for machines. Cars soon turn to turf, and even concrete seems to rot.
France has never come to terms with the failure of its enfer vert (green hell). Its schemes have been failing here since 1613, one after another. Unlike the other Guianas, there are no great cane fields along the coast, and slavery didn’t thrive. The failing colony became a penal settlement in the 1850s. When that came to an end in the mid 20th century, the population was still only 25,000. Today it is around 200,000—about the same as Hackney.
The result is total dependence on France. French Guiana is not merely an outpost of France but one of its départements. Its currency is the euro. Most flights to French Guiana go via Paris and most visitors are French, taking tours into the rainforest and up the rivers. Everyone here, including Amerindians, is as French as the Gascons: they could fight for France, claim its benefits, or move to Cannes.
Most tourists fly into French Guiana’s sleepy capital, Cayenne, but I arrived in the town of St Laurent du Maroni, on the frontier with Suriname. St Laurent proclaims its Frenchness everywhere: there are yellow triangles directing the traffic, tight little roundabouts, and boxes for dog poo. Most of the older houses are made of corrugated iron, but painted mock-Tudor as if this were Normandy rendered in tin. Billboards show naked women holding yoghurts, and there are blue vans for cops and yellow for the post. Along the river are wide boulevards, and a sprawl of elegant colonial villas, known as Little Paris. Among them are “The Joffre Barracks,” and when I peered through the gates, there were the gendarmes, obstinately dressed in black.
Frenchness isn’t only in the streets, it’s in the shops, heaped on the shelves. Everything that you can buy is imported, every last Yop and Cola Zoulou. French Guiana imports almost six times as much as it exports. But not quite everything is French. I could often hear the tin yawning in the heat, and beyond the town the jungle, whistling and whirring. At the cemetery, many of the old colonial tombstones are tottering, and some have collapsed in the sand. Perhaps St Laurent’s Frenchness was like this, merely a scattering on the surface? I imagined that if for a moment, French Guiana ever stopped importing, the forest would rush back in and smother it in days.
Between 1858 and 1946, 67,000 convicts were sent to French Guiana and all passed through St Laurent. The camp where they were processed is open to visitors. It covers seven acres, and inside, there’s no view of the outside world, just the devastating symmetry of barrack blocks, and the wall all around. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be boxed up here for a week, a year or even for life, breathing hot sand, and seeing nothing but the walls and the sky.
For the hard cases—like Papillon, the character in Henri Charrière’s 1969 autobiographical novel—there were the Îles du Salut. Once you had to take a dangerous voyage along the coast to get to these three islands. Now, it’s a beautiful bus ride through wetlands and forest, and then a short hop by yacht. Only Royale has accommodation. The second, the infamous Devil’s Island, is battered by breakers and is too dangerous to visit. More accessible, and almost as vicious, is the third island, St Joseph. Here, the wind cackles with salt as it lashes upwards, through the jungle.
At the top of St Joseph is “The Maneater,” or La Réclusion. These were the huge solitary confinement blocks in which a man could rot for years. Up here, the sea is no more than a dull disorientating groan, and the forest crowds in. The ironwork is overgrown with plants, and the doors gape open, just as they did in 1946, when the penitentiary itself finally failed.
Back on the mainland, I visited Kourou, once a convicts’ town, and wandered through the old quarter. With its rickety houses and pagoda roofs, it still felt vaguely raffish. Here, you can find a zinc-topped bar and pictures of Montmartre. But most of the convicts had been shipped home by 1954, and then, in 1963, the last political prisoners (Indochinese rebels) finally left. What next, everyone wondered?
The answer lies a few miles outside town. The collapse of La Botany Bay française coincided with the rise of space travel. In 1964, the penal settlement was handed over to the European Space Agency, and soon rockets were sprouting in the jungle.
The Guiana Space Centre is open to visitors. There’s a mock-up of an Ariane rocket which looks like a child’s crayon, 15 storeys high. Once, it had taken ships months to get here. Now Kourou can lob one of these rockets up through the stratosphere, and 20 minutes later it’s floating over Kenya.
I joined a tour of the centre. It was like being miniaturised, with Ariane’s components looking like giant ashtrays and egg-cups. At one point, we found ourselves in a room like a Zeppelin shed except with wallpaper with a giant-sized pattern and carpet as deep as turf. Our hostess took us through the history of French rocketry. The first ones weren’t promising; but then, in 1979, the Arianes appeared. Since then, they haven’t stopped launching, and now set off once a month. This space station, said the girl, launches over half the world’s commercial satellites.
“Why here?” I asked.
“We’re on the equator,” she replied. “A shorter trip into orbit.”
So even the Russians launch from here?
“Oui, Soyuz aussi. Et les Italiens…”
“I bet it makes some money.”
“Bien sûr,” she said. “About a billion euros a year.”
“Do the locals like it?”
“Of course. Before the spaceport they didn’t even have fridges.”
Next came a tour of the launch pads. From a distance, the rocket silos and propellant plants looked like cartons scattered through the bush. Up close they still looked like cartons but we looked like ants next to them. The biggest silos were called BIL and BAF, and it all felt like a set from Tintin’s Destination Moon. The jungle even had its own army of khaki guards, and a fire brigade lent by Paris. As if that weren’t enough, there was also the French Foreign Legion, to fight off whoever might invade.
France had searched hard for somewhere to launch its rockets, deciding against Algeria and Polynesia. Rockets, it seems, had much the same requirements as prisons: wasteland, a vast body of open water, and a dearth of human life.