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
Published in July 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
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…