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Once an infamous penal colony, French Guiana is the heart of the space race, and an eco-paradise

By John Gimlette   July 2011

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…

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