The dreaded ‘Penal Administration, French Guiana’ is far more associated with cruelty, inhumanity and death than with survival and redemption. That said, there were exceptions to the rule and disgraced French naval officer Charles Benjamin Ullmo is one of them. Condemned to Guiana for life after trying to ransom stolen military secrets, Ullmo didn’t look like the best candidate for redemption, either, but redeem himself he eventually did. It would take him nearly two decades to do so.
Born near Lyon on February 1, 1880 Ullmo was a spendthrift and, some would say, wastrel. Having already squandered a 75,000-Franc inheritance he also had an expensive mistress and later claimed opium addiction had robbed him of his moral judgement. According to Ullmo himself he had acquired the habit in the Far East while on naval service which in his own mind perhaps justified what he was about to do. Not impossible, but, according to French justice, no excuse for attempted treason.
Desperate for money and with access to classified information, Ullmo stole secrets and tried selling them to Prussian intelligence officers in 1907. The information he stole would certainly have been worth far more than he demanded for it, but Prussian agents, fearing he was trying to sell them false information, declined his offer. Exactly how high a price Ullmo himself would pay soon became grimly apparent. Having failed to directly betray his country, Ullmo now tried holding it to ransom.
When Prussia (part of present-day Germany) proved uninterested Ullmo sent an anonymous message to no less a figure than Gaston Thomson, then the Minister of the Navy, informing him that he had photographs of naval codes and information on the naval base defenses of Toulon (where Ullmo was assigned) and information on the Marine Nationale’s Mediterranean fleet. If Thomson wanted this highly-secret information to stay secret it would cost him 150,000 Francs to buy it back.
If Ullmo was to be believed, opium had robbed him of his moral judgement. His judgement in general may have been severely impaired when, calling himself ‘Paul,’ he agreed terms and a rendezvous for the exchange. His being permanently intoxicated might explain why he attended the exchange in person rather than some more remote means. Unfortunately for him, so did the French police. Hoping to claim 150,000 Fans, Ullmo was about to lose everything.
Outside Toulon lies the village of Evenos, about a kilometer from Evenos, Ullmo unwittingly met Inspectors Sulzback Vignolles and Benoit accompanied by Superintendent Sebille. Ullmo’s arrest protected French naval secrets but not Ullmo’s name and reputation. He had destroyed those all by himself. After being convicted of attempted treason (so avoiding the guillotine or firing squad) Ulmo was dishonorably discharged from the Marine Nationale and sentenced to deportation for life after being subjected to ‘degradation,’ a punishment that to modern readers might require explanation.
Degradation consisted of Ullmo being publicly paraded in the Place Saint-Roch in Toulon in full dress uniform. His badges of rank and epaulettes were sliced and then bodily torn from his uniform, forming an untidy pile at his feet. The public humiliation did not end there. Ullmo’s sword, to a military officer the most obvious sign of their rank and status, was drawn and its blade snapped before it joined Ullmo’s other badges of rank. With that done Ullmo was taken under armed escort to the coastal town of Saint-Martin-de-Re, traditional embarkation point for Guiana. He left France, apparently forever, on 17 July, 1908.
In some ways Ullmo was lucky. He hadn’t been executed and was designated a deportee, not a transportee. A seemingly small difference, but with several advantages. As a deportee Ullmo would be able to travel separate from the transportees. They would be crammed, over 600 hundred of them, in cages below decks aboard La Loire, the steamer then doing the France-Guiana run twice yearly. The cages stank, were dangerously hot, hugely overcrowded and the convicts all wore convict garb.
Most slept on the steel decks which were stained with urine and littered with excrement and the journey lasted three weeks. Disorder was punished by floggings, beatings and the indiscriminate use of boiling steam piped directly from the ship’s propulsion system. When convicts died before reaching Guiana, and many did, they were simply cast overboard. Those who survived the journey, regardless of crime or sentence, had one thing in common. The prison was known to the French as as ‘Le Bagne.’ Its convicts were simply ‘Les Bagnards.’
Ullmo made the trip in comparative luxury. A separate hold was used for transporting female prisoners, but women no longer went to Guiana. Ullmo, still allowed to wear his own civilian clothes, was placed in the women’s hold and travelled alone. He was spared the beatings, floggings, risk of disease, the steam jets or the chance of being murdered by his fellow passengers. He would also be spared the worst conditions the Penal Administration had to offer and they were absolutely appalling. When he arrived in Guiana, la Loire would stop at Royale Island from where a small boat and armed escort would take Ullmo direct to the place that had lent the entire system its name; Devil’s Island. He would remain there alone for the next eight years.
Life away from the Guianese mainland was an infinite improvement in most ways. Approximately twenty miles from the coast lie three islands; Royale, St. Joseph and Devil’s, known collectively as the Islands of Salvation after settlers fled there in the 1700’s. Some 12000 of them had died from disease on the mainland but, by Ullmo’s arrival, salvation was the last thing on offer. By 1908 the irony was bitter enough to choke on.
The Penal Administration had such a reputation for providing slower, crueller death than the executioner that some called it ‘La guillotine seche,’ the ‘dry guillotine.’ It killed more slowly, but just as surely. It had been designed to keep convicts from ever returning home, Whether they survived their sentences and remained there or died was immaterial. Disease, old age, overwork, malnutrition, insanity, suicide, murder, escape or execution, it made no difference. What Emperor Louis-Napoleon III had founded in 1852, genuinely believing it would be better for convicts than rotting in cells, had become a bottomless sinkhole for human beings. More the Isles of Damnation than Salvation, the Emperor had had high hopes decades before:
“The 6000 men we imprison grow more, not less depraved, posing an ever-present threat to themselves, to justice and to society. It must be possible to make their sentence more moral and less helpless if their labours are used to exploit our possessions overseas…”
Royale held the ‘Incorrigibles’ or ‘Inco’s.’ Deemed too troublesome, violent or escape-prone for the mainland, they had been interned on Royale either for a set number of years or for life. Most were there for life unless good behaviour earned them a transfer and most deemed escape out of the question except for convicts with a death wish. Those who wanted to die could assault a civilian or guard, a crime punishable by the guillotine assuming they avoided being murdered by other convicts. Murder was also a common cause of death on Royale, convicts murdering each other went largely unpunished.
St. Joseph held the dreaded ‘Reclusion,’ the punishment block where conditions were so dreadful it was frequently lethal to be sent there. Convicts existed in cells open to the weather, deadly wildlife and disease in total silence sometimes total darkness for anywhere from six months to five years. Those with multiple infractions could be serving consecutive sentences. Either way, the Reclusion often delivered death or insanity, at times having a 70% mortality rate. Convict Rene Belbenoit, later to escape and write’Dry Guillotine,’ described it thus:
“You live in the twilight, from dark to dawn, in blackness and silence. Alive in a tomb, nothing to read, nothing to write on, no work to do. The only sounds you hear are of a kind horribly depressing to a man, of the sea breaking on the rocks, or the screams of the demented crying and howling around you.”
Physically anyway, Devil’s Island was the healthiest place in the entire Penal Administration. Disease was barely there and its few residents had plenty of sunshine, fresh air and exercise. The punishment on Devil’s Island was fare more insidious than anywhere else in the system but as much a dry guillotine in its own way. Sheer boredom and isolation were the order of each and every day.
Despite having lent its name to the system as a whole fewer than fifty convicts resided there during the Administration’s 100-year history out of the 70,000 who went there. Devil’s Island itself was reserved solely for political detainees, ruling the claims by Henri ‘Papillon’ Charriere to have served time on the island or escaped from it. Ullmo, being a political deportee, avoided the fearsome jungle camps like Charvein and Godebert, both of which were nicknamed the ‘Camp de la Mort’ or ‘Camp of Death for their 80% mortality rate. It was there that convict Victor Petit, condemned for deserting the French Army, came to a dreadful conclusion:
“Where we were forced to work, it was when I saw that that the penny finally dropped. It was there that the object of this transportation suddenly appeared perfectly clear to me and it was to eliminate us legally, to destroy us.”
Ullmo was sent for life to Devil’s Island and spent his first year in the small hut recently vacated by Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus, meanwhile, already knew what Ullmo had yet to discover:
“Days and nights pass by, depressingly monotonous. They seem to stretch out to infinite length. In the silence which reigns around me, broken only by the beating of the waves against the rocks, I live alone with my thoughts. How long the days seem, spent in seclusion, without word from any of my people. I often feel as though I have been buried alive…”
For Dreyfus and Ullmo, both men of intelligence with active minds, so little stimulus for so long was a torture in and of itself. It was the dry guillotine at its dryest.
Virtually devoid of human contact Ullmo spent the next eight years reading, minding his small hut and raising a few chickens to supplement his rations. There was little to supplement his mind, little else to occupy him. His drug habit (if he really had one) and expensive mistress were long-gone and years of being largely self-reliant changed him. He converted to Catholicism and had no opportunity to indulge the vices he claimed had been his downfall.
By the spring of 1923 the treacherous and dissolute Ullmo had gone, replaced by a religiously-observant and honest man keen to finally make something of his life. He was one of the very few who entered the Penal Administration and survived and one of the tiny minority who prospered. Impressed by his reformation, Guiana’s Governor granted him permission to leave Devil’s Island for the colony’s capital Cayenne. He would remain there for most of the rest of his life.
Governor LeJeune was taking a convicted traitor at his word, risking dismissal and disgrace if Ullmo found a way to escape Guiana. With that in mind LeJeune added stiff conditions ensure Ullmo’s continued presence. Ullmo couldn’t leave his home in Cayenne without specific permission and had to report to Cayenne’s police station at 7:30am every day without fail. Breaching either condition could see Ullmo returned to Devil’s Island or, perhaps far worse, at least two years in the Reclusion, the punishment block on St. Joseph known as the ‘Devourer of Men’ or simply ‘The ‘Man-eater.’
Fortunately for Ullmo, Cayenne’s chaplain Father Fabre was far more interested in saving souls than destroying them. He was undoubtedly more loyal to Ullmo than Ullmo had been to France, even helping him find work and an employer who was reasonable about Ullmo’s daily visits to Cayenne’s police station during working hours. Eventually Ullmo found steady work with local merchant Auguste Quinry. Ullmo also met a remarkable man whose writings would expose the Penal Administration for what it had become and kick-start the campaign to close it forever, journalist and writer Albert Londres.
Writing for national publication ‘La Petit Parisien,’ Londres had long heard of the penal system and its fearsome reputation. Ironically the Penal Administration gave him virtually unrestricted access to camps, officials and convicts including Ullmo. At first believing he would support the penal system, they couldn’t have been more wrong. Far from being supportive, Londres was utterly appalled.
Emperor Louis-Napoleon’s dream had become a nightmare. A series of Londres’ articles both enthralled and appalled readers. They were followed by an open letter to Minister of the Colonies Albert Sarraut challenging him to see for himself:
“Mr. Minister, I have done my part. It’s over to the Government to begin. You’re a big traveller, Mr. Sarraut. Perhaps one day you’ll go to Guiana. You’ll lift your arms up to the sky and with one well-chosen word you can bring down the first thunder-clap of disapproval. It’s not reforms they need in Guiana. It’s a revolution.”
Londres had also written a series of pen-portraits of notable prisoners and Ullmo had been one of them. By the mid-1920’s Ullmo had secured another steady job as chief accountant for the Tanon company, a position of trust seldom occupied by a convicted traitor. Ullmo’s rehabilitation, Londres’ campaigning and support from his employers and others pressed Ullmo’s case for mercy. On May 4, 1933 President Albert LeBrun finally granted it, signing a pardon. Having avoided the guillotine (wet or dry) for treason in 1903, Ullmo had redeemed himself by 1933. Sent to Guiana for lfe, he was one of the few ever to return.
Ullmo’s return to France, for so long a mere dream, proved a disappointment. The France Ullmo returned to in 1934 was not the country that had cast him out nearly thirty years earlier. Dispirited by what his native lahnd had become, Ullmo returned to Guiana in 1935 and restarted the new life he had made. Now prosperous and running his own household, Ullmo was a popular figure in Cayenne. Locals liked and trusted him. Fred convicts, ‘liberes’ in penal parlance, were often destitute and unable to find work. Ullmo often donated money that was seldom returned. He didn’t expect it back, wanting just to help those less fortunate than himself.
After nearly two decades as a prisoner and almost as long as a respected citizen, Charles Benjamin Ullmo died in Cayenne on 21 September 1957. The hated Penal Administration had gradually closed down after the Second World War and its last parts were closed forever in 1953. Most convicts had been released by 1947 although some were returned to France to serve out unexpired sentences. Sent out to Guiana to die in the Bagne, Ullmo had even out-lived that. As artist and convict Francis Lagrange put it:
“The Bagne simply became too notorious to survive. The whole world had come to know about ‘Devil’s Island.’ Better to put an end to it, to allow the jungle to do its work of obliteration. Most prisons don’t lend themselves to romance unless they have names that capture the popular imagination, like ‘Devil’s Island.’ So, close the Bagne, tell yourself that that episode is over, cloak the State in virtue. Let time, silence and the jungle do the rest.”