On This Day in 1953 – France’s last inmates return from Devil’s Island.


imagesbagnegates

“The Bagne is a charnel house, a mass grave, running from syphilis to tuberculosis, with all the tropical diseases one can imagine (carrying malaria, ankylosis, amoebic dysentery, leprosy, etc.), all destined to work hand in hand with an Administration whose task it is to diminish the number of prisoners consigned to its care. The fiercest proponents of ‘elimination’ can rest satisfied. In Guyane, prisoners survive on the average five years – no more.” –

Doctor Louis Rouuseau, former chief prison doctor.

 

They called it ‘Le Bagne,’ simply ‘the jail.’ They called themselves ‘bagnards,’ simply ‘convicts.’ Inmates of probably the worst convict prison in history, some 70,000 made  their way to Guiana from France. Only around 5000 survived to finish their sentences. Only around 2000 ever made the return trip. Only one in four lasted five years before dying there. On August 22, 1953 the last survivors finally returned. Some of them, like Paul Roussenq, would come to wish they hadn’t.

As the steamer San Mateo docked in Bordeaux harbour it was a day of contrasts. On August 22, 1934 legendary gangster Al Capone had arrived at Alcatraz, fan island prison from which there was supposedly no escape. On the same day in 1953, 666 inmates were returning from Devil’s Island.

There wasn’t supposed to be any escape from the Penal Administration’s clutches, either. While France had adopted the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity there was little equality or fraternity for ‘Les Bagnards.’. As for liberty, former inmate Paul Roussenq summed up what liberty came to mean for many sent to Guiana. However uncertain the future for the returnees, one thing was at least certain.

The dreaded ‘Bagne,’ site of so much cruelty, horror and death, was no more.

Their return was a break with tradition in itself. Right up until the last transport left France in 1938 convicts were gathered at Saint Martin-de-re near La Rochelle before leaving for the Green Hell on the twice-yearly voyage. Searched, kitted out, their heads shaven, over 600 convicts at a time walked through the streets. Most of them were seeing their native land for the last time.

004.jpg charriere papillon
Henri Charriere, AKA ‘Papillon.’

Henri Charriere, also known as ‘Papillon,’ described his own departure back in 1933:

“Neither prisoners, guards or public broke in on this poignant moment. Everyone understood that these men were leaving normal life behind forever.”

In 1953 Saint Martin-de-re was (and remains) an active prison. Fully occupied, those inmates aboard the San Mateo with unexpired time would be dispersed among prisons within France itself. There would be no early release for them. Even after surviving at least 15 years in history’s worst penal system France still demanded its pound of flesh. They still had time to serve and their debt to society to repay. Repay it they would.

After a century of horrors unrivalled almost anywhere the ‘Penal Administration, French Guiana’ was finally shut down. Opened in 1852 under Emperor Napoleon III, the penal colony had long been a stain on the name of France both at home and abroad. Exposed by journalist Albert Londres, the scandal of the Dreyfus Affair and memoirs from former inmates like Rene Belbenoit, the shame had finally become too much to ignore.

Captain Alfred DreyfusDreyfus, falsely convicted of treason and the victim of rampant anti-semitism, spent five years on Devil’s Island itself. Only international publicity, the campaigning of his wife and the support of luminaries like writer Emile Zola saved him from permanent incarceration. Zola’s legendary polemic ‘J’Accuse!’ still ranks among literature’s finest.

The ‘Ile Diable,’ though often used to describe the entire penal system, was reserved solely for political prisoners like Dreyfus. Ordinary criminals like Papillon (despite his claims to the contrary) were never sent there. Only fifty or so occupied it during the colony’s 100-year history, never more than a dozen at one time.

Isolated from all the other prisoners, Dreyfus could only ponder his past in almost total isolation while day-dreaming of exoneration, freedom and his honour being one day restored. His suffering was inflicted through permanent solitude and endless boredom, not physical brutality:

“My days, my hours, slip by monotonously in this agonising, enervating waiting for the discovery of truth…”

Albert Londres had visited the colony in 1923, ironically welcomed by staff thinking he would be supportive. Instead his series of articles caused increased embarrassment after the Dreyfus Affair. As Londres described life in the colony;

“During this month I have seen hundreds of spectacles from Hell, and now it is the bagnards who stare back at me… Each and every day, I dream of them staring at me, imploring me…”

Rene BelbenoitThe appalling conditions of the colony were no secret even to those who hadn’t yet seen them. Rene Belbenoit arrived in 1933, recalling in classic memoir ‘Dry Guillotine’ his peers seeing  it for the first time. As Belbenoit walked through the main gate it finally sank in:

‘”It’s the Bagne,” said the man behind me in a voice that was devoid of all hope. “So this is where I’ll live. Until I die…”‘

Officially closed by decree on July 17, 1938 the Penal Administration remained operational for another 15 years. On November 22, 1938 despite the closure being announced the last transport of convicts left France, most of them forever. When war broke out and France fell under Nazi occupation in 1940 it wasn’t until 1946 that the closing-down actually began.

From 1946 the Penal Administration was slowly wound down. The prisons, jails and dreaded jungle camps were closed one by one. By 1953 Saint-Laurent, for a century the Penal Administration’s nerve centre, was almost a ghost town. The jungle camps like Charvein, Godebert, Crique Rouge, Cascade and others, sites of unimaginable cruelty, misery and death, were no more.

Make-work on the jungle roads nicknamed ‘Route Zero’ (it never went anywhere) and ‘Kilometre 42’ (its total length without ever reaching a destination) was over. Route Zero and Kilo 42 weren’t even meant to go anywhere, they were simply hard labour for its own sake. Guiana’s ghosts, some of them anyway, could now haunt the roadsides undisturbed. Decades later they probably know more peace in death than in life.

No more would whips crack across inmates slowly dying from forced labour, disease, malnutrition and barely any medical care. No longer would escapers die in the jungle or on the sea. No more would a bell toll as convicts were buried at sea, only to be torn apart by sharks before they reached the bottom, the sharks themselves being caught and fed to the convicts. Never again would a convict-executioner, surrounded by fellow inmates forced to kneel and watch, raise a dripping head from the guillotine’s basket and hold it high, proclaiming:

“Justice has been done in the name of the people of France!”

In 1933 Salvation Army Captain Charles Pean was sent out to organise relief efforts for the ‘liberes.’ Liberes were freed convicts still struggling to survive outside prison walls. Often too sick and weak to find work (employers preferring to rent fit, healthy  convicts from the Penal Administration) they existed as best they could.

Few could afford a passage to France at their own expense. Many more were bound by penal policy. Under the hated policy of ‘doublage’ any inmate serving less than eight years had to stay in Guiana for a time equal to their original sentence. Any prisoner serving eight years or more had to stay in Guiana forever, never again allowed to set foot  on their native soil. Doublage had long been abolished for new arrivals, but for those sentenced before its abolition it still applied.

As efforts to close the penal colony had gathered steam the Salvation Army had joined the fight. Even many French administrators and officials wanted to see the Penal Administration closed down. It was too expensive to run, the costs vastly exceeded the returns and the international embarrassment had become too great. Gaston Monnerville, Guiana’s deputy in the French Parliament, was at the forefront of efforts to close the colony down. As one former penal administrator described it:

“Transportation is economically an absurdity, from the colonial point of view it is a scandal, and morally it is a crime.”

Rene Belbenoit was equally damning:

‘If the bagne I knew no longer exists, it most certainly exists elsewhere. The injustices and atrocities I saw are being duplicated at this moment in prisons everywhere. It is important to understand this because a prison is a prison, whether it is located in Saint Laurent or in Paris, on Devil’s Island or in anyplace else in the world.’

Some 300 convicts nicknamed the ‘Old Whites’ chose to stay in Guiana. Their time served, they could have boarded a repatriation ship but declined. There since 1938 at the very least, they didn’t see returning to a France they no longer recognised as going home. They’d been in Guiana so long that it had become their home.

Besides, the France they’d watched disappear over the horizon so many years before had vanished forever. Time and the war had seen to that. Rather than be strangers in their own land they opted to stick with what had become their norm, where life was familiar and made sense.

Doctor Roger Pradinaut was assigned to Guiana in 1965, 12 years after the penal colony finally closed its gates.  He knew many of those who stayed on, finding them a curious mix of personalities:

“The spirit of the old prisoners varied. There were some who were jokesters, others who were raconteurs telling stories about their lives. But others were much more discreet about themselves and didn’t speak much. I remember one man who was always staring into space and from time to time he cried, tears running down his face. And you could see that this was someone who had been deeply traumatised, someone who had suffered a lot, but didn’t talk about it.”

They were probably right. Many of those who did drifted into insanity, alcoholism, drug abuse and crime. France was alien to them in 1953 as Guiana had been in 1938 or before then. One of the most notorious, Paul Roussenq, whose defiance of the Penal Administration had earned him 11 years in solitary confinement and countless extra years on his original sentence, was one of them.

Paul RoussenqRoussenq, among the earliest returnees in 1946, survived only briefly. The ‘Jailbird of St. Gilles’ drowned himself in the Adour River in 1949 leaving a note for a friend;

‘My dear Elisee, I am at the end. At Bayonne there is a great and beautiful river and this evening I will go in search of the great remedy for all suffering: Death’

‘Les Bagnards,’ mostly sent out to die, were coming home.

Advertisements

Papillon – The Butterfly Pinned..?


004.jpg charriere papillon

Meet Henri Charriere. Frenchman, Venezuelan, career criminal, transportee to Devil’s Island, denier of the murder that sent him there, happy to claim to have committed a murder while he was there and general storyteller and writer. Also known as ‘Papillon (due to a butterfly tattoo on his chest) and writer of the eponymous book turned into the 1973 movie starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman (on which he was also technical adviser).

We know that Charriere was convicted of the manslaughter of Roland LeGrand, a pimp of no particular note or repute. We know that Charriere received a sentence of life in the penal colonies of French Guiana with an extra ten-year sentence tacked on to it. We know that he actually went to Guiana aboard ‘La Martiniere’ and that he did indeed know Louis Dega, and that Dega was indeed a forger (and a very good one apart from getting himself caught and sent to Guiana for the rest of his life).

We know that he was married before his exile to Guiana and married again in Venezuela after his successful escape from the penal colonies. We know his mother died when he was only ten years old and that he served two years in the French Navy before joining the Parisian underworld as a safe-cracker. Everything else that appears in ‘Papillon’ is open to question. Did it happen to Charriere personally? Did he steal other inmates’ stories, passing them off as his own personal experiences? How many of them were his experiences or even happened? Was Henri Charriere really ‘Papillon’ at all?

61Y04VCQQZL

Charriere definitely arrived on the 1933 shipment from France to St.Laurent, capital of the colony and of the numerous prison camps that formed the ‘Penal Administration, French Guiana.’ He claimed that his first escape was made within weeks of arrival. Penal colony records state he was there for nearly a year before his first unauthorised absence. That he made eight further escapes, this too can’t be confirmed. That he killed an informer after being transferred to Royale Island, odd to admit that murder while denying the one that sent him to Guiana in the first place. He claimed to have spent several months with Guajira Indians while on the run through Colombia during one unsuccessful escape, which is also unconfirmed except by Charriere’s own account. Charriere also claimed to have saved a young girl’s life by fending off sharks during a swimming break when he was in solitary on St. Joseph Island for an escape attempt. A different account states that the incident did indeed happen, but that the inmate who made the save lost both his legs to a shark and died soon afterward.

While transferred to Royale Island (home to so-called ‘Incos’ or ‘Incorrigibles’, Charriere claimed to have been both a ringleader in a convict mutiny and also to have calmed the same mutiny down, his status as an ‘Inco’ being enough to persuade other ‘Incos’ to abandon their insurrection. Again, other inmates and penal colony records suggest strongly that Charriere was actually a peaceful inmate who caused very little trouble except for escaping. They also suggest he was largely content in his job on Royale Island cleaning out the latrines. According to Charriere he was a hardened felon and desperate escaper. According to seemingly everybody else, official or otherwise, he was happy to work most of the time as a shit-shoveller for other convicts.

There’s also the small matter of his supposed escape from Devil’s Island itself by floating to the mainland aboard a sack of coconuts with another inmate named Sylvain. Sylvain drowned in mud while trying to reach land, according to Papillon, which leaves nobody to corroborate his story or to explain why a conventional criminal like Charriere would be confined to Devil’s Island when that island was only used to hold political prisoners. In fact, of the 70,000 or so inmates sent to Guiana, only around 50 were ever confined to Devil’s Island itself. Neither Charriere nor his supporters can explain that or why, according to Penal Administration records, Charriere’s legendary successful escape through the Guiana jungle was made from St. Laurent where he was assigned at the time. Nor is there any explanation as to why Charriere freely references events in his book such as a convict-turned-executioner’s sadistic murder or the so-called ‘Cannibals Break.’ During that particular escape a group of escapers became so desperate they cooked and ate one of their group to survive. One member of that group (who declined the free buffet) was fellow-inmate Rene Belbenoit, himself a successful escaper and author of the far more reliable ‘Dry Guillotine,’

imagesbagnegates

The biggest problem of all for Charriere’s devotees, aside from the many inconsistencies and contradictions is Charriere’s book, a book he passed off as a memoir and not as a work of fiction, is the existence until 2007 of one Charles Brunier. Charles Brunier was a First World War veteran, armed robber and murderer sent to Guiana before Charriere. According to Brunier, he was ‘Papillon’, not Charriere. Brunier openly acused Charriere of lying and stealing the experiences of other inmates while claiming them to be his own. Brunier was also an unwilling resident of the colonies until 1940 when he escaped and joined the Free French forces under Charles de Gaulle. He also wore a number of tattoos, one of which just happened to be of a large butterfly adorning his chest and the withered little finger, both identifying marks of the real ‘Papillon.’ In 1970, former Paris-Match reporter Gerard de Villiers wrote ‘Papillon Egpingle’ (‘Butterfly Pinned’), openly accusing Charriere of being a fraud and producing much evidence to prove his case. Charriere, infuriated, didn’t try to debate de Villiers’s book, he simply tried to have it banned instead rather than disprove the allegations made. A distinct body of opinion began to coalesce around Charriere being a plagiarist and a fraud, not least the damning opinion of Truman Capote who openly derided him as a liar and a fake.

There’s no denying that Henri Charriere knew how to write, he knew how to tell a story and how to spin a few myths. But as other inmates accused him of stealing their experiences, the official records show him to have lied on numerous occasions, French officialdom openly states that the truth of his book can be divided by ten to get to what he actually experienced, a reliable journalist has solidly disproved many of his claims and Truman Capote openly called him a fraud, it’s pretty hard to deny that he was also a professional liar as well.

That said, he was a pretty successful one. Certainly a better author and liar than he was a safe-cracker. And is anybody of reasonable intelligence really so surprised to read a criminal memoir and then find it’s been spun like a DJ’s record collection?

Somehow, I doubt it.

Anybody looking for a longer account of the Guiana penal system can  find one here, published by my colleagues at History Is Now Magazine:

http://www.historyisnowmagazine.com/blog/#.VEbKyPl4q3v