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Chapter 10 - French Guiana - Prison Camps and Rocket Launch

By Neil

sunny 32 °C
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I reckon I must have been about 15 years old when this book first entered my life.


It is a heart in mouth, jaw dropping tale of Henri Charriere who, according to his book, was erroneously convicted of the murder of a pimp in Paris in 1931. At that time France had a penal colony in French Guiana. Papillon is Charriere’s story of his life, escapes and eventual freedom from the prison in French Guiana and his return to Paris.

Whilst the book was fabulous, the 1973 film, also called Papillon, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, was, is, absolutely, one of my favourite movies of all time.



It was 1763, after The Seven Year War with Britain, in which they had lost Canada, the land east of the Mississippi and Louisiana, that the French said “Merde! We’ve got to get us a bit of South America or we’ll be left with nuthin!”. So they sent 12,000 people out to colonise the small province north of Brazil that we now known as French Guiana.


After 75% of the 12,000 people died of malaria, yellow fever, and lots of other nasty things within the first year, the remaining colonists sailed off the coast to the Iles de Salut (Salvation Islands), in order to, er, get salvation from the nasty bugs.

Later, this bloke...


My, that is a rather fetching waxing of the moustache….

…presumably after seeing that less bread was being stolen in the UK after the bread thieves were expelled to Australia, decided to set up a prison colony in French Guiana for baguette thieves. In 1852, the first prisoners were sent to the Iles de Salut.


The Iles de Salut

Between then and 1952 when the prison colony closed, 80,000 prisoners were sent to these now infamous islands. Most died of disease, brutality and overwork.

The sentence for trying to escape was solitary confinement in these cells:

Cellules des Reclusionnaires – Entrance to the cells for solitary confinement.

Doorway to the Solitary cells. The only light into the cells was the barred “window” above the door.

A Solitary confinement cell. Note the metal frame for the bed.

Confinement in the cells was for 23 hours a day. The prisoners were allowed out for 13 minutes exercise per day.

Henri Charriere tried to escape at least 3 or 4 times and after each escape was sentenced to solitary. One of the most amazing parts of the film was Steve McQueen’s physical degradation after being confined to long periods of solitary confinement.

From the film Papillon, showing Steve McQueen’s degradation from the start of the film to the end

Those who’ve seen the film (or see the film) will note the “head through the door scenes”.

Steve McQueen, playing Papillon, in solitary.

Neil, playing the fool, in solitary.

The Iles de Salut are made up of three islands; the Ile Royale (Royal Island), Ile de Saint Joseph (St Joseph Island), and Isle de Diablo (the infamous Devil’s Island). It was from here that Henri Charriere made his final escape. He made a raft of coconuts in sacks tied together. He threw it in the water. It was smashed against the rocks. Then he saw that every 7th wave was bigger. He threw another raft in after the 7th wave. It was taken out to sea……. So he jumped into the shark infested water on the 7th wave and escaped.



So of course, as part of the Big Trip, French Guiana was top of my list.

Then, when we were reading the Lonely Planet guide book, we found that French Guiana is the location of the launch site for the rockets for the European Space Agency. A bit of googling revealed that there was a launch on 6th March! But there was a bit of a technical hitch. To get from Fortaleza to Cayenne in French Guiana was just going to take too long by land. Nik took a look and, by taking to the air, we could make it on the morning of the 6th! Piece of cake.

It was back in 1992 (Good Lord! Is that a quarter of a century ago?) that Dave and I were stationed by Guinness to their brewery in Cameroon in West Africa. Like French Guiana, Cameroon is just north of the equator and, whilst French Guiana is still part of France (and the currency is the Euro), Cameroon is independent. But, when Dave and I were there, there was still a very large French influence.

Getting into French Guiana was great from so many perspectives. Firstly, it felt safe! We had had to be paranoid about safety in Brazil, but in French Guiana it’s just not the case. Secondly, but perhaps most importantly, the food is just fabulous. The cuisine is French, with many ingredients imported from France. It made it more expensive, but completely worth it! On our first day, we went out for lunch. Snails for me. Real French goats cheese for Nik. The happiest of happy days. And then there was the language. My French is pretty good and, after two and a half months of Spanglish and Spangugese it was so nice to be able to understand what’s being said. In short, we loved the place. We even felt safe enough to rent a car for the 3 days we were there. Well we had to, there were no buses…..

Nikki’s lunch. Real French goats cheese !

Half a dozen snails for lunch !


I’m incredibly excited about space. The advances being made into rocket technology by Ariane, Space X, the Chinese, Soyouz, NASA, is amazing.

In 1890, Melbourne Australia was the fastest growing and richest city in the world. Primarily due to the gold rush and sheep.

We are on the cusp of a “Space mining boom”.

If you want to get stuff into space more easily, it’s best to use the Earth’s centrifugal force to “throw” stuff into space. The centrifugal force is highest at the Equator. Whilst there are launch pads in Cape Carnaval, Russia (Kazakhstan), and China, they are nowhere near the equator as French Guiana. That’s why, since 1992, 80% of the satellite’s launched into space have been from Kourou in French Guiana. To get a satellite into space from French Guiana uses up to 17% less fuel.

So at 10.49 pm on Monday 6th March, this got launched:

The Vega satellite launch vehicle with the Sentinel 2B satellite. This was a remote view from the Carapa viewing site.[/I

[i]We have ignition!

We were about 7 km’s away and it was beautiful. Nikki teared up. And so fast! 88 tonnes of fuel burnt in 2 minutes. Awesome.

The launch was for the European Space Agencies Sentinel 2B earth monitoring satellite whose aim is to improve environmental monitoring.

Very, very cool. I’ll put a link into Facebook and into the email.


Having seen the rocket launch, Nik and I jumped on a boat to the Iles de Salut the following day.

We were not the only ones who wanted to take a look and the catamaran was almost full, despite the very inclement weather….


In the tropical climes, the buildings on the islands are slipping into decay. It felt appropriate to be there in the rain, seeing firsthand the extraordinarily difficult conditions that the prisoners experienced every day.

The hospital on Ile Royale


The Childrens cemetery. Only the children of the guards were buried on the island. The prisoners were fed to the sharks. Well, only when they’d died….

The infamous Ile de Diablo, Devils Island.

It was great to finally, after 40 years, get to see it. Even if, it has to be said, that Henri Charriere used a little poetic licence when writing the book. It was a hybrid of not only his escapes, but also those of others!



The following day we tried to visit a Sloth sanctuary.


But there had been a death. Not of a sloth but the President of the French Guianan sloth society. So the sanctuary was closed and we beat a path to the nearest pub.

But more on sloths in the next instalment….

Posted by capetocape2017 14:44 Archived in French Guiana Tagged de rocket vega sentinel iles launch papillon salut 2b

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