Updated: Oct 17, 2020
Do you admire women who seize the chance to do what few other people have done? To count down the days to National Kick Butt Day, October 14, I am celebrating ten adventurous members of the Society of Woman Geographers (SWG). The tenth person to be honored is author and explorer Blair Niles.
Blair Niles on Devil’s Island, Harry Ransom Center
Condemned to Devil’s Island
In 1926, a headline caught Blair Niles’ attention: Passengers for Eternity Board the Martinière—Broken Men Sail for Devil’s Island—Condemned to a Living Death. She put down the newspaper, dumbfounded. Although Blair had read many similar articles by journalists who had traveled to France to report on the embarkation of prisoners exiled to French Guiana, she realized that she had never read an article that told about what happened when the convicts arrived. She thought: “I long to know what lays behind the silence.”
Blair set to work getting permission to visit the South American penal colony. When she discovered that no foreigner had ever visited the prison on Devil’s Island, she feared that her plan was a mad impossibility. Undeterred, she asked the recently-appointed Governor of French Guiana, Gabriel Henri Joseph Thaly, for permission to visit. To her delight, the Governor gave her full access to the penal colony, including the three penitentiary islands.
She learned that under the French penal law of doublage, convicts sent to French Guiana had to serve sentences of up to eight years in prison and then serve an equal sentence in French Guiana. Doublage was Napoleon Bonaparte’s solution to the problem of populating French Guiana, which had been under French rule for over 200 years, and yet was still an isolated country. This was not as successful as Napoleon had hoped, as the women routinely had abortions. Eventually, the government halted the sentencing of female convicts to Guiana. In thirty years, no child had survived.
Blair arrived in French Guiana in time to witness the convict ship arriving from Marseilles, with 687 prisoners and 90 guards. As the prisoners spilled out of the ship after their twenty-day voyage, Blair thought they looked like gray rats, sweating in their thick woolen uniforms and blinking in the bright tropical sunshine. She thought:
“They know little of the land where most of them have come to die.”
She watched as they marched into the Camp de la Transportation, where they were registered into the prison system—stripped, processed, and assigned a number. The authorities inventoried “the men’s bodies, recording every distinguishing mark, every wart or mole, every birthmark blotch and every tattooed design, making measurements, and adding these things to his name and age and birthplace, and to the individual crime histories to facilitate emergency reference.” As she watched a man go through the registration process, she thought, “He is no longer a man; he scarcely has the individuality of a number.”
She suddenly realized that the officials were cataloging the prisoners. “It is as though the officials are amputating and preserving part of each man in card catalogs much like naturalists impale upon pins all that is mortal of once living insects, classifying them as Hymenoptera, Lepidoptera, and so on and so forth, the brittle remains of creatures who had known life. And standing naked in the room, man after man looks on with a sense of horror while an integral part of his ego is inventoried, impaled for all time in the criminal archives of Guiana, their human rights struggling there on a merciless pin.”
Île Royale Prison Cells
The inmates called the prison “The Dry Guillotine,” because “imprisonment in French Guiana was, to them, only a degree less fatal than the descending knife itself.” With dread, Blair predicted:
"Soon, each prisoner will understand that he has lost everything but the tortured physical body and his troubled spirit. And so faint, so uncertain will be his contact with the world that he will soon wonder which it is that has died—himself or the world."
Wardens assigned most convicts to jungle work. Naked, the prisoners felled trees and hauled them away. Inmates assigned to road-building worked on grading a coastal road from the country’s borders: from Brazil to Dutch Guiana. The task was so abominable and deadly that a French journalist who visited Cayenne wrote:
“The question is whether this is a project to build a road or a project to kill convicts. If it’s a project to kill convicts, don’t change anything. All goes well.”
The road was abandoned at Mile 22, less than ten percent of its planned length.
Less fortunate inmates were assigned to Devil’s Island—Île du Diable, made famous when alleged traitor Alfred Dreyfus was incarcerated there. While she interviewed convicts, Blair lived in one of the guard’s houses on the Île Royale, the next island over.
A convict told her that more murders had taken place in the island’s prison bathrooms than in any place on earth.
Although Île Royale is a short distance from Île du Diable, it is separated by treacherous boulder-strewn and shark infested waters that make escape nearly impossible.
One of the prisoners who befriended Blair was René Belbenoît. He shared his prison stories with Blair—many of the same tales he told other inmates such as Henri Charrière, who would later use them to write Papillion. During those meetings with Belbenoît, he told her about opportunistic homosexuality, true homosexual love, sexual abuse, and rape.
René Belbenôit, Harry Ransom Center
When she returned to New York, Blair wrote the fictionalized biography of René Belbenoît, who was imprisoned in France for theft and shipped off to French Guiana on the coast of South America to languish in the jungle prisons there. He had been in French Guiana for five years and had already tried to <