January 2022: My three-day trip to Suriname was planned around visiting the French Territory of French Guiana. Since there are no actual flights to French Guiana from the USA, the easiest way to see the territory was via Suriname. It had taken me 44 years to get to Suriname, so yes, the country counter in me didn’t want to leave this blank space on my travel map, especially one that would be so hard to come back to.

About French Guiana and Pappillon

French Guiana is a territory of France, and like Suriname next door, it is pretty unique in South America because it is not Spanish or Portuguese speaking. Instead, it is the only place in the continent that speaks French. The French first attempted to colonize the area and its hostile equatorial jungles in the 1600s with no success. Every wave of settlers was met with disaster. Plantations were eventually created using enslaved Africans, but the French colony remained an unsuccessful distant outpost. It wasn’t until the 1850s, during Napoleon’s time, that France realized the usefulness of the territory. Slavery had been outlawed in France, and French Guiana became an excellent alternative to send all of France’s prisoners, including political prisoners, along with unwanted formerly enslaved people. Prisoners would be used for forced labor in prison camps in the territory, and most would never survive their experience. The most notorious prisons were on Devil’s Island, an island in the Atlantic Ocean to the north of Saint Laurent along the Maroni River. Both prisons were built by prisoners for prisoners. Due to their isolation, surrounded by jungle or ocean were believed to be inescapable. One prisoner who managed to escape both prisons (allegedly) was Frenchman, Henri Charriere, nicknamed Papillon, who wrote about his escapes in a best-selling book later on in life. I say allegedly, because there is speculation that his escapes were just fiction.

Map of French Guiana

Shipwreck

We arrived at Saint Laurent via a boat from the Ameri-Indian village of Galibi in Suriname. When we landed, I immediately jumped off the boat. I scurried off into the territory just in case a French immigration official showed up at the docks to send us off. We attempted to visit the old French prison, Camp De la Transportation, where Papillon was kept and, according to his book, escaped. The town of Saint Laurent was built up around the prison and existed because of the prison. The enormous imposing prison was visible from the boat docks. The area presented me with nothing but photo opportunities of half-abandoned old French colonial buildings and shipwrecks all around me. One wreck started growing a jungle and became an island in the Maroni River.

Shipwreck that formed its own jungle

Black vultures common on the river

Santa Clauss seemed lost

Our first order of business was to enter the prison. I had low expectations of getting in with Covid restrictions and it being New Year’s weekend, but we had to try. The prison was infamous for its harsh conditions. The majority of prisoners were sent from France’s colonies and were all black or Arab. It was an era when whites were deemed more important. It was uncommon for white prisoners to be sent to Saint Laurent, sparing them the misery of languishing within its walls. We stood in front of the main entrance gate to the prison, where 70,000 souls once passed almost surely to never leave again. Inside we could view cramped quarters, the cell where Papillon carved his initials, and even see the room where the guillotine was kept and prisoners executed. Unfortunately for us today, the prison was closed, and its giant entrance door was closed but not locked. I pushed the door open but didn’t get far before being intercepted by a guard. Despite our best efforts, the French-speaking guard was adamant we would not be entering the prison that so many others dreamed of fleeing. This didn’t deter me; I figured we would walk around the prison looking for another place to enter, maybe a gap in the walls.

Main entrance to the prison

 

Inside of the prison

Bank building

Old French villas

Town church 

 

Hall of Justice where prisoners were sorted

Abandoned French buildings

Old beautiful buildings

Crumbling prison wall

The prison complex is enormous and divided into different parts. Surrounding the prison are the beautiful buildings built in French colonial style that supported the prison and the people that worked there and benefitted from it. We came to another prison gate with a guard, but this time we walked in, and the guard permitted us to have a quick look around at the abandoned crumbling buildings inside. It appeared that some of the old prison buildings were now being used as a home for the elderly. As we walked across town, we saw many old abandoned beautiful French buildings boarded up and left to decay. Maybe it was because of the state of the facilities or the lack of people because of the holiday. Still, this part of Saint Laurent seemed primarily forgotten. After exploring Saint Laurent for a few hours, we headed back to the boat docks to catch our boat back across the Maroni River to Suriname.

Abandoned Prison buildings

Buildings around town boarded up and closed down

Another section of the prison wall

Saint Laurent, once dubbed little Paris

Residential area

11 + 14 =

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