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   2001-05-04: Devil's Island

South America

French Guiana

Devil's Island


From Devil's Island to Zion
Tropical prison of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus is an
important landmark in Jewish history

San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage, May 4, 2001

By Donald H. Harrison

Devil's Island, French Guiana (special) -- Nancy and I recently came as
close as most tourists can to seeing where Alfred Dreyfus was tortured
during his four-year exile and imprisonment by France. Off-limits to
regular visitors, Devil's Island can be seen across a narrow channel from
Royale Island, one of three small islands grouped together off the
mainland of French Guiana on the northeastern coast of South America.
Although narrow, the shark-infested channel was one of many deterrents
against Dreyfus making an escape during his imprisonment here from 1895
to 1899. He had been convicted of treason in a French military court on
trumped-up charges that it was he, a ranking Jewish officer, who had
served as a spy against France for the Germans. 

The Dreyfus Affair shook the world's conscience, prompting one French journalist, Emile Zola, to
 write a stinging denunciation of
French motives in the case, in the classic article, J'accuse. Ultimately, 

THE GREEN HELL--Verdant Devil's Island, viewed from nearby
Royale island, was the scene of despair for those who were 
imprisoned there.
the Dreyfus Affair transcended those people who were the immediate
participants because of its effect on a Hungarian Jew by name of Theodor
Herzl who was assigned to cover the case by a Viennese newspaper. 

Until then an assimilationist, Herzl decided that Jews forever would be
harrassed and subjected to all varieties of anti-Semitism until they had a
country of their own. As a result of the Dreyfus Affair, he wrote Der
Judenstaat (the Jewish State) and convened the First World Zionist
Conference in Basle, Switzerland, in 1897.

An Israeli serving as a security guard aboard the cruise ship, MV Olympic
Voyager, happened to be aboard the tender that took passengers to the
dock at the 70-acre Royale Island. The short ride afforded a panoramic
view of nearby Devil's island, which is half the size of Royale Island. 

"Some important history of your country happened here," I commented.

"Yes," he replied. "Dreyfus." He shook his head in disapproval at the well-
known story about how brutally the innocent Dreyfus had been treated
From the shore of Royale Island, we could look across the channel at
Devil's Island. Once there had been a cable connecting the two small
islands, upon which could be fastened supplies for the guard detail which
kept an around-the-clock vigil watching Dreyfus in his solitary
confinement. Now one could only see the ruined moorings. Vegetation
blocked the view to the area where Dreyfus' actual quarters had been.

Royale Island, Devil's Island and St. Joseph's Island today are known
collectively as the "Iles de Salud," which can be translated as 

VIEW FROM A LOOKOUT--Devil's Island, where Alfred 
Dreyfus was wrongly imprisoned, is seen through a hole in 
battlements at nearby Royale Island.
"Salvation Islands" or more ironically as "Healthy Islands." During Dreyfus's
incarceration, however, the small triangular group of prison islands was
known collectively as Devil's Islands. As Royale Island was the largest,
its grounds included the administrative headquarters as well as the
largest prison complex.

Truth be known, Royale Island today is quite a pretty place. Its lush
tropical vegetation spreads over winding paths from the dock up to a
plateau where the former prison and administrative headquarters were
located. Today, the island is used by the French space agency to track
satellites which regularly pass overhead. Ironic, isn't it? The remote
islands where Dreyfus once was held incommunicado now play a critical
role in worldwide communications.

Many of the passengers aboard our ship had a passing acquaintance with
the historic Dreyfus case, but given the popularity of the 1973 Steve
McQueen movie, Papillon, about Henri Charriere who had escaped from
Devil's Island in a later era, most focused their attention on that case. 
The cruise ship had shown Papillon on cabin videos prior to our arrival;
evidently the 1958 Jose Ferrer movie, I Accuse, was not available in that

A small museum on Royale Island had only a little to say about Dreyfus,
and the day we arrived there were no docents on duty to expand upon the
exhibit's brief narrative. Dreyfus "used to walk figure 8's in his
enclosure, which was walled off to prevent him from having a view of the
sea," the exhibit stated. "A detail of 14 men were assigned to guard
Dreyfus, who used his wife's first name (Lucie) as the basis for various
math equations to keep his mind occupied. He was not permitted any
communication; in fact, guards would put a gun to his head whenever a
strange ship hove into sight and did not remove it until the ship passed out
of range." 

A 32-page booklet published by the French Space Agency included a far
more bland description: "It is here Dreyfus served his deportation
sentence. He remained on the island from 1895 to 1899 in sometimes very
difficult conditions. Back in France, his supporters strived to obtain a
review of his trial. Zola helped to procure this through the publication of
his famous J'Accuse ... Dreyfus was then found guilty with attenuating
circumstances. It wasn't until 1906 that his innocence was flatly

The booklet explained that the Dreyfus House
Devil's Island closest to Royale Island, while the Dreyfus Bench "at which
he sat to mediate is located at the opposite end of the island on the
headland near the main piggery" -- the contemptuousness of allowing a
Jewish prisoner to take some ease in the vicinity of a pig sty probably not
lost upon the sadistic guards.

George F. Whyte, author of The Accused: The Dreyfus Trilogy , gleaned from
diaries some of the low points of the 1,614 days of Dreyfus's agony on
Devil's Island.

The wall built around his house was a palisades, located so close that it
allowed almost no light into Dreyfus's living quarters. The prisoner
sweltered inside his house during the day. Often, at night, his arms and
legs were forced through four rings that had been rigged onto his bed. As
insects crawled over his body and face at night, he was powerless to shoo
them away.

His life often threatened by guards who had no other duties to occupy
them, and forced to endure conditions that made the regular prison on
Royale Island seem a honeymooner's paradise, Dreyfus often was deeply
depressed during his confinement. Sometimes, he would talk, even shout,
to himself, and become quite agitated, before slumping over and spending
the rest of the day in a stupor, according to a doctor who monitored his

Except for the ability to confide his thoughts in his diary, and his
indominitable will to survive, Dreyfus surely would have perished on
Devil's Island.

The ugliness of Devil Island's history juxtaposed with the nearly idyllic
beauty of its present is staggering. For the Jewish sightseer, this is an
important stop. Here Jewish history was suffered; here kindling nourished
a flame that powered the forge of Israel's statehood.