Phare de l'Île Royale, French Guiana

Thanks to William and Stephanie Quick for contributing these photos of the historic lighthouse at Île Royale, French Guiana.

A few miles off the coast of French Guiana are three small islands known as the Îles du Salut (Healthy Islands). They were named by French colonists of the 1760s, who took to the islands to escape the malarial swamps and jungles of the mainland.

There are three islands: Île St. Joseph to the west, Île Royale in the center, and Île du Diable (Devil's Island) to the east. Île du Diable got its name because it is separated from Île Royale by a narrow channel having a strong current, making it very dangerous to get on (or off) the island.

Beginning in the mid 1800s, French Guiana became a notorious penal colony, where France sent its political prisoners and its most dangerous and desperate criminals. Although the worst prison labor camps were on the mainland, the Îles du Salut were all occupied by prisons, and Devil's Island, practically escape proof as it was, became the symbol of the entire prison system.

Over the years some 80,000 prisoners were sent to French Guiana, and less than half of them ever returned. The prisons were closed after World War II. Today the Îles du Salut are a tourist attraction, accessible by catamaran from Cayenne, the capital of the colony.

Île Royale was an administrative center for the prisons. On the hill at the center of the island the French built a lighthouse which remains in operation today. The lighthouse is 95 feet tall. In design, it is an unusual hybrid. At the base we see a 40 foot round tower of brick, probably built by the prisoners. Mounted atop this tower is a 45 foot skeletal tower topped by a watchroom, gallery, and lantern.

There is a date inscribed on the upper part of the brick tower. Just barely readable in the original, it appears to be 1914.

These photos of the Phare de l'Île Royale were taken in 2002 by William and Stephanie Quick, American travelers who visited the islands as part of a cruise.

All photos copyright 2002 William and Stephanie Quick; used by permission.

 

The lighthouse stands among the buildings of the prison complex, next to a three-story brick cellblock now falling into ruins.

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July 7, 2003. Checked and revised March 7, 2014. Site copyright 2014 Russ Rowlett and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill