Continuing the saga of There to Here ... Join Nine of Cups and crew as we visit the Guianas ... French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana ... from the infamous Devil's Island to bird singing contests to Kaiteur National Park ... lots to see and do. Come on along!Read More
“Six thousand convicts locked up in our prisons put a severe strain on our budget, decaying steadily day by day, and constantly threatening society. It seems to me that we can make hard labour more effective, less moralistic, less expensive, and above all, more humane by using it to develop French colonies.” So spoke Louis Napoleon Bonaparte in 1850 in a public speech. The first deportation of prisoners from France to French Guiana began in 1852, just two years following his speech.
The day threatened rain ...no painting, no varnishing aboard Nine of Cups...a good day to visit Le Camp. We bought our tickets at the Office de Tourisme (€6/pp) and requested an English-speaking guide. British cruisers, Chris and Karen, new arrivals on s/y Moontide, joined us. “Meet your guide in Le Camp under the guava tree”, the tourism lady told us. It was an odd feeling passing through the arched gate and into the prison grounds, knowing that 70,000 convicts has passed through this same portal throughout a century under much different circumstances. Ronnie, our guide, joined us promptly at 1100.
Shaped as a huge rectangle, Le Camp was built by and for convicts. Saint-Laurent was chosen because of its isolated location up the Maroni River surrounded by dense and hostile jungle. The chances of escape were minimal. The town was nothing more than a small village inhabited by AmerIndian people when the first ship of convicts arrived. Between 1890-1930, Le Camp was constructed with punishment in mind.
We entered the “prison within a prison”, following Ronnie's lead. When he locked the door behind us, we gave each other a raised eyebrow. It was eerie being here. Arriving prisoners who were deemed “hardened”, were kept in block houses, sometimes 80 men to a block. The goal was to break their bodies and their spirit. They laid on concrete slabs, shoulder to shoulder, their legs secured to iron “justice bars”. Here they lay for 20-22 hours per day for days, sometimes weeks at a time … sweating, vomiting, soiling themselves, unable to move.
Another section of the prison housed “relegues”. These were vagabonds, vagrants, homeless or petty thieves that France sent along with other criminals just to be rid of them. The rule here was that after you served your sentence, you must spend the same amount of time in the colony working as a “free” man. If your sentence was less than seven years, you could return to France. However, the cost of passage on a ship returning to France was prohibitive. Few could ever return. If your sentence was more than seven years, you could never return to France.
Rules were severe. For instance, the bottom half of all walls including inside the cells was covered in charcoal. If a guard noted any charcoal on a prisoner's clothes, indicating that he had leaned against a wall, he was punished. If a prisoner spoke, he was punished. Punishment ranged from reduced rations to total seclusion in a lightless room for months or even years or to death by whipping or guillotine. Some prisoners opted for death. Death row, “quartier special”, was comprised of 12 cells with clear views of the guillotine area.
One group of prisoners was separated from the other by fences and gates. Fraternization was discouraged. It was every man for himself, and the prison system made it difficult to survive.
We were sweating as we walked across the grassy grounds and stood in the shade of guava trees to listen to Ronnie. He reminded us that there was no grass, no shade, no respite from the sun and heat for prisoners.
Our knowledgeable guide demonstrated one of the punishment methods in a tiny cell. David shackled Ronnie's left ankle to an iron bar. The heavy shackle weighed 2 kg (5 lbs) and it was intentionally attached to the left ankle, so that the prisoner could not reach either the slop bucket nor the drinking water.
Prisoners etched lines on the cell walls ticking off the days spent in solitary confinement. They were, of course, punished for writing on the walls.
Probably the most well-known prisoner to have spent time here was Henri Charriere, aka Papillon. In Cell 47, we could still see his name etched on the floor.
The tour lasted 1-1/2 hours and, as informative as it was, we were glad to leave the prison grounds. Le Camp officially closed in 1946 and Saint-Laurent became just a town along the Maroni River. It wasn't until 1953, however, with the help of the Salvation Army, that the last of the prisoners were repatriated to France. Le Camp seriously deteriorated for the next four decades until it was purchased by the town of Saint-Laurent in 1990 and a revitalization project began. It was declared a national monument in 1994.
Our new neighborhood is in the middle of the coffee brown Maroni River. The French call it Fleuve Maroni on this side of the river. On the other side of the river in Suriname, the Dutch call it the Marowijne and the local AmerIndians call it Marwina-Liba. It's the longest river in French Guiana and also the most populated waterway. We find life on the river quite interesting. There's constantly something going on. We like to watch the solitary fishermen in their pirogues first thing in the morning.
Mornings are dewy and we can see the steam and will-o-the-wisps rise from the river, but it burns off quickly in the heat of the day.
Pirogues are basically long canoes with or without engines and the local mode of river transportation. They are in constant motion up and down the river and crossing from Saint-Laurent to Albina, Suriname, picking up and dropping off people and their cargo. They also serve as the local school buses providing transport to uniformed kids to the shore near us, who clamber out into the shallow shore waters to head to school in Saint-Laurent.
The other afternoon, a wedding party went by on a pirogue, with music playing and the couple's friends and family waving, throwing rice, and generally enjoying the celebration and themselves.
There's a sailing school ashore that frequently has kids sailing in everything from Optimists to tiny little sailing dinghies. We watch as the little ones in tethered dinghies get hauled out to the river by the motorized mother dinghy and then get turned loose for sailing. These kids are definitely better at boat handling than we are! They maneuver all around us, giggle and tack, chat and jibe, occasionally dumping the dinghies and righting themselves with amazing dexterity and alacrity.
There are an alarming number of wrecks on the shore, a rusting testament to the changing river and the strength and force of the current when the tide floods or ebbs. The Edith Cavell is only one of the many river casualties. Shallow draft vessels (which we are not!) can travel about 50 nm upstream, but beyond that point, there are waterfalls and rapids with which to contend. From the deck, we can easily spot four wrecks lying on the shore, obviously caught by shoals and/or current. We're told there are many deep water creeks to explore and we'll give that some thought when we feel the need to escape from the big smoke of Saint-Laurent.
There's no mistaking the change of the tides here. With an 8' (2.5m) tide differential, the water churns and roils as it rushes by. We bob and bounce as the water percolates around us, swirling and forming eddies. Our mooring buoy is nearly underwater at times and the noise can be almost deafening. Being in fresh water has, however, been quite a boon to us. After just a couple of days, the bottom growth we'd seen at Iles du Salut has all but vanished … the salt water critters obviously not able to survive in fresh water. Thankfully, that's one less chore to do while we're here.
The sunsets are superb... reds, oranges, pinks and purples closing out the day. As proper cruisers, we take both the sundown and our requisite sundowners quite seriously. Rum and fresh maracuja juice (passion fruit) has been the sundowner of choice lately. Care to taste one? The sun sets around 1800 … you're welcome aboard. Sorry, no ice.