Thursday, March 11, 2010

Circle South America: Devil's Island French Guyana

Dear Family and Friends,

Devil’s Island. Just the name struck fear in the hearts of convicted felons in France in the 1800’s. Home of the infamous French penal colony and leper colony from 1852 to 1946, this island, along with the main island, Ile Royale, and the smaller Ile Saint-Joseph, lie 9 miles off the coast of French Guyana and have a very interesting history.

The French desperately wanted a presence in South America and were in negotiations with the indigenous populations of both the New Amsterdam (NY) area of New England and northern coast of South America. So it was down to an island at the mouth of the Hudson River or a huge chunk of land (which comprises modern day Suriname and French Guyana) to the south. Representatives visited both locations in January. The northern site was frozen, the southern site was a tropical paradise. So, let’s see….Manhattan or Paradise. The king of France, Louis XV, chose Paradise…or so he thought.

King Louis wanted to establish a colony quickly in his newly purchased land so he offered free transportation, religious freedom, no taxes, political autonomy, free food for three years and free land. Applicants had to agree to stay for at least one year. There were over 17,000 applicants. 13,000 were accepted and an armada of ships left for the new world in 1762. Arriving in this jungle “Paradise” the settlers went about establishing a colony. Within one year, 9000 of them died from malaria and Yellow Fever. Totally discouraged but having satisfied their one year obligation, ships were sent to bring them back to France. Unfortunately, only enough ships were sent to pick up 2,000 of the remaining 3,000 settlers.
Fearing the “evil vapors” on the mainland which killed their fellow countrymen, the 1,000 left behind moved to the offshore islands. With a separation from the mainland and an almost constant breeze, they survived; hence the island group being named the Salvation Islands.

Back then people thought that malaria (Mal Aria or “bad air) was caused by rotting vegetation in the jungle. They had no idea the dreaded diseases of the tropics were caused by infected mosquitoes, which could not travel over the ocean and were kept away by the winds. Still the constant heat and high humidity was enough to dampen their spirits and most all of them left eventually. So Nepoleon III decided to turn it into a penal colony, both to have a convenient place to store unwanted criminals and to maintain a stock of workers to develop the mainland colony into something more hospitable.

They are beautiful islands, as you can see, with an abundance of coconut palms, rubber trees, sandbox trees, breadfruit trees and Indian almond trees. The chirps and calls of the prolific jungle animals rang out everywhere we went, giving testament to the unseen wildlife in the bush.

We are headed out for a day at sea before arriving in Barbados on Thursday. We will be snorkeling in Barbados and St. Johns the next two days and snorkeling and shopping in St. Thomas, USVI, before spending two days at sea and arriving back at Ft. Lauderdale next Tuesday. I will make one final post to the blog after a few days of rest from PK. Until then, God Bless you all.

Jud and Vicki

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