Why France Wants to Abolish Its
"Land of tine. Living Dead'
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the sec
ond of a series of six articles dealing
with the history of, and conditions in,
the famous French penal colony in
Guiana. The series is especially timely
in view of Premier Blum’s present
efforts to abolish the colony.
• • •
ALBERT BLANC, 25 years old
stands before the bar of justice
in a provincial French court He
is guilty of stealing a bicycle.
There’s no doubt of that The case is
clear. The judge condemns him. There’s
■othing else to do.
Albert, a simple, adenoidal youth, has
been in trouble with the law before.
This affair makes, in fact, his seventh.
Five were insignificant. Once he got
four months. This time he gets four
In sentencing him, the judge sen
tences him for life—and, almost inevit
ably, to death.
Life imprisonment in Guiana will
probably not mean long imprisonment
for Albert, because if he follows the
example of the average prisoner there,
he will die in four years.
Albert is caught in the meshes of the
Law of May 27, 1885, defining “relega
tion.” The first article of this law an
nounces that “relegation” shall consist
of internment in perpetuity in the terri
tory of the colonies. It goes on to
describe what relegated persons are.
Relegated persons are those who in
10 years have been twice condemned
to forced labor, or once to forced labor
and twice to imprisonment for theft or
crime, or to four jail terms of more
than three months, or to seven terms
of which two were* for more than three
Since Albert is between 21 and 60
years of age, the law applies.
So, because inside 10 years Albert
stole a bicycle, stole something else
equally valuable, and five other times
ran counter to the law in minor ways,
Albert is doomed to endure the tortures
of evil and brutal company, prevalent
disease, continuous toil as long as his
health will stand it, without hope of
ever emerging from this situation, in a
strange and terrifying land under a
ferocious temperature and a worse than
ferocious humidity, until he is dead.
rpHAT is the remarkable situation
which the Popular Front government
under Leon Blum made an initial effort
to change when, last autumn, it can
celed the sailing of the sinister steam
ship “La Martiniere” from St. Martin
de Re with, perhaps, 800 prisoners
aboard bound for French Guiana’s penal
Albert and the scores like him who
were to make up last autumn’s ship
ment are now distributed throughout
France in various prisons. Their posi
tion is most uncertain. Probably they
don’t like it. The Blum government may
change at any moment, and Albert be
belatedly shipped off anyhow to Cay
But if Albert is sensible, he will be
happy as long as he stays in France.
In a French prison, he will have a
cell to himself at night. In Guiana he
will not. There he would be brigaded
with other men, most of them older
and tougher than himself. They would
take what little money he has from him,
they would torment him, they would
raise the curtains on ideas and pas
sions and even expressions which pro
vincial Albert, for all his swaggering
around the market-place as the bad boy
of his village, has never heard.
They would infect him, by proximity,
with whatever diseases are going in
that particular barrack. They might
even cut his belly open some night
if Albert is a little rash in his ob
aervations, and leave him for the red
ants to nibble before he is discovered
in the morning and carted off at 5 p. m.
to the Bamboos, the local burial ground.
In France, he will be merely a pris
oner. In Guiana he would also be an v
object of contempt. He has neither
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The curious law of "doubling,”under which the criminal
condemned to five years in Guiana must remain there ten,
and the man condemned to eight years never comes back. MBr rRp
killed a man, robbed a bank, nor com
mitted any ottfer important crime. He
has merely stolen a few chickens, a
hundred francs or so, and a bicycle. He
would be a pariah.
lURIES try only criminal cases in
France. French jurors know that
when they condemn a man to’ five years
of hard labor, they are actually con
demning him to 10.
That when they condemn a man to
eight years or more, they are actually
condemning him for life.
That is the curious law of “dou
It works out that if a man is con
demned to pay for a crime by five
years’ servitude, he must do so in the
Guiana penal colony. When he goes
there and works out his time, he is
not allowed to return to France at the
end of it, but is obliged to remain in
Guiana five years more, during which
time the state washes its hands of him.
While he was a convict, France fed
him, took care of him in hospital (if his
fever was more than 104 degrees), gave
him, in a manner of speaking, work.
At the end of that time, France leaves
him on his own to sink or swim—but
always in Guiana, where swimming is
hazardous because of the sharks.
If a French jury condemns a crim
inal to eight years’ hard labor, he never
comes home again. He works out his
eight years, at the expense of and for
the benefit of, the state; and then he
remains in Guiana for life.
To be sure, the law provides that at
the end of his term, a criminal is en
titled to a “concession” in French Gui
ana, which he can work, exploit, profit
It is a fine compensation on paper
In practice it isn’t so good.
“Why?” demanded Albert Londres in
his volume, “Au Bagne.” “Because the
concessions are the baloney. They num
ber seven or eight.”
Londres’ book was written in 1924
That year there were 2448 “liberes,” or
freed men in Guiana. Os those, seven
or eight had been able to take up and
Albert is doomed to
endure the torture of
brutal campany and
continuous toil as long
as his health will stand
it- without hope ever
of emerging from this
Conditions have changed a little for
the better since then. But the abysmal
fact remains that most of the freed
men of French Guiana are beggars and
worse. Unable to return to France,
where there might be work for them,
they are obliged to remain in the colony,
where there is little or none.
Convicts, w'ho, because of special at
tainments, such as capacity to do ac
counting, or an aptitude for laboratory
work, have been kept busy—and thus,
undemoralized—during their sentence
cannot continue in those posts once they
“We can steal—or starve,” they told
Albert Londres. Homeless, they haunt
Cayenne. They sleep in the streets.
They eat what falls to their hands, like
the dogs that fed from the rich man’s
table, except that there isn’t any rich
man. They are pariahs; for a crime
which a jury evaluated at a price they
have already paid in full
LTEAR the story ot Hespel, Isidore
. Hespel, French Protestant, lover and
hater of his fellow man, eternal fire
brand, eternal solace for broken souls.
When Hespel first burst on the atten
tion of metropolitan France, he was a
prisoner in solitary confinement in the
death-house in Cayenne.
He was not there for the crime for
which he came to the penal colony. Ac
cording to his own statement, he had
been sent to the “Bagne” because he
threw a trouser button at his command
ing officer, a colonel in Africa.
i am now maintained in this cell,”
he explained, “because of a murder
which I committed upon the person of
a certain convict called Lanoe, who
wanted to poison me and who assassi
nated the mother who gave him birth.”
The problem which faced the ad
ministration was that Hespel, a crim
inal, merited death. But for several
years Hespel had been the executioner
of the penal colony.
There was a curious tenderness about
the way Executioner Hespel performed
his grisly functions with the guillotine.
Each time he laid a man’s head on
the block, for the tri-cornered knife to
sever from the body, he seized the
To it he clung fast while the knife
descended. No head, during Hespel’s
tenancy, ever groveled in the dust, ever
rolled in ignominious beefiness about
the scaffold. Hespel held it firm, and
then carefully lifted it into the regula
To the end, Hespel expected an ac
quittal. He had slain a matricide—a
worthy deed, as he saw it. *
The Guiana court thought otherwise.
Hespel was condemned.
To the last, he grumbled. As a spe
cial favor, he demanded—since he alone
was master of the craft—the right to
rig the guillotine by which he himself
NEXT WEEK: The imprisonment and
torture of Captain Dreyfus, the thing
which made Devil’s Island known
around the world.