Pick up a copy of Papillon, the famous autobiography of Henri Charrière, and you'll learn Henri was unjustly convicted of murder in Paris in 1931 and sent to the French prison colony in French Guiana - the infamous bagne. Within a few weeks, he escaped to Columbia, lived among the Guajira Indians for seven months, was recaptured, and returned to the prison. While he served two years in solitary, he was never allowed out of his cell or permitted to speak. After a number of other escape attempts and a second stretch in solitary, he was transferred to Devil's Island ten miles from the mainland. There he crafted a raft of coconuts and floated back to the coast. Then he and two companions escaped by boat to Georgetown, British Guiana. Later he left Georgetown without authorization, sailed to Venezuela, was imprisoned again, and eventually was released. Finally he settled down and became a productive and law-abiding citizen of the country.
Henri, we learn, was one of the elite among the convicts, a true man-among-bagnards. You'd think Henri practically ran the place, making deals with the warden when he would or wouldn't escape, mandating where he could be transferred, and even advising the officers how to deal with a prisoner revolt. If there was a #1 inmate on - quote - "Devil's Island" - unquote - it was Henri Charrière, alias, Papillon.
Papillon was published in 1969 by Éditions Robert Laffont. It was an immediate bestseller, translated into all major languages, and made into a blockbuster movie with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Henri wrote a sequel, Banco, about the years after his release, and died in 1973, his life a testimony of struggle against man's inhumanity to man.
There's just one little thing, mecs. Papillon was a novel. It was fiction.
That Henri Charrière was born in Ardèche, France in 1906 is true, and as a young man he gravitated toward the Parisian underworld. He was convicted of killing a friend and sentenced to life imprisonment. Although Henri claimed he was innocent, some writers who have looked into the matter see no reason to think he was innocent.
It is also true that Henri was sent to and escaped from the French penal colony in what was then (and still is) French Guiana. But his escape, though, was not within weeks of his arrival. Probably it was more like a year later. Certainly he did not escape by whacking some guards on the head and fleeing over the hospital wall, a tale whose details should have sent up an immediate red flag with Henri's readers.
According to Henri, when he and his friends were brought to trial after their recapture, he personally took charge of their defense. In a few brief sentences, he convinced the judge they had not intended to harm the guards and should be granted leniency. Why, Henri added, they had wrapped the clubs (actually the metal legs of the hospital beds) in cloth to prevent causing injury. The judge accepted the defense, and the final sentence - two years in solitary - was simply for "escape in the second degree".
There's one little problem here. There was no judge on a tribunal in the French penal system that would simply pooh-pooh the striking of a guard. The judge certainly would not have handed out a "Well, Papi, that's OK just don't do it again" type sentence. In French Guiana striking a guard was an extremely serious offense whether the guard was hurt or not. In fact, it carried the death penalty.
But Henri was given two years in solitary on St. Joseph, one of the three Îles du Salut - the "Islands of Salvation" - the most famous of which is Devil's Island. We learn he was kept indoors for full two years, never allowed outside of the cell, and denied medical attention. Cut to two meals a day for receiving smuggled food and cigarettes, he had to be admitted to the hospital after his release from solitary. But after his second stretch (for another escape), he was responsible for the governor mandating that the prisoners be given an hour out of their cells a day for exercise and a swim.
Well, there are good and sound reasons for doubting the Gospel According to Henri. If you read the actual regulations (and accounts of other convicts) you'll find the more repressive rules Henri described had been abolished well before Henri arrived. When Henri became a reclusionaire there were actually three stages of solitary. At first you did indeed remain in your cell 24 hours a day - but only for a two week stretch. Then you were allowed out for exercise. This was, we agree, a tough sentence by today's standards, but it was not as bad as what Henri described. Then at the next stage of your sentence, you were allowed out for exercise an hour a day, and this included your swim. Finally the prisoners at the last stage were allowed out of their cells during the day to work around the island, although they were not permitted to speak.
Lest readers still wax wroth about the conditions - even after the "reforms" - we should remember that the last two stages of solitary on St. Joseph involved a regimen which even today isn't much different from those in maximum security prisons in America. In fact, the more dangerous criminals in "lockdown" are even more restricted than Henri was. They are fed in their cells and are only permitted one hour of exercise a day by themselves. They may never be permitted to see other convicts. Of course, the modern prisoner's diet is selected by professional nutritionists to be balanced and healthy, and the cells on St. Joseph were not air conditioned and kept free of vermin as the FedMax cells are today. Nor could the reclusionaires read, watch television, or listen to the radio. But then in the 1930's nothing was air conditioned, and no one had television, either.
Finally let's say this out loud, all together.
Henri Charrière did not - that's not! not! NOT! - escape from Devil's Island by jumping into the sea and floating away on a pile of coconuts.
Henri didn't escape from Devil's Island period. He probably was never even there. Diable only held prisoners convicted of treason (like the innocent Alfred Dreyfus), and typically there may have been five or six prisoners kept on the island at any one time. If Henri did set foot on Diable, it was probably as part of a work party. And as far as Henri jumping off a massive cliff into the ocean (as in the movie) look at the pictures of the island, for crying out loud. Any "cliffs" are ten, maybe twenty, feet above the ocean and most of the beaches slope down to the shore.
Instead of jumping into the sea off Devil's Island, Henri was transferred back to the mainland. Lucien Bauve, an ex-convict interviewed in the 1980's, remembered him there during war years. Henri stayed out of trouble and didn't bother anyone. But he did escape a second time and eventually settled in Venezuela where he did indeed marry and became a successful restaurateur.
How, then, did Henri get away?
Most likely he simply had one of the local boatman row him across the river. The main camp at St. Laurent was just across the Maroni River from Dutch Surinam. Even in the earlier days, many prisoners were allowed to work without supervision and about 25 % of the prisoners could literally have walked away at any time. Getting away was easy. Staying away - that was the hard part.
Remember, French Guiana is tropical jungle. Therefore there were one of three options for an escapee once they got into Surinam. The first was to go to a town and be immediately arrested and returned to French authorities. Or they could try to make it through the jungle, There they found simply moving through the tangled brush was near impossible, and they had little things like jaguars, crocodiles, and poisonous snakes to contend with. Those weren't the worst of the critters, though. One prisoner who tried to flee through the jungle couldn't stand the mosquitoes. Within a day or two, most escapees in the bush were all too eager to turn themselves in.
The third alternative was to steal or buy a boat and float down the river to the ocean and then try to sail along the coast to freedom. But even then if the boat didn't sink or you didn't die trying to land, you were almost sure to be captured and extradited. At best - like if you landed in British Guiana - you were forced to move on. Then your boat would sink, you would die trying to land, or you would be captured and extradited.
But by the time Henri made his second escape things had changed. The world was at war, and French Guiana (together with the bagne) were under the jurisdiction of the pro-German French Vichy government. Surinam, though, was controlled by the Allies, and prisoners from Guiana were no longer returned to French jurisdiction. So once across the river, Henri could make his way to Venezuela without fear of extradition.
But how do we really know that Papillon - as good an adventure tale as it is - is fiction? After all, Henri stuck by his story until he died in 1973. Besides, if you look up Papillon on that Great Fount of Truth, the Internet, his version is the one we read. How, then, can we be in doubt?
As Tonto might have said, what do you mean we, kemosabe? English speakers will read Papillon's account, that is true. But for those who can plow their way through a bit of Henri's native tongue - or even those willing to delve a little more deeply into the matter en anglais - will find there are research options which gives the reader a bit more in-depth (and accurate) account.
The cold hard fact is that Papillon was debunked the year after it appeared when Gérard de Villiers published Papillon Epinglé ("Papillon [Butterfly] Pinned"). Interviewing convicts (including Henri), former guards and officials, and reviewing known history and the penitentiary records, Gérard documented that many of the stories were fictionalized borrowings from the lives of other convicts. Some events even happened long before Henri arrived. Furthermore Henri was not the rebellious leader he describes. Instead he was a quite normal prisoner who caused little trouble, and like so many others, got along and did as he was told.
Finally, we got the scoop from Robert Laffont himself. In the 1990's Robert finally told an interviewer that Henri had indeed submitted his book as a novel and parts of the book were borrowed from other sources. Papillon is still a good book, mind you, but it's still a work of fiction.
So what was life really like in the bagne? Was it as bad as Henri said? Certainly Rene Belbenoit, who wrote the famous Dry Guillotine told of horrible conditions and brutal guards and officers. On the other hand another former prisoner, Francis "Flag" Lagrange, paints quite a different picture of life on "Devil's Island". True, it was a prison, he said, not a summer camp - pas une colonie des vacances. But it was, Flag said, no worse than other prisons of the era, and in some ways it was better. If you behaved, you got along and would even be assigned a job in the town. There you worked unsupervised at a slow "colonial" pace, sweeping the streets, trimming trees and gardens, and generally keeping yourself inconspicuous. That there were instances of violence and cruelty can't be denied, but they were individual acts by individuals. The horror stories of book and film, Flag tells us, were atypical or limited to what happened in the outlying jungle camps.
Ironically some retellers of the life of Henri want to have their croissants and eat them too. In other words, they describe the life of Henri as told in the book (ergo, novel), complete with his escape from the hospital, recapture, second escapes, confinement and escape from Devil's island. Then as an afterthought they mention, oh, yeah, "many" scholars think Henry's stories were borrowed from other convicts.
The genesis of Papillon was in 1967. Then Henri, living in Caracas, bought a copy of L'Astrangle, a novel by Albertine Sarrazin. Albertine had been a "bad girl" in France, had been sent to prison for petty crimes, escaped, recaptured, and while in prison, wrote her book. It was Albertine who was Henri's unsuspecting muse and inspiration, but for Albertine's story (which opens up in a new window) you'll have to click here.
That does leave the question of what was life in the bagne really like. Of the two most credible informants, who's telling the truth, Rene or Flag? Actually both are. That might be a bit clearer if you read Flag's story by clicking here .
Papillon, Henri Charrière, Laffont (1969, Eng. Ed., Morrow, 1970). Henri's account. Excellent adventure novel - that's an excellent adventure novel.
Banco: The Further Adventures of Papillon, Henri Charrière, Laffont (1972, Amer. Ed., Morrow, 1973). Amusing book, again by Henri. We learn of Henri's attempt to make the big bucks - "the banco" - by leading a life of crime but failing miserably. In the end he became a cook for an American oil company which paid $800 a month - very good money in the late 1940's. Banco has not been debunked as was Papillon, but it relates a far more adventurous life that Henri told to Gérard de Villiers before its publication. Besides, any autobiography should be accepted with a pound or two of salt.
Interview with Robert Laffont, ca. 1992. CooperToons did locate (and read with some difficulty) the famous interview with Robert Laffont which was on-line, albeit in French. Robert did indeed state Papillon was originally submitted as a novel. Alas efforts to re-locate the interview for a precise reference here have failed.
Papillon Épinglé, Gérard de Villiers, Presse de la Cité (1970). Gérard we must point out was by far from a bleeding heart liberal, and in fact, he has been labeled as right wing. So naturally this takes a bit of a stand against Henri's account of the prison being the quintessential icon of man's inhumanity against man. Nevertheless, his famous debunking of Henri and his arguments against Henri's factuality have generally been accepted. Gérard interviewed many old banganrds, and he also documents verbatim the rules of the penitentiary. Some of the accounts given by Henry as contemporary occured in the previous decade and the most repressive rules of the bagne had been abolished before Henri arrived.
Alas, the book is in French which may deter the English reader. But his chapters are the same as (and cover the same material) as those in Papillon. So with a general knowledge of French grammar, familiarity with the story of Papillon (a French edition helps), and the various translation aids available, the diligent student can follow Gérard's arguments. Beware, though, of the products of computer translations. Many automated translations machines couldn't translate New England into American Midwest.
"The Fabulous Escapes of Papillon". Life Magazine, Nov. 13, 1970, pp. 45 - 52. A good story with pictures of Papillon then and at the time of writing. Despite the title it is reasonably balanced article and briefly reviews the controversy and speaks not only of Gérard de Villiers but with George Ménager, another "anti-Papillon" author whose book Henri tried to get banned (unsuccessfully). The article at least at this writing can be read online at
There's also a photo of Henri in the movie, Popsy Pop that he made with Claudia Cardinale, the female lead with Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West.
Dry Guillotine, Rene Belbenoit, Dutton (1938). The classic account of life on - quote - "Devil's Island" - unquote. A big difference between Rene (and other) convicts and that of Henri is who was in charge. According to Henri, the prisoners practically ran the bagne. The other inmates, like Rene, remember things a bit differently.
Rene's story has generally accepted as true and accurate, but also read the book by Francis Lagrange (see below).
Flag on Devil's Island, Francis Lagrange and William Murray, Doubleday (1961). The account of Francis "Flag" Lagrange who was an artist, stage designer, art forger, counterfeiter, and later inmate of St. Laurent and the Iles du Salut. Flag maintained that the stories of systematic horrors and brutality were exaggerated and were the results of individuals, not the system per se. Flag does not deny the stories of men like Rene Belbenoit, but he says they paint an incomplete picture of the bagne. If you did what you were told and were able to work in the town, you could get along and even have an easy time of it.
How truthful is Flag? Well, that, too, is a topic to be saved for a later discussion. But we must remember that Flag's artistic ability was recognized by the guards and he was given extremely cushy jobs like painting portraits of the guards wives and children. He was even given leave to help a naval expedition map the coastlines. Flag, like everyone else, tells the story from his perspective.
Devil's Island: Colony of the Damned, Alexander Miles, Ten Speed Press (1988). Despite what you might read in on-line reviews, this book is quite well documented (just no specific footnotes), objective, and well-written. It is probably the best general account of the whole Guiana penitentiary for English readers. As a young man, Alex learned French in Canada and bought a ticket to French Guiana. He interviewed former inmates who still lived in Cayenne and St. Laurent and clearly reviewed the historical record. Life in Guiana as Alex tells was not as leisurely as Flag's. Like all good and informative texts, this book whets your appetite for more. Could Alex work on another and more comprehensive history? It would be very welcome.
"Devil's Island", Life Magazine, July 12, 1939, pp. 65 - 71. A contemporary look at the then functioning - quote - "Devil's Island" - unquote - during Henri's time. The numbers quoted confirm what fiddling with numbers suggest - that perhaps 25 % of the men were dying each year. Somewhat hypocritically (given some of the prisons in the United States at the time), the article adopts a rather fatuous and holier-than-thou tone. But the gist confirms pretty much what Flag said. Do what you were told and you could get along. Cause trouble and you probably wouldn't last too long.
There was also a confirmation of the point made in Papillon Épinglé about Papillon's "escape" from the hospital by knocking out the guards. The article confirms that striking the guards was an extremely serious offense and did indeed carry the death penalty. So you have to conclude Henri's story of his smacking the guards and receiving a well-just-don't-do-it-again-Papi judgement of his trial has to be bogus.
There is, by they way, a photograph of Flag painting a picture and it mentions his stealing a painting and subsituting a copy he made himself. But if you look at the painting was Flag so good to pull that off? It doesn't look like it and we have to remember that what really landed Flag in the slammer was counterfeiting money.