1892-1894: The prison revolt and massacre at Cayenne

Iles du Salut prison cell

A short history of the brutal repression at the Cayenne island prison camp in French Guyana. A rebellion against a prisoner's murder was followed by a massacre of anarchists by the authorities.

The Iles du Salut are situated off Cayenne, in what was French Guyana in South America. These three prison islands – of which Devil's Island is the most infamous - were reserved by the French authorities for hard cases, for repeated escapees and for political prisoners. In the course of time many anarchists were sent to these hell-holes.

Despite their paradisiacal appearance, these islands, surrounded by swift currents in a shark infested sea, were a frightful place for prisoners. The main activity for prisoners here was pouring salt water on weeds that sprung up on the roads and around the buildings. Total boredom reigned. Except for those confined to solitary for infractions, prisoners were allowed to come and go during the day, before being locked up and chained up at night. Some of the atmosphere of these islands can be appreciated by viewing the film Papillon.

In the early 1890s smuggled letters from anarchists started appearing in a French paper, denouncing the treatment of prisoners in the penal colonies. They referred to the lack of medical attention, the confiscation of correspondence, revolting tortures and punishment.

In 1892, the authorities had engineered a provocation, hoping to have an excuse to shoot anarchists down, but this had failed. The regime became more severe, and the high authorities gave the green light for the jailers to rid themselves of the anarchists. These discussed among themselves who would murder the first anarchist.

In September 1894 the jailer Mosca killed the anarchist Francois Briens. Before he died he declared: “I die for anarchy, the anarchists will avenge me”.

On the 21st October the jailer was killed in his term, stabbed with a dagger along with 3 other screws. The authorities were prepared. A man hunt began, with no quarter given. The morning of the 22nd Charles Achille Simon (known as Biscuit and Ravachol II) was discovered hiding in a coconut tree.

A soldier insulted him and then shot him after he replied “Vive l’anarchie.” Simon had been born in the Loiret in 1873. A member of the St Denis anarchist group, with 'propaganda by deed' anarchist Ravachol, he had planted a bomb in the house of M. Benoit, the presiding judge at the trial of two anarchists, Dardare and Decamp. These two had taken part in a May Day demonstration in Clichy Levallois in 1891. The police attacked the demonstration, and then went on to arrest Dardare and Decamp. One other anarchist was wounded by the police and all three were severely beaten at the police station. Benoit had instigated the jury to call for long terms of imprisonment for Dardare and Decamp.

Three more prisoners - Marsevin, Lebault and Jules Leon Leauthier - were shot down, holding each other’s hands crying “Vive la liberte, vive l’anarchie!” Leauthier had stabbed a Serbian minister, seriously wounding him, in Paris in 1893. He was sentenced to hard labour for life on 23rd February 1894.

illustration of the revoltDervaux, Boesie, Garnier, and Benoit Chevenet were shot down later. Taking refuge in a cavern, Kervaux and Marmes were smoked out and shot. The following day Edouard Aubin Marpaux suffered the same fate on the morning of 23rd October. He had been born in 1866 at Fraisans in the Jura, and had been involved in the Ligue des Anti-Patriots as well as the Anti-Landlord League. He had been secretary of the Chambre Syndicale of metal stampers. He had taken part in expropriations (revolutionary robberies) with Pini. On 17th November 1893 he was caught in a police trap and stabbed a policeman in the following melee. He was sentenced to life on 28th February 1894 dying just a few months later.

Other anarchists murdered were Mattei, Maxime Lebeau, Mazarquil, Henri Pierre Meyrveis, Auguste Alfred Faugoux, Thiervoz, and Bernard Mamert. The doctors said “Enough! You’ll turn the sea red, stop this carnage!” when they saw the bodies.

Faugoux (30) and Chevenet (28) had only just been sentenced for their part in the robbery of dynamite at Soisy-sous-Etiolles in which Ravachol had been involved. During the trial Faugoux had shown his contempt for society with his many humorous and sarcastic comments. He had been born in Nantes in 1865 and lost his father in 1878. He was educated at technical school and worked in the Nantes shipyards. He stood as a candidate for the Chamber of Deputies, but only so that anarchists could flypost their proclamations. He founded the Labourers’ Union. Leaving the shipyards, he moved to Paris at worked at the forges and workshops of Saint Denis. He became director of the anarchist paper Pere Peinard. In 1890 he was sentenced for incitement to murder and pillage, for having written in an article that he congratulated the Russian revolutionary Padlevsky for killing the traitor Seliverstoff. He avoided serving his sentence by moving to Spain and then Switzerland. In Geneva, under the name of Martin, he worked as an itinerant gilder. He was expelled from Geneva. Faugoux was sentenced to 20 years hard labour, Chevenet to 12 years hard labour.

The bullet ridden bodies were fed to the sharks. Surviving anarchists like Anthelme Girier then suffered long months of agony in prison before they died. Remember the names of these fallen anarchists.

See also biographies of Anthelme Girier and Paul Roussenq.
Nick Heath

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