By SIR ALEXANDER PATERSON
THE system maintained for many years by France of transporting a large number of her criminals to her colony of Guiana in South America has become duly and quite properly notorious throughout the world, and its abolition this year will be welcome to all lovers of humanity. It was an integral part of the French penal system, which rests very largely on the old Napoleonic Code. A special sentence had to be passed by the Court on a criminal before he could be sent to Guiana, and the name attached to this sentence betrayed the attitude of mind on which the whole system rested. In the legal language of France it was a sentence of relegation. The man was not merely punished or imprisoned. He was relegated, set on one side, put on the shelf out of the way. The men thus torn away from their family, social and economic life and despatched to the unknown for an indefinite period comprised two different streams of offenders. Petty recidivists against whom a string of convictions could be proved, just the sneak thieves of Paris streets, were eligible for a sentence of relegation. The second stream comprised those who had committed serious crimes of robbery or violence, for whom a sentence of detention in a central prison in France was not con- sidered sufficiently severe. The penal settlement in Guiana, it will be remembered, not only serves Metropolitan France, but is part of the system of justice that prevails throughout the whole of the French Empire. It contains, therefore, a large number of Arabs from Africa, and some Chinese from the Far East, with small groups of men from Madagascar and the West Indies. These colonials are ordinarily very docile prisoners, and it was of interest to note that among the small number of those who had any hope of an early return from Guiana, a large proportion were not going to the France we know in Europe.
The French authorities in Paris gave me every facility to spend a long Easter holiday in the colony in i937. I sailed for Cayenne as soon as I had finished my duties in Trinidad and British Guiana, and through the courtesy of the French Consul in Port of 'Spain was able to interchange cables direct with the Governor of French Guiana. He bade me welcome to Cayenne, the capital of the colony, and to the penal establishments on the mainland, in the neighbour- hood of Cayenne, Maroni and St. Laurent, but said it would be very difficult to arrange for me to visit the convicts in the three islands that lay at some distance from the coast. With the habitual truculence of the British, I replied by cable to the effect that I. was particularly anxious to visit the islands rather than the establishments on the mainland. Back came a courteous cable to the effect that while anxious to meet my wishes in every respect, in accordance with instructions from Paris, he regretted that visiting the islands involved travelling in very small boats through very rough seas. To that cable there was only one possible answer. " British Commis- sioner prefers rough seas and small boats." That brought the inter- change of cables to a close, and in due course I went aboard a small French steamer sailing down the coast of South America and calling at the capitals of the three Guianas. My fellow passengers included a company of Senegalese troops, who were going to relieve the garri- son guard at the penal settlement, and a number of convicts who4 had escaped in rafts and crazy craft to neighbouring colonies and were now being returned to the French penal authorities in Cayenne.
Sauntering down to the steerage bar in the evening, I found my friends returning to the colony gathered together, spinning yarns as coarse as their jokes, drinking incredible quantities of rum despite the sweltering heat. It was not so bad to belong to the "legion of the lost," so long as you could find some rum and someone to pay for it. We may have been the worst men in the world in that dim-lit steerage bar, with the sweat running down each nose and putting out each cigarette. But we were by no means the most miserable. Only le bon Dieu knew what lay ahead of us. So why should we worry awhile?
The general lay-out of the settlement consists of a very small head- quarters in Cayenne, large camps on the mainland at St. Laurent and Maroni, and special clusters of men on the islands of Ile Royale, Ile St. Joseph and Ile au Diable, at some distance from the coast. The
actual conditions of housing, clothing, feeding; &c., leave compara- tively little room for criticism, and I could discover no trace of
brutality or bodily ill-treatment. It will save space if I quote some- what freely from my subsequent report to my French counterpart in Paris: - " No criticism of the material condition of these men is valid, but I do beg of you, my dear colleague, to believe me when I say that the spiritual despair of perpetual banishment among some thousands of them afflicted me more sorely than anything I have ever known. To see these battalions of men, sentenced without hope 'to die in a limbo of the tropics, not mercifully in an instant under the sure blade of the guillotine, but yielding drop by drop of blood to the merciless mosquito, is enough to shake the sternest heart. They look straight ahead with those staring eyes and sec nothing. They move as men who have been long in Purgatory and know that only hell awaits them. . . . They have lost faith in God, in France and in themselves.
" I have seen many men put to death in many countries and in many ways, and known that these things must be. Yet no violence made me shudder like this sight of men allowed to rot in idleness and inanition. To kill men so slowly is to resort to mediaeval custom"
The rest of the story may be told quickly. At Easter, 1938, a year after my visit to the settlement, I took my report to the Ministry of Justice in Paris, accompanied by my friend Etienne Mantoux (now no longer alive) and his distinguished father. They had translated my report and in all my conversations in Paris acted as interpreters. During that summer the French Government decided to abolish the system and passed a law to give effect to its decision. Unhappily the decision was cancelled, and within a year the ship, known as ` La Bagne,' which was employed for this purpose only, sailed again with a heavy human cargo of despairing men. But now there is better news, The Government has reached a final decision that shall not be shaken. By the end of this year no convicts will be left in Guiana, and there- after no more are to be sent. So this sordid chapter in the history of man's inhumanity to man is closed for ever: When I stepped ashore at Cayenne on Good Friday, 1937, there seemed to be -every suggestion of Gethsemane and Calvary, but no thought or promise of redemption and resurrection. It seemed a grim place in which to spend Easter, and to provide a strange setting for our Easter Communion. Striding down the main street of Cayenne on Easter morning I came face to face with Charles Palpant, a young officer of the French Salvation Army, who lived for years in the settlement, maintaining a little homestead on the hillside, where he grew a few flowers and vegetables and gathered round him a group of the younger men who had not surrendered themselves to the bestiality of convict life. He was impressive because he was the cleanest and fittest man in the whole place. We spent the day in his little homestead. He apologised for the simplicity of his hospitality. He gave all he had, a slice of seed cake and a bottle of sweet effervescent lemonade. It was an Easter Communion that I can never forget, transcending all the ritual and doctrine and liturgy with which we are so apt to cloak our Christian faith. Thousands of French criminals had to go to Guiana to learn what hell was like. I had to go to Cayenne to know what Christ was like.