might say that I experienced this fantastic book no less than four
1) My father bought a precursor called "I escaped from
Devil's Island" sometime in the 1940s, which I read in
the mid-50s. It was written in 1938 by an escaped convict, René
Belbenoît, and originally published under the title "Dry
2) Henri Charrière's "Papillon" was published
in France in 1968 and was an instant success. I read it on the beach
a few years later.
3) "Papillon" was turned into a terrific movie
in 1973, starring Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen.
4) I was finally able to visit the Iles du Salut in connection
with a satellite launch in 2002.
Charrière's memoir decribes his experiences as a convict
in France's feared penal colonies in French Guyana in the 1930s
and 40s, and his numerous attempts to escape, ultimately crowned
Just as Britain had used Australia and North America to get rid
of undesired prisoners in colonial times, and to populate their
colonies, France dumped many of its hardened criminals in places
such as New Caledonia and French Guyana. The practice
continued in French Guyana until 1946. The early attempts to colonize
the territory had been less than successful due to the appalling
conditions (malnutrition and tropical diseases) and the abolition
of slavery in 1848. A century earlier, some of the pioneering colonists
had relocated to the Iles du Salut, off the Guyanese coast,
opposite the town of Kourou, which were found to have a healthier
climate, hence their name (Salvation Islands).
Kourou is on the mouth of the Kourou river
at lower right. The three Iles du Salut are at top right.
ESA's Ariane launch site can be made out at middle left.
image at much reduced resolution. The original is a personal
gift from CNES.)
From 1852 criminals and political prisoners were regularly shipped
to French Guyana, most of them condemned to hard labor on the mainland.
If they survived their prison term, they had to remain in French
Guyana for as long as their prison term had lasted ("doublage").
Thus the majority in practice served a (mostly short) life sentence.
The worst offenders, and those judged most likely to attempt to
escape, were interned on the Iles du Salut, which are made
up of three islands. Even the main island, the Ile Royale,
is just 1 km in length. Devil's Island, to the north, was
where the most important prisoners were held. It was considered
escape proof because of its inaccessible cliffs, the strong currents
and the sharks. It is best known for the incarceration of Alfred
Dreyfus, falsely accused of espionage for the Germans, for five
years (1895-99). It is off-limits to visitors after a Chinese VIP
guest drowned there some years ago.
Some books are harder to put down than others. While I may find
those of Hawking, Korzybski or Wittgenstein captivating, I have
to admit that they are not exactly page-turners. Papillon
For once, the blurb did not
An arresting first sentence is always a good sign. Take García
Márquez' "100 years of solitude": 'Many
years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía
was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him
to discover ice.' Or Erica Jong's "Fear of flying":
'There were 117 psychoanalysts on the Pan
Am flight to Vienna and I'd been treated by at least six of them.'
Or take Alexandre Dumas' "Les Mohicans de Paris":
'Si le lecteur veut risquer, avec moi, un
pèlerinage vers les jours de ma jeunesse...' etc.
(Inspired by Dumas, I used a similar invitation
to my readers in the prolog to my chronicle
of the first 25 years of Swedish Space Corporation.) Charrière's
opening sentence goes like this: 'The blow
was such a stunner that it was thirteen years before I could get
back on my feet again.' In the first chapter he is sentenced
to penal servitude for life for a murder he claims he did not commit.
Deportation to the prison system in French Guyana follows. The rest
is a hair-raising account of the hardships of his prison existence,
including the physical and
psychological torture of two years of solitary confinement in total
silence, and of his plans and attempts
I will not divulge any details here,
so as not to spoil the pleasure of those who have not yet had the
opportunity to read the book! It is a fascinating journey through
events that are not so far removed from our own age. It is also
a sobering reminder (if one is needed) of
how inhumanity can become institutionalized
even in a civilized and democratic society.
The veracity of Charrière's memoir has been questioned.
It seems likely that he used material from other authors, and stories
he had heard from other prisoners. He may have used Belbenoît's
book as a source and as inspiration. And a certain Charles Brunier
(1901-2007), claimed to be the real Papillon as late as 2005 (no
doubt with some prodding from his prospective heirs), at the age
of 104! In my opinion, it does not make a great deal of difference.
We are not awarding a patent or a Nobel prize here!
Nowadays, space activities form an important element of the local
economy in Kourou. A major spaceport has been built in the vicinity.
One of its attractions is that it lies almost on the equator, which
means a free velocity boost of close to 0.5 km/sec for low-inclination
orbits, due to the Earth's rotation. The first Ariane rocket was
launched from there on Christmas Eve 1979. Today, it is a "booming
business" in every sense of the word! - The total population
of French Guyana is believed to be around 200,000 by now.
I visited Kourou and Ile Royale in May 2002 together with the Director
General of the Swedish National Space Board in connection with the
launch of SPOT-5 (where Sweden is a partner). There were many French
senior military people on the flight from Paris to Cayenne in French
Guyana, who were getting a preview of the upcoming launches of their
military observation and communication satellites. A bus took us
from Cayenne to Kourou along the coast road. The day after arrival
was spent visiting the space center, where "our" Ariane
4 vehicle was being prepared for launch. Lunch was served in a restaurant
on the Kourou river. The commanding officer of the French Legion
headed "my" table. The Legion is responsible for protecting
the spaceport, but also for patrolling the borders of French Guyana.
Not an easy task. Inland, the whole territory consists of dense
jungle. To the south, there are infiltrators from across the Brazilian
border. To the west, there is a border dispute with Surinam.
After lunch we were taken on a boat trip on a river. Our French-speaking
guide was very good and managed to convey his enthusiasm for camping
out in the jungle. He had an enormous respect for the capabilities
of the Indian tribes that inhabit the jungle further south. A European
who gets lost in the jungle has slim chances to survive. "After
9 days we stop the search. If he is still alive, he is sure to have
gone mad by then."
satellites travel in a sun-synchronous orbit, i. e. the orbit plane
makes a complete turn in one year, so that the satellite always
passes over the equator at 10.30 a.m. going south. Launches into
polar orbit from Kourou always occur in a northerly direction. This
dictated a night launch for SPOT 5. I chose to witness the launch
from the Toucan outdoor observation hill 5 km from the launch site,
in preference to the Jupiter control center. It was a strange feeling,
sitting in the warm tropical night with a giant TV screen to one
side. I must have seen hundreds of launches on TV, so I thought
I knew what to expect, more or less: A blinding white light when
the first-stage boosters ignite, a slowly rising rocket, and after
15 seconds or so a deafening rumble when the sound from launch site
arrives. The part that took me by surprise was the next half minute,
as the rocket picked up speed and roared over our heads after passing
through a cloud band. You could really feel in your stomach how
much the rocket wanted to escape from the Earth. The power!
The night sky was clear where the rocket was going, and we could
observe it through booster separation, first stage separation and
several minutes after that.
I had been very lucky. Most launches are delayed for one or several
days due to technical issues or weather. This time it was more like
Veni, vidi, vici. - Of course, spirits were high at the post-launch
celebrations into the night.
The following day, we were invited to visit the Iles du Salut,
which have been put under the administration of CNES, the French
space agency. The sea was calm, and the ferry trip was smooth. The
sea itself is not as crystal clear as you might expect. It looked
rather grey, I think due to the large quantities of silt that are
dumped into the ocean by the Amazon river and carried along the
coast by strong currents.
We reached the Ile Royale, where several sailboats lay at anchor
in its small harbor. The island has rather steep hillsides. French-
and English-speaking guides took good care of us, but I soon broke
away and went exploring the small island on my own.
a brochure from the Association pour gérer l'Architecture
et le Musée des Iles du Salut
It was hard to believe that, not very long ago, this small
peaceful tropical island had seen so much suffering. "Ici
on a mis l'enfer au paradis" (Albert Londres). Of
course, the main "attraction" was the prison cells,
or what remained of them, but it was also depressing to walk
by the little cemetery for the prison guards and their families,
including a cemetery for children. - Dead prisoners
were not buried, they were tossed to the sharks.
It was with mixed feelings that we enjoyed an excellent lunch
at the restaurant before returning to the mainland and the
subsequent trip back to Europe. I have nothing but praise
for the hospitality and professionalism shown by CNES staff
in taking care of their guests.
A meager meal.
Painting by Francis Lagrange, counterfeiter and
the time I finally visited Kourou, I must have been just about
the only senior manager at Swedish Space Corporation (SSC)
who had never witnessed a rocket launch - not even that of
a sounding rocket. I had passed up earlier opportunities to
witness a Meteosat launch (as Chair of ESA's Programme Board)
and the launches of ESA's ERS satellites (as Swedish Delegate),
although I did get a yellow fever shot in preparation, together
with my colleague Marianne Treschow. (The doctor invited us
to undress together, mistaking us for husband and wife!) I
figured that there would be many more opportunities, especially
in the SPOT program, where I had participated much more actively.
And when I received a trip to Kourou for the SPOT 4 launch
for me and my wife, courtesy of CNES, to celebrate my 25 years
of service to SSC, I was elated for her sake.
was bitterly disappointed when we arrived in our hotel in
Paris on the eve of our trip to Kourou in March 1998, only
to be met by a message that the launch had been cancelled.
We decided to remain in Paris over the weekend. As she had
only brought tropical clothing, I could not very well deny
her a brand new wardrobe...
Sunday we visited a book fair and discovered that Chico Buarque,
the Brazilian musician, was going to sign his latest book
there in an hour. So
we waited among a huge crowd, and I got into a shouting match
with a French lady who was trying to pass us in the queue.
Finally we got Buarque's book signed. He quickly left, leaving
pandemonium behind. A desperate collector offered us a nice
sum for the book, and that is how we were able to afford to
travel to the airport in style, having spent our last money
earlier in the day.
my present from SSC, through no fault of theirs, turned out
to be my 201st trip to Paris, give or take! And I was left
with the bill for a very expensive weekend. But on my return
home, I received a generous promise in writing - well, by
e-mail - that our trip was still on, at the earliest opportunity.
the next opportunity did not present itself until four years
later, and by then SSC was under new management. As a result,
I was left with the extremely unpleasant task of having to
tell my wife that I would be going alone.