Coconut Palms on Devil’s Island

Coconut palms, the most prevalent plant found on the Îles du Salut, hold a special place in the island chain’s history: The trees, which cover much of the islands’ surface, provided the means of escape for one notorious prisoner. Henri Charrière, author of the book Papillon, was sentenced to life in prison and 10 years of hard labor on Devil’s Island after being convicted of murder in 1931. During the years he served in the penal colony, he attempted escape several times, only to be returned to serve time in solitary confinement. He allegedly succeeded in 1941 by using a bag of coconuts as a makeshift raft. Watching the tides, he calculated that every seventh wave was strong enough to carry him out to sea, which he finally achieved, risking the shark-infested waters until he was able to land in nearby Venezuela. In recent years, many of the facts in Papillon have been disputed, some claiming that Charrière borrowed details from other prisoners’ experiences and incorporated them into his book as his own.

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