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French Guiana

Bishops’ Residenz

About French Guiana

French Guiana is the wealthiest territory in South America. Situated on the mainland and bordered by Brazil and Suriname, the tiny state is an overseas department of France. The region is home to a variety of ecosystems, from vibrant rainforests to green wetlands, and houses a dark and intriguing piece of France’s history.

Though initially inhabited by Native Americans, no written history for French Guiana exists for the time period before the arrival of Europeans. Scholars, therefore, can only know what happened here after 1498, when Christopher Columbus arrived. After several brief possessions by the French, English and Dutch, France took final control.

The French developed three of the territory’s offshore islands, the Îles du Salut, or Islands of Salvation, into a much-feared penal colony for the most notorious French criminals. Criminals, both male and female, who had received more than three sentences for theft were sent here for six months before being freed and allowed to become settlers—a sort of experimental rehabilitation.

The most notable prisoner to be held in this remote prison system, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was sent here in 1895, accused of treason and later exonerated. The Frenchman Henri Charrière was among the few to escape. Charrière told his story in a memoir, Papillon, which was later adapted into a film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.

Gradually, the Islands of Salvation were phased out of the French penal system before being completely shut down in 1953. Today, they offer a glimpse into a fascinating slice of French history.

French Guiana Lifestyle and Culture

The majority of mainland French Guiana’s diverse population resides along the coast, many in the capital of Cayenne. The widely diverse population owes much to immigration; almost half of Guianese residents were born elsewhere, in France, Brazil and on islands throughout the Caribbean. Roman Catholicism is the dominant faith in the territory, and some descendants of Guiana’s indigenous people still practice their own belief systems.

As an extension of France, French Guiana possesses no unique national identity. Even the native Amerindians have embraced largely European lifestyles. Still, the high number of immigrants has created a uniquely eclectic culture, with food, music and other facets of life taking inspiration from a wide range of sources.

Guianese typically enjoy Caribbean and Creole-inspired foods, while Western and Asian cuisines are also widespread. With its coastal locale, seafood such as shrimp often finds its way to the plates of French Guianans. Like elsewhere in South America, rice, beans and sweet potatoes are often present in everyday dishes.

Song and dance in French Guiana are inspired by Caribbean and French influences. Native artwork and crafts, too, have a tropical flair. And it’s all on rich display during the annual Mardi Gras celebration, a colorful and energetic parade of music, colorful traditional costumes, and dancing in the streets.

French Guiana Sights and Landmarks

Devil’s Island is one of the three Îles du Salut to which French prisoners, most of them political, were exiled. The old facilities are small enough to be explored independently. Nine miles off the French Guianan coast, the prison was operated from 1852 to 1953. Its location made escape virtually impossible, with rocky shores, treacherous shoals and crosscurrents surrounding the island. However, history tells us that some prisoners did escape alive.