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The prisoner of Devil's Island

The prisoner of Devil's Island

The embodiment of a scoundrel

The Iles du Salut had been used as a penal colony during the Directorate and then under Napoleon III, and it was here, in compliance with a law passed on 9 February 1895, that Dreyfus would, in the words of the governor of Guyana, "atone for the crime that he had committed." Transported like a "low wretch," he did not revolt, writing to his wife on 12 March, "It is only fair. No pity should be shown to a traitor; he is the lowest scoundrel, and inasmuch as I represent such a scoundrel, I can only approve."

Undeserved torment

As the first and only political deportee not to have been sent to New Caledonia (which had been the destination of the CommunardsCommunards
The government savagely put down the Paris Commune in 1871, and executed 30,000 of its partisans. A series of court-martials, which ended only in 1874, handed down sentences to another 14,000 people.
), he was imprisoned on Devil's Island, a former leper colony where a small stone hut had been built for him. On 3 September 1896, the false report of his escape mobilized the prison hierarchy; Dreyfus was subjected to "undeserved torment": each night from 6 September to 20 October, he was shackled to his bed by means of the barbarous double buckleDouble buckle
When the false news that Dreyfus had escaped spread across Europe, the Minister of the Colonies ordered that Dreyfus's restraints be strengthened. For nearly three months, he was fixed to the bed in his hut by a wooden yoke that was fastened by chains, the "double buckle."
. Although he was transferred to a larger hut after 25 August 1897, a wooden fence that had been erected around his exercise area blocked any view of the island or the sea. Only letters from his family kept up his morale.

A model prisoner

He spent 1,517 days on Devil's Island, from 13 April 1895 to 9 June 1899. Finding it intolerable to have nothing to do, he read a great deal and wrote long letters to his wife. He regularly asked for justice. On 5 October 1895, he asked the president of the Republic for "full light to be thrown on this conspiracy of which my family and I are the unhappy and terrible victims." On 10 September 1896, he repeated his request to president Felix Faure for a search for the "true guilty party, the author of this abominable crime." Ignorant of the development of the Affair in France, he continued to be a model prisoner. On 26 January 1898, he explained to his wife, "I have accepted all, borne all, without a word. I am not boasting, I merely did my duty, and only my duty."

The language of Truth

Although he was subjected to a "process of terror" that cost between fifty and sixty thousand gold francs a year (according to Vincent Duclert, his biographer), and although he felt "nailed to the rack," Dreyfus resisted by keeping a journal, by drawing and by writing more than a thousand letters. On 26 December 1898, when there was hope that his name would be cleared, he wrote to his wife, "if I have undergone this, it is out of desire for my honor, my property, our children's heritage (…). When one has lived a life of duty, of complete honor, when one has known only a single language, that of the Truth, it is a source of strength, I assure you, and no matter how horrible fate may be, one must be noble-minded enough to overcome it and to make it bow down before you."