Located in the middle of the South Atlantic, 1,200 miles from Angola and 1,800 miles from Brazil, the island of St. Helena is among the most remote places on earth. This detail was not lost on the British, who sent Napoleon into exile here following his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The general and his 26-person entourage were lodged at Longwood House, the six-room former summer residence of the island’s lieutenant general. Napoleon passed the time reading, gardening and dictating his memoirs. He was free to go wherever he wanted on the property, but had to be accompanied by a guard for outside excursions. Napoleon died on St. Helena in 1821 at age 51.
Today, the rocky, 47-square-mile island (pop. 4,250) is a British Overseas Territory and is still accessible only by water.
Coiba Island, Panama
Fifteen miles off Panama’s Pacific coast and surrounded by shark-infested waters, 122,000-acre Isla Coiba is the country’s largest island. First inhabited by Cacique Indians and later pirates, it was established in 1919 as a penal colony for Panama’s most dangerous criminals. Political dissidents were sent there under the military dictatorships of Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega. Human-rights groups frequently reported on the harsh conditions of the penal colony, including incidents of torture and murder. One former inmate, Panamanian journalist Leopoldo Aragón, recalled that prisoners were forced to run a gauntlet, chased by guards beating them with clubs. The penal colony was shut down in 2004.
Since the island was never developed, it boasts vast tracts of virgin tropical rainforest, mangrove swamps, pristine beaches and species found nowhere else in the world. Isla Coiba is also among the last places in Panama where scarlet macaws and crested eagles still exist in the wild. In 2005, Coiba National Park—which includes the island, 37 smaller islands and the waters surrounding them—was designated a Unesco World Heritage site.
Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
Between 1946 and 1959, the Ecuadorean government used 1,790-square-mile Isabela, the largest island in the Galápagos chain, as an agriculture and penal colony. Some 300 prisoners—hardened criminals and political dissidents—were incarcerated there under extremely harsh conditions. Guards ordered them to build a wall out of lava rocks brought from a distant crater—a wall that served no purpose. A number of prisoners, slaving under the hot equatorial sun, are thought to have died during its construction. Today the wall is all that remains of the penal colony and is known as the Muro de las Lagrimas, the Wall of Tears.
Robben Island, South Africa
Located seven miles offshore of Cape Town across wind-whipped Table Bay, Robben Island has been a place of exile for most of the past 400 years. It was used as a prison by the early Dutch and British, as a leper colony and mental hospital between 1846 and 1931, and as a political prison for non-white opponents of the apartheid regime from 1960 to 1991. Many well-known dissidents—Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe and current South African President Jacob Zuma, among them—were incarcerated here under brutal conditions, enduring beatings, harassment and forced labor in the island’s lime quarries.
In 1997, the 1,447-acre island became a museum, with guided tours provided by former political inmates, and today it’s among the most popular tourist destinations in Cape Town.
Alcatraz, San Francisco, California
Named Isla de Alcatraces (Island of Pelicans) by an early Spanish explorer, the small, rocky island in the middle of San Francisco Bay was the site of one of the United States’ most feared prisons. From the day it opened in 1934, “The Rock” was a prison’s prison, receiving other penitentiary’s most incorrigible and dangerous inmates. No criminal was ever sentenced directly to Alcatraz. A total of 1,545 people were incarcerated there in its nearly three decades of operation, including Al Capone; Doc Barker, of the Ma Barker gang; Robert Stroud, a.k.a. the “Birdman of Alcatraz”; and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. As the prison was 1½ miles offshore and surrounded by frigid waters with treacherous currents, escape attempts were few. Of the 34 people who tried, most were recaptured or killed. Five, however, have never been accounted for and are listed as “missing and presumed drowned.”
Alcatraz closed in 1963 because of high operating costs. During the rest of the decade, Native Americans occupied the island twice, claiming their right to it under an 1868 treaty. The second occupation ended in 1971 with their removal by federal marshals. In 1972, Alcatraz became part of the new Golden Gate National Recreation Area and today receives more than a million visitors a year.
Editor's Note, August 11, 2010: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that St. John wrote the Book of Revelations. He wrote the Book of Revelation. Thanks to our many commenters for identifying the error.