Ten Infamous Islands of Exile

Established to banish dissidents and criminals, these islands are known for their one-time prisoners, from Napoleon to Nelson Mandela

(Cheryl Carlin)

Patmos, Greece
A tiny, mountainous speck in the Aegean Sea, the 13-square-mile island of Patmos is where, according to Christian tradition, St. John was exiled in A.D. 95 after being persecuted for his faith by the Romans and where he wrote his Gospel and the Book of Revelation. Ten centuries later, in 1088, a monk built a monastery on the island dedicated to the saint. This established Patmos as a pilgrimage site and a center of Greek Orthodox learning, which it remains to this day. In 1999, Unesco declared the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian—along with the Cave of the Apocalypse, where St. John is said to have received his revelations from God, and the nearby medieval settlement of Chora—a World Heritage site. Unesco stated: “There are few other places in the world where religious ceremonies that date back to the early Christian times are still being practiced unchanged.”

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Sado Island, Japan
With its dramatic mountains, lush forests and temperate climate, Sado Island is now a popular retreat. But in medieval times, the island, 32 miles west of Niigata Prefecture in the Sea of Japan, was a place of banishment for those who had fallen out of favor with the rulers of the day. More than 70 people—notably aristocrats and artists—were exiled here, beginning in A.D. 722 with the poet Asomioyu Hozumi, who criticized the emperor. Other exiles included the Emperor Juntoku, who attempted a coup against the Kamakura shogunate in 1220, and the monk Nichiren in 1271, who preached a radical form of Buddhism. Today, many attribute the island’s eclectic population and cultural riches—Sado has more than 30 Noh stages and is known as the “Island of Performing Arts”—to the presence of these early exiles.

Île Sainte-Marguerite, France
Just off the coast of Cannes in the Mediterranean Sea, the small, forested island of Sainte-Marguerite—about two miles long and a half-mile wide—was home to one of history’s most enigmatic prisoners. The convict, whose identity was concealed behind what was most likely a black velvet mask, was brought to the island in 1687, during the reign of Louis XIV, and locked up in the Royal Fort, then a state prison. (His barren cell can still be seen.) Later, he was moved to the Bastille, where he died in 1703 at around age 45.

The prisoner’s identity and the reason for his incarceration are still not known. But over the centuries, they have been the subjects of much speculation. One popular theory, that he was an older brother of Louis XIV, became the basis for Alexander Dumas’ classic tale The Man in the Iron Mask.

The Royal Fort continued to be used as a prison until the 20th century. Today it houses the Musée de la Mer, devoted to marine archaeology.

Robinson Crusoe Island, Chile
In 1704, British privateer Alexander Selkirk was marooned on Isla Más a Tierra in the Pacific after quarreling with the captain of his ship, the Cinque Ports. He lived alone on the rugged 29-square-mile island, 418 miles off Valparaiso, Chile, for more than four years, subsisting on fish, lobster, goats and seals, until he was rescued by a passing ship in February 1709. Woodes Rogers, the captain, described Selkirk upon rescue as “a man Cloth’d in Goat-Skins, who look’d wilder than the first Owners of them.” Selkirk’s ordeal is believed to have been the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719.

The Chilean government renamed Isla Más a Tierra to Robinson Crusoe Island in 1966, in hopes of attracting tourism.

Devil’s Island, French Guiana
History’s most notorious penal colony, Devil’s Island actually consisted of several prisons, one on the mainland near the capital, Cayenne, and three offshore, reserved for the most dangerous offenders: Isle Royale, Isle St. Joseph and tiny Devil’s Island. Napoleon III established the penal colony in 1854, and some 80,000 French convicts—criminals, spies and political prisoners—would be sent there before it officially closed in 1938. While there, most of the convicts were assigned to hard labor, either in timber camps or on the construction of a road prisoners called “Route Zero,” which was nothing more than a make-work project. The penal colony was also known as the “Dry Guillotine,” owing to the high mortality rate from disease, harsh working conditions and hunger. (Prisoners who failed to meet daily work quotas in the timber camps were denied food.) An estimated 50,000 inmates died.

The most famous of several well-known prisoners was Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, who, wrongly convicted of treason, spent four and a half years there in solitary confinement, from 1895 to 1899. Another was Henri Charrière, whose 1968 memoir, Papillon, recounting his escape, became a best seller and a major motion picture.

In the mid-1960s, Devil’s Island, by then abandoned and overgrown, got new life when the French government chose French Guiana as the location for its space center. The space agency purchased the three offshore islands, which were under the launch trajectory, and in the 1980s decided to preserve many of the prison buildings as a cultural heritage site.


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