Exploring French Guiana > An exceptional history
While French Guiana may be best known for its penal colony, Devils Island and Ariane, the country has a long and varied heritage.
Before the early days of colonization, what is now French Guiana was home to Indian ethnic groups such as the Galibis and Arawacks, who lived in riverside camps.
Soon after the rediscovery of the Americas between 1500 and 1673, the Guiana coast aroused the interest of French, Dutch and British expeditions. The country became an official French possession in 1664, and the first African slaves were brought over at this time. Many escaped, taking refuge in the depths of the tropical jungle - creating a number of tribes known today as the Bosh, Boni or Saramaca.
The Guianese colony became more organized by 1700 under the firm hand of the Jesuits. Its development was based on timber, plantations and mining. But when Louis XV decided to drive out the Jesuits in 1672, the result was an economic disaster for the country.
A fresh attempt at colonization, led by the Duc de Choiseul, ended in failure, and the approximately 2,000 survivors owed their lives to the settlement that they founded on the Iles du Salut (Islands of Salvation) a few miles offshore from the city of Kourou. Another 10,000 settlers perished in Kourou.
The history of French Guiana was to be forever marked by more than its 100 years of use as a penal colony. The first French convicts were shipped there in 1852, and numerous detention centers were built on the mainland as well as on the Iles du Salut. By the time the penal colony was closed in 1953, no fewer than 70,000 deported prisoners had crossed the Atlantic. Two of the better known were Alfred Dreyfus and "Papillon" (Henri Charrière) of book and film fame.
Of the various penal facilities, the best known includes those on the Royale and Saint-Joseph islands, which were used for convicts and deportees (from 1,000 to 2,000 depending upon the period), while Devil's Island was reserved for political prisoners. In 1880, the temporary buildings on Royale and Saint-Joseph were replaced by permanent ones when the islands were turned into a prison for repeat offenders.
Today, the islands have a new purpose. Since 1965, the CNES French space agency has used Royale Island as a location for tracking cameras that follow Ariane launchers during their ascent. The idea of developing tourism to the island began taking shape in 1979, and today it hosts a steady flow of visitors. Royale Island is completely open to the public, while Saint-Joseph and Devil's Island have been closed to protect their history and unique environment.
On the French Guiana mainland, the penal colony transportation camp at Saint-Laurent du Maroni has been largely renovated and is opened for guided visits. This facility covers an area of three hectares enclosed by high walls, has large buildings, cells, blockhouses and disciplinary quarters.
Another site is the Anamites penal colony, situated on the footpath along the Montsinéry route. Created in 1930, it served to isolate "subversive elements" of the French colony in Indochina. Three special penitentiary establishments were created, and then abandoned in 1938. Ruins are all that remain today, and panels that have been placed along the footpath note their presence.
The decision to build a launch base in French Guiana was taken in 1964 by the French government following detailed studies of 14 potential sites in various worldwide locations.
Europe has spent more than 2 billion euros in production and operation infrastructure at the Spaceport, more than half on the Ariane 5 launcher alone.
Factors favoring the selection of French Guiana included its location near the Equator . which provides favorable conditions for launches into geostationary orbit, the shape of the country's coastline (which is compatible with launches into all useful orbits), ideal weather and seismic conditions (no hurricanes or earthquakes), and its low population density.
More than 20 types of launchers and sounding rockets have flown from the Guiana Space Center. The first liftoff of a Véronique sounding rocket was in April 1968. France’s Diamant B launch vehicle made its maiden flight from the site in March 1970, and operations of the European Europa II launcher started in November 1971.
The Ariane era began in December 1979 with the first launch of an Ariane 1. Arianespace began commercial operations in 1984 with the Ariane 1, 2 and 3 versions. The next step was Arianespace’s introduction of the Ariane 4 vehicle series, which became the reference in commercial launch services from its introduction in June 1988 to a well-earned retirement in 2003. This was followed by Ariane 5, which remains the industry’s heavy-lift workhorse – beginning commercial operations with Arianespace in December 1999.
Arianespace introduced its medium-lift Soyuz at the Spaceport in October 2011, bringing the longest-operating launcher to the world's most modern launch base. The launch vehicle family for Arianespace was completed by the lightweight Vega, which performed its qualification flight in February 2012 – clearing the way for commercial missions as part of the company’s operations.