British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Douglas Weir
Unwanted Fugitives
Cayenne Penal Colony
Cayenne in French Guiana is probably best known as the place that gives its name to a species of pepper. To me in 1938, however, a new kind of export was met with while serving as a Colonial Police Officer in Trinidad, West Indies. This was a person known as a libere, otherwise an ex-convict on licence, a forced colonist.

My introduction came from a telephone call one morning reporting the arrival of four strange men in an open boat on a lonely part of the south coast of Trinidad. I set off with a Police party to investigate and on arriving at the beach saw a large dug-out canoe. It contained a barrel of brackish water and a ragged sail but there were no signs of occupants. A shout in a foreign voice from some bushes startled me, and revealed three white men and a Chinese lying in an exhausted condition suffering from hunger and acute sunburn. One had a nasty deep wound in the sole of his foot and was in great pain. But in spite of all this they were eager and ready to talk and poured out to me their strange stories in French. I understood them having left school barely four years before!!

Unwanted Fugitives
Holding nothing in reserve, each admitted the particular crime for which he had been imprisoned. Robbery of jewels, stabbing his wife's lover, burning down a Military barracks, were the three crimes committed by the Frenchmen in Algeria. The Chinese came from Indo-China where he had been the leader of a revolt. For these offences they had already completed a long stretch in prison. This was being followed by a similar period in Cayenne where they were subjected to Police supervision and restricted residence. It was whilst serving this second phase of their punishment that they got together and planned this escape. They told me that a libere's life was an extremely hard one as his past record barred him from making a decent living. Apart from working in the fields, or in the docks as a stevedore, or as a porter, there was little work available for a white man condemned to exile in the tropics. Consequently for some years liberes had been planning escapes, and news of successful voyages to freedom had filtered back to Cayenne. The quartet now in my custody had thus been heartened, and by carefully saving their meagre earnings had bought and hidden the canoe and provisions. Then waiting for a calm moonless night soon after the hurricane season they slipped secretly through the mangrove swamps to the sea.

Their first hurdle had been to get past the coast line of French and Dutch Guiana (now the Republic of Surinam) without being arrested. They had accomplished this and reached the muddy shallow delta of the Orinoco sailing by night only and hiding in the mangroves by day. Unfortunately a sudden squall had capsized the canoe and they lost their stores. Worse still one of the Frenchmen had injured his foot. He had stepped on a sting-ray whose lance had dug into him as he righted the canoe. Overcoming this set back and aided by the Orinoco current, they came in a Northerly direction to the South coast of Trinidad after a journey of about 600 miles and three weeks duration.

Unwanted Fugitives
Port of Spain, YMCA
To my question why had this small island been chosen as their destination they gave two replies. First from the navigation point of view the winds and currents were particularly good and brought them well within sight of the oilfield flares on the south coast of the island. The second and more interesting reply was their knowledge of a Privy Council decision on appeal against the extradition of fugitives several years before. It was decided then that the Extradition Treaty with France could only apply if the crimes had been committed in French territory. They even gave me the name of the lawyer who had been concerned with the matter. He was Mr Sandy Masson, a young barrister who had successfully taken up the case to the Privy Council on Appeal 'amicus curiae'. (See Kossekechatko and Others - v - the Attorney General of Trinidad 1932AC.) All I could do was to charge them in the Magistrate's Court with unlawfully entering the Colony without a passport, and they were sentenced to two months imprisonment to be followed by deportation at the Governor's pleasure. This meant that most of their custodial sentence was spent in the prison hospital, after which they moved into the Salvation Army Hostel in Port of Spain for about two or three months during which time a seaworthy boat had been built for them, and the hurricane season was at an end. Until they departed they were allowed freedom of movement in the city.

Talking to these men on several occasions I learnt that their ultimate destination would be a choice of a Central American country, or aided by the trade winds the island republics of Cuba or Haiti where surreptitious entry might more easily be achieved. The means of ensuring their departure, though unorthodox, was practical. The fugitives were happy to quit on a course of their own choice in a stout sailing boat provisioned for a three weeks voyage. They were given a good start by being towed beyond the territorial waters of Trinidad and Tobago. As regard the conclusion of the travels of this group I have no idea, but in some previous cases where 'hospitality' had been given, post cards received by the Salvation Army authorities had indicated a safe but secret return to France.

Colonial Map
1922 Trinidad and Tobago Map
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 83: May 2002


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