*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 5th of July 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Today we travel to French Guyana, that small nation on the North East coast of South America just north of Brazil and a click down from Venezuela. You may know that this one-time French colony was infamous for its penal colony known as Devil’s Island.
You might remember this Island as the detention center for Alfred Dreyfus as part of the famous French Dreyfus Affair. If you’ve seen the original Papillon or the remake with Charlie Hunam that is a semi-fictional account of the penal colony there. It was called the “dry guillotine” and we know that in 1763 about 75 percent of the 12,000 colonists sent died in the first year.
And this was part of the rub- all of French Guyana was supposed to be both penal colony and regular colony. The semi-ironically named “salvation islands” were those small islands off the coast that became a refuge from the plague on the mainland. The conditions on one of the Islands were so bad it became known as Devil’s Island. It is worth noting that the nomenclature has shifted and the “popular” and “official” designations sometimes clash. Nonetheless, this was a bad place. And part of what made it so bad was the condition of prisoners after they had been released from the prison. The policy of “doublage” required that after a prisoner spent his years at the prison he must live in French Guyana for the same amount of time they are released before they are allowed to leave.
The conditions for these freed prisoners could be worse as they were not guaranteed shelter or food. Employment was non-existent and slave-like conditions were common for those ex-prisoners.
And this is where the Salvation Army comes in. I will admit, the name “Salvation Army” has always sounded kind of silly to me. A little too militant, perhaps? And especially strange for those who I associate with ringing bells outside of department stores and taking my second-hand clothes.
But they used to be (and I’m sure there are some who still are) quite daring in their desire to not only preach the gospel but to take care of the real needs of those who need it the most. And this is where we meet Charles Pean, a Swiss convert to Christianity who hearing of the conditions on the islands set out for them on this, the 5th of July in 1933. Charles Pean went in his capacity with the Salvation Amy along with the French Army to investigate the conditions. Pean would help develop workshops and farms for the freed prisoners. The Salvation Army would also charter ships to come to the islands to gather up former prisoners to repatriate them to France. Pean’s book “Escape from Devil’s Island” also helped raise awareness of the brutal penal colony and the state would soon begin repatriations, by 1952 the last former prisoner was taken from the island and the prison was shut down.
The work of Pean in not only preaching the Gospel but working to close down the sinister jail system left a strong mark in French Guyana and surrounding territories. The Salvation Army would become cease to be a French operation and local Guyanese and others from the Caribbean would establish churches all across the country.
We remember the work and legacy of Charles Pean on the 5th of July, the day on which he set sail for the first time to Devil’s Island as a missionary with the Salvation Army.
The last word for today comes from the Gospel of Luke:
(When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written)
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 5th of July 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite Islands include: Devil’s Island, Christmas Island, The Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca, and La Isla de las Muñecas, he is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis who favorite Island is the casual dining chain where I’ve been enjoying the Bluenami since grade school.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.