French Guiana (French: Guyane) is an overseas département (département d'outre-mer, or DOM) of France, located on the Caribbean coast of South America. In 1498 French Guiana was first visited by Europeans when Christopher Columbus sailed to the region and reportedly named it the "Land of pariahs". It was settled by the French in 1604.
After the Treaty of Paris in 1763, which deprived France of almost all her possessions in the Americas other than Guiana and a few islands, Louis XIV sent thousands of settlers to Guiana who were lured there with stories of plentiful gold and easy fortunes to be made. Instead they found a land filled with hostile natives and tropical diseases. One and a half years later only a few hundred survived. These fled to three small islands which could be seen off shore and named them the Îles de Salut (or "Islands of Salvation"). The largest was called Royal Island, another St. Joseph (after the patron saint of the expedition), and the smallest of the islands, surrounded by strong currents, Île du Diable (the infamous "Devil's Island"). When the survivors of this ill-fated expedition returned home, the terrible stories they told of the colony left a lasting impression in France.
In 1794, after the death of Robespierre, 193 of his followers were sent to Guiana. In 1797 the republican general Pichegru and many deputies and journalists were also sent to the colony. When they arrived they found that only 54 of the 193 deportées sent out three years earlier were left; 11 had escaped, and the rest had died of tropical fevers and other diseases. Pichegru managed to escape to the United States and then returned to France where he was eventually executed for plotting against Napoleon.
In 1852 the first shiploads of chained convicts arrived from France. In 1885, to get rid of habitual criminals and to increase the number of colonists, the French Parliament passed a law that anyone, male or female, who had more than three sentences for theft of more than three months each, would be sent to French Guiana as a "relégué." These relégués were to be kept in prison there for six months but then freed to become settlers in the colony. However, this experiment was a dismal failure. The prisoners were unable to make a living off the land and so were forced to revert again to crime, or to eke out a hand-to-mouth existence until they died. In fact, being sent to French Guiana as a relégué was a life sentence, and usually a short life sentence, as most of the relégués died very quickly from disease and malnutrition.
The infamous penal colonies, including Devil's Island, were formally closed in 1951. At first, only those freed prisoners who could raise the fare for their return passage to France were able to go home, so French Guiana was haunted after the official closing of the prisons by numerous freed convicts leading an aimless existence in the colony. Early in 1954 the remaining ex-prisoners were finally repatriated to France, except for one horrific prison block of men who had gone insane. These poor unfortunates were kept cooped up in a poorly-ventilated concrete building with a tin roof in very hot suffocating conditions until they finally died off. Visitors to the site in December 1954 reported being deeply shocked by the conditions and the constant screams from the cell-block which had only tiny ventilation slots at the tops of the walls under the roof. Food was pushed in and bodies removed once a day.
Since 1954 there has been little economic growth. French Guiana is heavily dependent on imports of food and fuel and the level of unemployment is chronically high. The only major development has been the establishment of the satellite launching facility of the European Space Agency at the Centre Spatial Guyanais, Kourou in 1975. This has provided limited local employment, but the mainly imported technicians, and the hundreds of troops stationed in the region to prevent sabotage, bring some much-needed cash into the local economy.