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The Greatest Escape – Flight Of The Butterfly

The Greatest Escape – Flight of the Butterfly

My cri de coeur today is: “I’m a decent human being – get me out of 2020!!

We’re still in “lockdown light” and the weather is getting progressively greyer and more wintry; the days are shorter and the urge to hibernate is getting stronger. Time to close the curtains, light the fire, toast a crumpet and escape the UK lockdown for a while with a cracking good read (how did Wallace and Gromit get into my blog?!).

I first read Henri Charrière’s autobiographical novel, Papillon, when I was a student. That’s quite a long time ago now, so I was overdue for a re-read. And when I did, I found it is as vivid and exciting as ever.

Born to schoolteacher parents in southern France in 1906, Henri Charrière was absorbed into the Paris underworld as a young man. Known as Papillion because of the butterfly tattoo on his chest, he started out as a small-time crook, stealing and safe cracking. Some accounts also said that he was a pimp. Despite all this illegal activity, he wasn’t arrested until after the murder of Montmartre gangster/pimp Roland Legrand in 1931.

His protestations that he was innocent and had been framed did not impress the court favourably. He was found guilty of murder and sent from Paris to the penal colony of French Guiana to start his life sentence. Right from the outset he planned to escape, making his first break for freedom in an open boat on a desperate journey of over 1000 miles.

He was recaptured and put into solitary confinement, but he became obsessed with escaping. Over the next 13 years he made eight incredible escapes, including an escape from the notorious penal colony on Devil’s Island, a place from which no one had ever previously escaped. The Butterfly’s flight to freedom remains one of the most gripping stories of incredible feats of human cunning, will, and endurance.

Papillon was published in France to instant acclaim in 1968, more than twenty years after his final escape. Since then, it has become a classic.

Until his death Charrière always maintained that events in the book were truthful and accurate so far as he could recall, but the events are somewhat fantastic and there have been questions raised about its accuracy. The authenticity of the book was challenged most notably by French journalist Gérard de Villiers, author of Papillon Épinglé (Butterfly Pinned), who stated that “only about 10% of the book represents the truth”.

It’s probably correct that the events as told in Papillon are either fictional or recycle someone else’s story, but even so some of the statements in the book are certainly true. For example, French Guiana did operate as a penal colony from 1852 until 1946. Those transported there ranged from political detainees to those convicted of crimes such as murder, assault and robbery, as well as petty crimes. Anyone who received a sentence of more than eight years faced permanent exile from France.


Equally it was true that conditions at the penal colony were dreadful. It was said that 40% cent of new arrivals to the colony died in the first year. Of the 80,000 or so who were transported during the colony’s 94-year existence, few made it back to France. Most were killed by the merciless nature of the forced labour, the poor diet, and lack of protection from the tropical diseases which raged through the prison. Many died during escape attempts, savaged by wild animals, ravaged by scurvy, or picked off by professional escaper hunters – or in the case of sea-bound escapes, drowned or were eaten by the sharks that infest the coastal waters.

And lastly it was true that Henri Charrière was sentenced to hard labour in 1931 for murder and sent to the French penal colony in French Guiana, from which he eventually escaped.

However much of the book’s narrative is true (or not), Papillion is an excellent read and we have recently added a copy in the Butterfly Loft library for our guests to dip into to enjoy this amazing adventure.

Stony Stratford is a wonderful place to escape to for staycation or work! If you’re thinking of staying in Milton Keynes and you want somewhere characterful, historically fascinating and tranquil with some great reading material as part of the package, do get in touch.

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