Henri Charrière bigraphy, stories - French convict and author

Henri Charrière : biography

16 November 1906 - 29 July 1973

Henri Charrière ( 16 November 1906  – 29 July 1973) was convicted as a murderer by the French courts, and was chiefly known as the author of Papillon, a hugely successful memoir of his incarceration in and escape from a penal colony in French Guiana. While Charrière claimed that Papillon was largely true, modern researchers believe that much of the book’s material came from other inmates, rather than Charrière himself. To his final days Charrière strenuously denied his murder conviction, however he freely admitted to having committed various other petty crimes prior to his incarceration.


According to his book, Papillon, Charrière was convicted on 26 October 1931 of the murder of a pimp named Roland Le Petit, a charge that he strenuously denied. He was sentenced to life in prison and ten years of hard labour. After a brief imprisonment at the transit prison of Beaulieu in Caen, France, he was transported in 1933 to the prison of St-Laurent-du-Maroni on the Maroni River, in the penal settlement of mainland French Guiana. According to the book, he made his first escape on 28 November 1933,Henri Charrière, Papillon (Hart-Davis MacGibbon, 1970) 37 days later, joined by fellow prisoners André Maturette and Joanes Clousiot, who would accompany him throughout much of his time on the run. The trio shipwrecked near the village of Riohacha, northern Caribbean Region of Colombia, and was imprisoned. Charrière subsequently escaped during a rainy night and fled to the La Guajira Peninsula, where he was adopted by an Indian tribe. He spent several months living with the natives, but felt that he had to move on, which was a decision he would ultimately regret. Upon returning to civilization, he was quickly recaptured and sent back to French Guiana to be put into solitary confinement for the next 2 years.

While in French Guiana he spent 11 years in prison, during this period he attempted to escape several more times resulting in increasingly brutal responses from his captors. He stated that he was then confined to Devil's Island, a labor camp that, at the time, was notorious for being inescapable.(French authorities later released penal colony records that contradicted this; amongst other details, Charrière had never been imprisoned on Devil's Island.) However, he finally achieved his permanent liberation in 1941, by using a bag of coconuts as a makeshift raft and riding the tide out from the island. He sailed for miles and eventually arrived in Venezuela, where he was imprisoned for one year then released as a Venezuelan citizen.

Early life

Charrière was born at Saint-Étienne-de-Lugdarès, Ardèche, France. He had two older sisters; his mother died when he was 10 years old. In 1923, at the age of 17, he enlisted in the French Navy and served for two years. After leaving the Navy, Charrière became a member of the Paris underworld, and later married and had a daughter.

Later life

After Charrière's final release in 1945, he settled in Venezuela where he married a Venezuelan woman identified only as Rita. He opened restaurants in Caracas and Maracaibo. He was subsequently treated as a minor celebrity, even being invited frequently to appear on local television programs. He finally returned to France, visiting Paris in conjunction with the publication of his memoir Papillon (1969). The book sold over 1.5 million copies in France,Foote, Timothy (1979-09-14). "Travels with Papi". TIME, 14 September 1979. prompting a French minister to attribute "the moral decline of France" to miniskirts and Papillon.O'Brian, Patrick (2005). "Introduction" to Papillon. London: Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-00-717996-0.

Papillon was first published in the United Kingdom in 1970, in a translation by the novelist Patrick O'Brian. Charrière played the part of a jewel thief in a 1970 film called The Butterfly Affair. He also wrote a sequel to Papillon entitled Banco, in which he describes his life subsequent to his release from prison.

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