16 November 1906
Ardeche, France, Europe
|Died||29 July 1973 (aged 66)
Madrid, Spain, Europe
|Cause of death||Throat cancer|
Charrière was a native of Ardèche, France, Europe. He had two older sisters and 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.
On 26 October 1931, Charriere was convicted of the murder of a pimp named Roland le Petit, a charge which he strenuously denied. He was sentenced to life in prison and ten years of hard labor. After a brief imprisonment at the transit prison of Beaulieu in Caen, France, he was transported to the prison of St-Laurent-du-Maroni on the Maroni River, in the penal settlement of mainland French Guiana.
On 29 November 1933, Charrière successfully escaped from the infirmary at Saint Laurent with two companions, Clousiot and Maturette, sailing along the coast via Trinidad and Curaçao to Riohacha, Colombia. They received help along the way from a group of lepers (also convicts) on Pigeon Island, a compassionate British family, and many others. During this time, three additional escapers joined the trio on their journey to Colombia.
Poor weather prevented them from leaving the Colombian coast and they were all recaptured and imprisoned. Charrière managed to escape with the aid of a fellow prisoner and, after several days and nights of putting distance between themselves and the prison, they went their separate ways; Charrière would soon come upon the region of Guajira. Here he spent several months living in a native village of pearl divers. He had a relationship with a young woman and her sister and they later became his wives and the mothers of his children. It was here that he spent several rapturous months of "the purest form of love and beauty." Yet he was driven to correct the injustice which he experienced, so he eventually left and headed westward.
Once again, Charrière was captured and imprisoned at Santa Marta, and later transferred to Barranquilla, where he was unexpectedly reunited with Clousiot and Maturette. In spite of numerous escape attempts (one of which resulted in him breaking the arches of his feet; he was to be flat-footed ever after), Charrière was unable to free himself from these prisons and was extradited back to French Guiana in 1934 along with his two comrades.
Charrière and his fellow escapers were sentenced to two years in solitary confinement, nicknamed the "Devourer of Men" by the island convicts, on St. Joseph (one of the Îles du Salut or Salvation Islands, which also include Royale and Devil's Island) as punishment for this escape. He and his fellow escapers were released on 26 June 1936 with Clousiot dying 'a few days later'. Subsequent to his release, Charrière was interned on the island of Royale.
Charrière was sentenced to another eight years in solitary confinement for another escape attempt and the subsequent murder of a fellow convict who had foiled his plan by acting as an informer. However, he was released after only nineteen months, after risking his life in an attempt to save a drowning little girl named Lissette, in shark infested waters. He was released for "medical reasons", which he attributed to this rescue attempt.
Charrière eventually feigned insanity in an attempt to escape from the island's leniently guarded psychiatric ward. It was an ideal time to make an escape from the psychiatric ward, because after the start of World War II, escapers or attempted escapers could possibly face capital punishment. This escape attempt was unsuccessful, and Charrière's companion drowned. He would make his final escape in 1944, sailing for miles on a bag of coconuts. He arrived in Venezuela, where he was imprisoned for one year.
[It must be noted that all of the above information is gleaned from Charrière's novel Papillon, published as an autobiography, but now widely discredited as a true account of his own life. See below for more information.]
After Charriere's final release in 1945, he settled in Venezuela where he married a Venezuelan woman only identified as Rita. He had children with her and opened restaurants in Caracas and Maracaibo. He was subsequently treated as a minor celebrity, even being invited to frequent appearances in local television programs. He finally returned to France when he visited Paris in conjunction with the publication of his memoir Papillon (1969). The book sold over 1.5 million copies in France, prompting a French minister to attribute "the moral decline of France" to mini-skirts and Papillon.
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.
In 1973, his book Papillon was made into a film of the same name directed by Franklin Schaffner, in which the actor Steve McQueen takes the role of 'Papillon'. Dalton Trumbo was the screenwriter, and Charrière himself acted as consultant on location. An interview with Henri Charrière is included in the documentary, Magnificent Rebel, which describes the making of the film.
Charrière's 1970 best-selling book Papillon details his alleged numerous escapes, attempted escapes, adventures, and recaptures from his imprisonment in 1932 up to his final escape to Venezuela. The book's title is Charrière's nickname, derived from a butterfly tattoo on his chest (papillon being French for butterfly). The veracity of his account has been questioned, but he always maintained that, excepting minor lapses in memory, it was true.
Modern researchers, however, believe that Charrière got much of his story material from other inmates, and see the work as more fictionalized than a true autobiography. In 2005, a 104-year-old man in Paris, Charles Brunier, claimed to be the real Papillon.