Château d'If

Until the 16th century, Île d'If was just an islet about 3.5 kilometers west of the Old Port of Marseille in southeastern France. 'If' is French for 'yew tree', so there probably once grew such a tree. Not anymore.

In 1516, Francois I became aware of the potential strategic importance of the island and thought that a fortress would deter anybody who would dare to attack Marseille. Château d'If was built between 1524 and 1531.
[Château d'If on Île d'I]
Having never experienced war, the decision was taken to convert the fortress to a prison at the end of the 17th century. The isolated location and dangerous currents around Château d'If, made it an ideal location for a prison. It was predominantly used as a tool to let people disappear in much the same way as on Île du Diable (Devil's Island), a penal colony in French Guyana.

Both Île du Diable and Île d'If were made famous in novels. Île du Diable was the scene of 'Papillon' (1969), written by Henri Charrière, while Île d'If remains famous for being the setting of Alexandre Dumas' novel 'The Count of Monte Cristo' (1844).

You can always trust the French to create a couple of prisons to put cold fear in the hearts of convicts that were sent there. For instance, Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was a Jewish French artillery officer who was wrongfully accused of treason and summarily convicted in 1894 in a secret court martial, publicly stripped of his army rank and sentenced to life imprisonment on Île du Diable. Two years later, evidence came to light that the real traitor was a Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. It took another three long years before Dreyfus was offered (and accepted) a pardon and was released from prison. Today the shameful history is still known as the 'Dreyfus affair'.
[Rows of cells on Île du Diable]
John le Carré, in his brilliant spy novel, 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' (1974), named one of the potential traitors and Russian spies after Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy: Toby Esterhase.

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