SI Vault
George Plimpton
February 05, 1979
Majestic beaches, such as this one on La Digue; cloud forests; rare, astonishing birds; a predilection for dominoes and amour; and no radio playing on the buses—these are the Seychelles
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February 05, 1979

The Islands Of Paradise

Majestic beaches, such as this one on La Digue; cloud forests; rare, astonishing birds; a predilection for dominoes and amour; and no radio playing on the buses—these are the Seychelles

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Something of Mancham's perhaps excessively sporty character is indicated by his poetry (his collected poems are still on sale in some Victoria shops). In one of them he refers to himself as "Mister Happiness"; in another, the verses divulge that "By the sea, In the car, He was always a Romantic Fool."

Doubtless all of this was carried off with considerable charm, and with purpose as well. Mancham felt that the Seychelles should emphasize their romantic and sybaritic reputation and that his personal behavior, widely reported, would promote the islands as a lovers' paradise and increase tourist trade.

Others in the Seychelles did not approve of this approach, especially Ren�. On June 5, 1977, when Mancham was in London attending the Commonwealth Conference (a story one hears repeated a number of times is that he was also looking in on the finishing of the soft-core pornographic film Goodbye Emmanuelle 3, which was made in the Seychelles), Ren� took over the government in a coup known as the "Night of the 60 Rifles." He gave as his reason that Mancham was trying to get himself declared Life President. Ren�'s group broke into a tiny shed that served as the islands' armory. Many of them in that peaceful part of the world had never handled a gun before.

From London, the deposed Mancham referred to the coup as "Judas-like." He went on, "It is no big heroic deed to take over the Seychelles. Twenty-five people with sticks could seize control."

I was told that two people died during the night of the coup. One was a watch repairman who staggered drunk into a police station and was gunned down in an incident very likely unrelated to the coup. Another was one of Ren�'s fellow conspirators who in the excitement of the take-over was shot in error by one of his cohorts, very likely by someone using a gun for the first time.

Even if this unfortunate's demise lacked the usual panache, he is commemorated in the manner of all revolutionary martyrs: an avenue, one of the main arteries of Victoria, has been named after him—the Avenue Francis Rachel.

This tragicomic aspect of the take-over seems typical of coups that take place in small countries like the Seychelles. I have a friend who collects coups the way others collect odd-shaped stamps. He was interested in the martyrdom of Francis Rachel because so many coups seem to have a single victim. He told me that in 1903, in the overthrow of Colombian authority that resulted in Panamanian independence, a spent artillery shell bounced off a roof and landed atop an unfortunate Chinese, who ended up as the only fatality. Or a more exalted example: on Jan. 2, 1547, while leading his troops ashore in a conspiracy against the Doria of Genoa, Giovanni Luigi Fiesco missed his footing crossing a gangplank and fell into Genoa harbor in a suit of armor, thus instantly removing from the scene a figure of such leadership qualities that, following his plunge to the bottom, the coup collapsed.

I asked my friend if he knew of public figures deposed for behavior as mildly scandalous as James Mancham's. Well, yes, there had been a president of Ecuador, Arosemena, who because of an excess of drink told off the U.S. ambassador and then vomited at a public reception, so compromising the national dignity that troops surrounded the presidential palace and the military took over.

My friend said it was interesting that James Mancham was a poet, even if a somewhat amateurish one. In the bloodless coup of 1889 that finished off the Brazilian empire, the Emperor Pedro II composed a poem of considerable distinction—"Highly polished and melancholic," my friend described it, "the sort of thing the Portuguese do best."

"Was it a long poem?" I asked.

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