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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It is always a surprise coming by airplane upon islands in the vastness of an ocean. Looking down and seeing the Seychelles come into view is no exception. One thinks of the marvels of navigational aids—that anyone can find these tiny islands ( Charles de Gaulle dismissed them as "fly-specks") smack in the middle of the western Indian Ocean.

Most travelers know the Seychelles (pronounced say-shells) only as an archipelago 1,000 miles off the coast of East Africa to which they must travel to get from Kenya to Tanzania. Those countries have common borders, but they have been closed since they began squabbling in 1977 over which was responsible for the financial collapse of East African Airways, thus requiring that travelers detour out to the Seychelles and then back to the African coast to cover what used to be done in the stride of a foot.

What a mistake not to get off and enjoy what has been thought of by travelers as a way station, but is, in fact, a unique island group. Most mid-ocean islands are either coral or volcanic. The Seychelles include the only granitic ones, which would seem to support the theory that they did not originate in mid-ocean but were left behind as a ridge of land mass when India and Africa swung apart millennia ago. The result is spectacular. American tourists are often reminded of the coast of Maine except that in the Seychelles the beaches are of white sand and the rocks rise out of the turquoise of a warm tropic sea. One of the most singular and beautiful beaches of the world must be L'Union on the western shore of La Digue, one of the 92 islands of which the Seychelles are composed—a beach of miniature lees and bays created by huge granite boulders rising off the ocean edge in an artistic tumble that would delight Henry Moore.

The largest of the Seychelles is Mah�; 55,000 people, almost 90% of the population, live there. Its land area is 55 square miles, dominated by a skyline that includes Morne Seychellois, at 3,000 feet the highest peak, and the peaks of the Trois Fr�res, a cloud forest with a unique population of tree frogs, chameleons, snails and beetles found nowhere else in the world, and the enormous white Fiberglas globe of the U.S. satellite tracking station built in the Lyndon Johnson era and still referred to as " Johnson's golf ball."

The capital, Victoria, lies along the curve of a deepwater bay. "You won't need more than three hours to visit Victoria," tartly proclaims the Guide Book to the Seychelles , the self-professed official guide. However long one stays, one remembers Victoria for its clocks—first for the Clock Tower that stands in the middle of town, a silver-tinted miniature replica of the rococo monument on Vauxhall Bridge Road near London's Victoria Station. One passes the Clock Tower so often in the course of walking or riding around Victoria that it is said of someone especially dim-witted: "Il n'a pas vu l'horloge" (He has not seen the Clock Tower). The other memorable clock is in the four-bell steeple on a hill behind the cathedral, which chimes two minutes before the hour to awaken any of the populace that might be asleep, and then at the hour itself to enable them to register the time. Invariably, in the hotel dining rooms the strolling guitar player strums a local ballad and sings the refrain, "I'm going back to the Seychelles where the clock chimes twice—Islands of Paradise!" The strange clock so caught Alec Waugh's fancy that it provided the title for one of his travel books, Where the Clocks Strike Twice.

Quite appropriate to a country whose capital is famous for its odd clocks, there is an almost farcical aspect to the history of the Seychelles—much of it a consequence of the competition between the French and English for possession of the islands. In 1780 the rivalry in the spice trade between the two countries was so keen that the French growers were instructed to burn the entire spice crop if a British ship turned up on the horizon. That year, in May, a French ship put in to Mah�. The captain, thinking that the island was under British sovereignty, prudently changed flags as he approached. Somewhat to his surprise he entered the anchorage under an enormous sweet-smelling cloud. The growers, assuming he was British, had burned the entire crop of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and pepper.

During the Napoleonic Wars the island administrator was an extraordinary French colonist, the Chevalier Jean Baptiste Queau de Quinssy. He surrendered the islands to the British eight times, very often writing up the Act of Capitulation himself, and signing it. When the British ships were over the horizon, he would haul down the Union Jack and raise the tricolor and life in the Seychelles would go on very much as it had before.

In 1814, under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, the Seychelles were formally ceded to the British, but de Quinssy remained at his post—the British had come to admire him—and in deference to what now seemed a permanent situation he anglicized his name to Quincy. Historians were not fooled. One wrote, "De Quincy was half British and wholly French."

Certainly the names of the British sent out to govern the Seychelles in de Quincy's footsteps could not be anything but English. Their names seem lifted from the pages of P. G. Wode-house: Sir Bruce Greatbatch; Sir Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke; Sir Ernest Bitcham-Sweet-Escott; the Hon. Sir Eustace Edward Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes.

The Seychelles gained their independence on June 29, 1976. The two most powerful men in the government at the time were James Mancham, the president (who wasn't at all sure that independence was desirable and said as much), and France Albert Ren�, the prime minister. It is hard to imagine two more different men: Ren�, by all accounts, solemn, hardworking, a devoted Socialist; Mancham, an energetic voluptuary. As the titular head of the country, Mancham did very little to curb his image: he rode around Mah� in a Rolls-Royce; he was often to be seen with a beautiful girl on his arm; and in Europe, where he went increasingly, he was linked romantically with a Yugoslav starlet and a topless dancer, among others. In Who's Who he lists as his clubs Annabel's, which is a fancy London disco, and El Morocco, the New York nightclub. Labeled "the Trudeau of the Indian Ocean" in the days when the prime minister of Canada was known for his partying, Mancham took exception to the order of ranking. "No, no," he said, "they've got it wrong. Trudeau is the Mancham of North America!" On the independence of the Seychelles, he informed U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim just what could be expected of his government. "We may not have much of a role to play in major global issues," he said, "but we'll do our part on the international cocktail-party circuit."

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