by Glynn Burridge –
It is indeed fascinating to consider what may have taken place in and around this remote archipelago during the millennia prior to recorded history when, in spite of the lack of any written records, the very first, great civilizations were awakening to the possibilities of travel by land and sea and beginning to make their mark on a planet slowly becoming conscious of itself.
As this year’s celebrations suggest, Seychelles has only been settled for a mere 250 years. Our recorded history does not extend far back into the mists of time, so attempting to learn what may have taken place here over several thousand years of what I loosely term ‘pre-history’ is a daunting task in which our only reliable sources are the records of early seafaring nations, tantalizing fragments of local myth and legend and scholarly conjecture, (of which I will speak further, later in this chapter.)
The question that concerns us, then, is this: since time immemorial, who has painted upon the empty canvas of Seychelles history? Given the immensity of the Indian Ocean and the many nations bordering it, the possibilities are both numerous and diverse, not unlike the anonymous pieces of some giant jigsaw puzzle strewn across our floor but with no guiding picture of the way it is supposed to fit together.
Being a nation entirely surrounded by water, Seychelles’ earliest history must, logically, be linked to the activities of those intrepid seafarers who first left the safety of their shores to venture into the great unknown, entirely unsure of what they might find.
The Indian Ocean is surrounded by several such nations and it is to these that we must look for an indication of some interest in our region: China, India, Persia and the seafaring nations of the Mediterranean Sea and North Africa. Early signs of maritime activity, according to local historian Julien Durup, date from as early as 3500 BCE when tombs at Thebes1 display lapis lazuli and amethysts of Indian origin and when King Solomon of biblical fame is reported sending ships from the Red Sea port of Eilat to fetch exotic spices, gold and precious stones from Ophir which may have been located in today’s southern India or northern Sri Lanka.
1. Seafaring Adventures and Conflicts in the Indian Ocean 3500 BCE -1811 CE. Julien Durup
One of the earliest mentions of an actual expedition comes from an account of one Queen Hatshepsut 2 sponsoring an expedition to the east coast of Africa in 1478 BCE, descriptions of which decorate her temple in Deir el – Bahari or Dayr al – Bahri and where familiar species of Indian Ocean fish are clearly depicted trapped in fishing nets. Another dates from 2750 BCE in the reign of Mentuhotep 111 when Hennu (possibly Hannu) an Egyptian explorer, set out for Ethiopia and Somalia ‘looking for sweet-smelling spices for his Pharaoh’. In 2000 BCE there is even mention in the Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata, of a Chinese delegation visiting India and Sri Lanka.3
In 600 BCE, according to Herodotus 4, a Phoenician expedition at the time of Pharaoh Necho 11 circumnavigated Africa. The Phoenicians took their departure from Egypt by way of the Erythraean Sea, and so sailed into the Southern Ocean. When autumn came, they went ashore, wherever they might happen to be, and having sown a tract of land with corn, waited until the grain was fit to cut. Having reaped it, they again set sail; and thus it came to pass that two whole years went by, and it was not till the third year that they doubled the Pillars of Hercules and made good their voyage home. One can only wonder where they sojourned?
By this time, it is safe to assume that the Indian Ocean was familiar to the great seafaring powers of the day. Indeed, there is recent evidence of Phoenician engravings in as far away as Queensland, Australia and even a suggestion that Phoenician ships travelled to the Polynesian Islands where they left traces of their culture in the form of their 16-letter alphabet.5
Travelling in the opposite direction sometime between 200 and 500 CE, a wave, or perhaps successive waves, of Indonesian sailors riding outrigger canoes, left their home in the Sula Archipelago 6 and travelled on the westward current which would eventually lead them to their new home in the island of Madagascar. Whether they navigated themselves or travelled as subordinates of other Malay sailors, perhaps from Borneo, or whether they detoured via Africa before settling the island is uncertain, but their path would have taken them close to Seychelles. Faublée, in a 1983 document,7 insists on the presence of such a current – the very same that often brought debris from the far eastern theatre of WW2 into the western Indian Ocean.
2. History of Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean. A. Aleem
3 Seafaring Adventures and Conflicts in the Indian Ocean 3500 BCE -1811 CE. Julien Durup
4 History of Herodotus, 1V 42 edited by George Rawlinson 1875
5 Seafaring Adventures and Conflicts in the Indian Ocean 3500 BCE -1811 CE. Julien Durup
6 Malagasy dialects and the peopling of Madagascar. 1 June 2011. Serva, Petroni, Volchenkov
7 Memoire special du centre d’etudes sur le monde Arab et du centre d’etudes sur l’ocean occidental, Faublée.
Such a degree of maritime activity would suggest that a body of knowledge about the ocean was accumulating, with vessels of exploration increasingly prepared to leave the relative comfort of the shoreline and venture into the open ocean, on the other side of which, fantastic seafarers’ tales pointed to rich lands where fabulous treasures were to be had. This would undoubtedly have placed such primitive ships in harm’s way, particularly if they became separated from a fleet, or were shipwrecked on a remote island with little help of rescue. Such a destiny must have befallen many ill-fated explorers, forced to settle the very island that had claimed their vessel and to eke out an existence there, yet without leaving behind any record of their life – or, at least, one that we have (so far) been able to locate. If such a scenario came to pass on an island of the Seychelles archipelago, the shipwrecks might have considered themselves most fortunate to have happened upon such an earthly paradise with plentiful fish, a pleasant climate and few perils.
The idea of trading with such advanced but faraway nations as India and China must have been very appealing to seafaring nations of the time, particularly to those Arabs and Persians bordering the Indian Ocean and Julien Durup lists scores of such expeditions, too numerous to mention here. Even as early as 1500 BCE, the Indian civilization was an advanced one with Indians mining iron ore, copper, brass, pewter, silver, gold, and bronze. Their settlements even boasted covered drains, public baths, and irrigation systems and they were probably the first to explore the Indian Ocean.
The Arabs built on knowledge gained from the Indians and took exploration of the Indian Ocean to a new level, assimilating such Chinese inventions as iron nails, putty caulking, the compass and rudder and, of course, inventing and perfecting the lateen sail which greatly expanded the possibilities for exploration by providing improved manoeuvrability. Armed with their superior knowledge of mathematics, astrology, and astronomy, Arab sailors made the Indian Ocean their own and were the first to make use of the phenomenon of its fixed winds or mausim, from which is derived our word ‘monsoon’. Indeed, connections between the Azd Arabs of Yemen, the Hadhramaut and Oman with Persia, India and East Africa predated the spread of Islam by several centuries. 8
8 History of Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean. A. Aleem
By mere virtue of their geographical proximity, it is entirely logical that the Arabs would have travelled extensively throughout the Indian Ocean which was effectively the birthplace of sailing. Early Arab manuscripts dating back to 810 CE describe voyages by Arab explorers across the Indian Ocean and the historian Al-Mas’udi is credited with having visited Madagascar in 916 AD, calling at the ‘high Islands beyond the Maldives’, possibly identifiable with the Seychelles granitic islands. 9
That the Arabs had economic interests in the region is without doubt and it is this network of interests that caused them to establish trading posts in Mombasa, Lamu, Kilwa, Mozambique, Zanzibar, and Comoros. In these places, and others, they traded in ivory, gold, and slaves and their name for the Indian Ocean, Bahr-al-Zanj (sea of blacks) has a distinctly predatory ring to it. Throughout their voyages, Arab sailors relied on direct experience in their description of the seas and often challenged the early Greek historians with regards to their own, earlier Indian Ocean findings. 10
The Arabic names they gave to places they visited clearly displays a long-term interest in the area: Qamr-Comores; Dina Arobi-Rodrigues; Dina Mazore-Mauritius; Dina Margabin-La Reunion; Al Khadra-Aldabra and Jazayer-az’zarin (the Golden Islands) which is a possible reference to the Seychelles granitic isles. 11. There is even speculation as to whether the cultivation of the coconut palm found throughout East Africa and elsewhere was not a commercial project started by these early Arab voyagers.
To what extent they may have actually settled these islands is still a matter of debate but that they used them as trading posts and places to rendezvous right up until the establishment of a Dutch presence in Mauritius (1638-1712) is very likely. Strange markings on rocks on Silhouette, North, and Frégate islands have been attributed to them but more recent research has placed this in doubt. 12 Perhaps we shall have to wait for the development of a whole new generation of archaeological techniques to determine the true extent of their interest in, and presence on, our islands.
9. The Story of Seychelles by AWT Webb p.10
10. History of Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean. A. Aleem
11. Seafaring Adventures and Conflicts in the Indian Ocean 3500 BCE -1811 CE. J. Durup
12 The Story of Seychelles by AWT Webb p.11.
The next appearance in the Indian Ocean with implications for Seychelles was a most spectacular one and came with the arrival of a series of expeditions from China under their Ming Dynasty involving hundreds of massive ships and tens of thousands of sailors and retinue. The size of the expeditions of the Chinese Treasure Fleets was truly astonishing as was the scope of their operations, even by today’s standards. Some historians would even have it that they visited America before Columbus.
The third emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was Zhu Di, also known as the Yongle Emperor, an aggressive man determined to overwhelm his enemies, particularly the Mongol tribes to the north. He also wanted those in foreign countries to become aware of China’s power and he mounted a series of seven lavish expeditions under the leadership of the prodigiously talented Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch, to display that power. From 1405 to 1433, Zheng He led seven expeditions unmatched in world history. During the first of these expeditions, he travelled from China to Southeast Asia and during the fourth expedition, to the Persian Gulf. On his last three voyages, he sailed all the way to the east coast of Africa in a massive flotilla destined not to be equalled in size until World War 1. Over 60 of the more than 300 ships on the first expedition were giant Treasure ships, sailing vessels over 400 ft. long, 160 ft. wide with several stories, nine masts, and twelve sails, equipped with opulent staterooms, each with a balcony.
On his 5th voyage, Zheng sailed to Aden before proceeding down the east coast of Africa, stopping at Mogadishu and Bawa (Somalia) as well as Malindi. Although he was sometimes greeted with aggression, many ambassadors from the countries he visited accompanied Zheng back to China. On the 6th expedition (1421-22) some ships proceeded as far south as Sofala in Mozambique. The 7th and final voyage (1431-33) during which Zheng died, returned to several ports in the Indian Ocean with more than 100 large ships and 27,000 men. 13 The overall purpose of these expeditions was to project Chinese political power but also to establish trade links with the countries they visited, and they often returned to China with a treasure of spices, amber, exotic animals and other wares.14
13. The Ming Voyages: Asia for Educators. Columbia University.
Considering the size of these expeditions and the number of ships involved over successive campaigns, it would have been a major feat of naval ingenuity if they had managed to miss the Seychelles archipelago entirely. From the standpoint of the laws of probability, this does not seem very likely and, supporting this theory, Seychelles does feature in the Wu Pei Chi or Chinese sailing instructions of that period. 15 It will be intriguing to learn what marine archaeologists discover in years to come in the waters around our islands, to substantiate the argument that vessels from the Chinese Treasure Fleets might have visited, however fleetingly, the Seychelles Islands.
From the time when the sea route from Europe to the East Indies was being opened up by Portuguese navigators of the 15th century CE, Seychelles begins to feature more prominently on maps and sea charts of the period. Leaving Lisbon in 1497, the famous explorer Vasco de Gama reached Malindi near Mombasa and, with the help of an Indian pilot, arrived at the Indian port of Cambay after 23 days sailing across the open ocean. Juan de Nova followed a similar route in 1501 and is credited with naming one of the outer coralline islands Farquhar after the first British Governor of Mauritius. In 1502, on his second voyage, Vasco de Gama gave his name to the Amirantes Outer Island Group (As Ilhas do Almirante) which also features on Pedro Reinel’s later map, along with the Mahé group, as Sete Irmas or Seven Sisters.16 Intriguingly, one of his officers reported sighting a group of people on one island there huddled about a fire, gesticulating wildly as they sailed past. 16
We have to wait until 1609 for the first written account of our islands (by a European) which was when an East Indian Company squadron consisting of the ships Ascension and Good Hope, commanded by one Alexander Sharpeigh, dropped anchor off what is now known to be Mahé, North Island and Silhouette while on a trading voyage to Aden and Surat on the Indian west coast. 17
We are indebted to a company employee, John Jourdain, who wrote in his journal, “It is a very good, refreshing place for wood, water, coker nuts, fish and fowle”, going on to exclaim that the meat of the giant land tortoises they found was ‘as good as beefe’.18
15. 1421 by Gavin Menzies: The Year China Discovered the World. P.375
16. The Outer Islands: History of the Outer Islands. Judith Skerrit.
17. The story of Seychelles by AWT Webb p.11
18. Holiday in Seychelles. A Guide to the Islands. Douglas Alexander. P.14
Such glowing accounts of the great beauty and favourable topography of the islands as Jourdain’s and those of his fellow mariners, (who spent 10 days in the region of the granitic islands before resuming their voyage,) would have trickled back to Europe and, presumably, infiltrated the small, dense maritime communities of their respective homelands to fire the imagination of future travellers to the region. Mariners of the time would have been most interested to learn of a little-known archipelago offering such natural bounty, protection from the elements as well as opportunities to repair vessels.
Perhaps it was such reports that inspired the next regular visitors to the islands: the pirates of the Indian Ocean. These brigands began operating sporadically in the Indian Ocean as early as the 15th century CE but, towards the end of the 17th century CE, resolute action by the now powerful British navy against the pirates of the West Indies and Spanish Main, drove them to seek safer, more remote, hunting grounds in the western Indian Ocean where between 1700 and 1720, no less than 11 of their ships with a total crew of 1500 were identified in these waters. 19
Although there can be little doubt that they made forays into the Seychelles Archipelago, it is claimed they made their principal base on the Ile of Ste. Marie off the northeast coast of Madagascar where legend has it, they created the pirate republic of Libertalia 20. Some historians argue that this was a loose, but extremely well-organised confederation of pirates with its own language (possibly a form of Volapűk), judiciary, laws of inheritance and societal structure.21
The complex structure of the pirate colony, most extraordinary for its time, was devised by two people: a certain Mission, 22 a French adventurer, and Caraccioli, a defrocked Italian monk. Sometimes known as the ‘pirate philosophers’, these two men provided the organisational backbone of the republic which also included among its number such famous pirates22 as Read, Teat, Williams, Avery, and Kidd; the American pirates, Tew, Burgess, and Halsey; the Irishman Cornelius; the Jamaican Plantain and the famous
19. The story of Seychelles by AWT Webb p.12
20. Johnson’s General History of the Pyrates vol 2
21. Seafaring Adventures and Conflicts in the Indian Ocean 3500 BCE -1811 CE. Julien Durup p.101
Frenchman La Buse. Included in this brotherhood were numerous other lesser pirates from many nations but the mix, according to the history books, was dominated by the English.
Libertalia’s operations were initially confined to the region immediately around Madagascar and the Mascarenes but, as the colony began to grow and so employ more sophisticated techniques, that focus changed to encompass practically the entire Indian Ocean. The primary, Indian Ocean pirate enclaves included Ranter Bay, Saint Augustine’s Bay, Réunion Island, Mauritius, Johanna Island, Fort Dauphin, and Île Sainte Marie.23
They are reputed to have attacked Arab, Indian and European vessels, bracing themselves for the odd onslaught by Omani Arabs in the western region of the Indian Ocean where they were a force to be reckoned with. Such was the sophisticated nature of their operations that they were known to have accomplices in all the major ports of the Indian Ocean. They also had a very effective network of spies who would have been in a position to alert the pirates to shipping movements and of the specific consignments that they were carrying. This was particularly the case along the Malabar coast where rival merchants themselves reputedly alerted the Libertalian ships of exactly what items a particular vessel was carrying and then bought the booty from them.
Apparently, according to historians of the day, the booty was so valuable that the Libertalians held a market in Madagascar where, around the year 1700, traders from as far away as North America came for supplies, thus marking their first appearance in the Indian Ocean. More extraordinary still is the fact that expeditions to buy booty from Madagascar were soon organised in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, a trip which became known as the ‘grand round’.24
Further research remains in order to establish the precise nature of the pirate presence in Madagascar but, it seems likely there was considerable pirate activity there, suggested by the famous pirate cemetery on Ile Ste Marie which has since become a popular tourist attraction.
24. Origin and Development of the Law of the Sea. 1983. R.P. Anand. P.113.
One name among the pirates of the Indian Ocean that deserves special mention in the context of Seychelles is that of Olivier Le Vasseur, also known as ‘La Buse’.
Le Vasseur was a Frenchman and a native of Calais and before arriving on the pirate scene in the Indian Ocean he was attacking French and English ships around the Virgin Islands in the company of captains Benjamin Hornigold and Bellamy. 25
In April of 1722, joined by Taylor, another famous pirate, he seized La Vierge du Cap, with a fabulous booty 25 he is reputed to then have concealed somewhere in Bel Ombre in North Mahé where it remains undiscovered until this very day, despite all attempts to interpret the pig-pen cipher that he threw into the crowd at his eventual hanging at La Reunion on 7th July 1730. 26
The historian A.W.T. Webb attests that La Buse with his ship ‘Le Victorieux’ and Taylor in ‘Defense’, visited the Seychelles Islands in 1721, which corresponds to that very time when the pirate republic of Libertalia was crumbling and it may well be that the pirates Kidd and Conduit also paid visits here.27
Whatever the extent of pirate activity in and around the Seychelles islands, their legacy persists in the form of names such as Anse Forbans in South Mahé and Cote d’Or on Praslin and in the many stories of unearthed pirate treasure on Frégate, Moyenne, Praslin, Thérèse, and Astove Islands (to mention but a few) and also near St. Elizabeth’s Convent in Victoria – treasures that, apparently, made their discoverers a fortune! 28
Webb is entirely correct when he states that ‘it would be surprising if the Mahé group with its ample supplies of fresh water, magnificent trees for masts and spars and sandy beaches on which to careen their ships, had escaped their [the pirates’] notice’ 29
What the future holds in terms of discovering further locations of hidden pirate treasure is uncertain but one cannot discount the possibility that there may still be some surprises still awaiting us.
25 Seafaring Adventures and Conflicts in the Indian Ocean 3500 BCE -1811 CE. Julien Durup p.110 26
26. Seafaring Adventures and Conflicts in the Indian Ocean 3500 BCE -1811 CE. Julien Durup p.110
27.The story of Seychelles by AWT Webb p.12
28.The story of Seychelles by AWT Webb p.12
29.The story of Seychelles by AWT Webb p.12
In our determination of who may have visited our islands in the millennia before their eventual settlement, we should not discount the body of local tales, legends and other forms of oral tradition which, even though it may be impossible to establish their accuracy, do, nevertheless, provide some intriguing insights and possibilities.
Among these are the articles of Denise Lombardo who worked as a journalist for the Nation in Seychelles in the 1980’s and who raised the question of the provenance of the name of Praslin’s La Plaine Hollandaise and whether this might not refer to an early Dutch colony which, at one point, certainly did persist in local folklore. It is an established fact that the Dutch created a settlement in Mauritius between 1638 and 1710, and used the island as a station for passing ships. Frequented by Dutch vessels from 1598 onwards, Mauritius was only settled in 1638, to prevent the French and the British from settling on the island. The question is whether the Dutch might have, at one point, ventured further still to create a pre-1770 settlement in Seychelles and perhaps have even contributed to the proliferation of the coco-de-mer in the Far East?
The father of local author Robert Grandcourt, whose illustrious, seafaring family is much respected among the islands, recounted that Seychellois fishermen once came across stones bearing Chinese characters (possibly near the shallow African Banks in the Amirantes Group) which turned out to be lead coffins and which, very much in the local tradition, they then dug out and used as sinkers for their fishing lines. Might these have dated from the time of the Chinese Treasure Fleets? If so, we can expect further discoveries as new tools come to our aid in unearthing our past.
Oral tradition points to certain first settlers of the Outer Islands at the turn of the 19th century claiming to have found remnants of ancient walls considerably predating their arrival which, if true, would point to the possibility of shipwrecks, such as those described by Vasco de Gama’s officer, attempting to live a structured life. This was once the case on the remote atoll of Astove where the Portuguese frigate ‘Le Dom Royal’, ‘laden with plunder and slaves’ went aground in 1760. The captain and crew immediately took to the sea in a long boat, abandoning the slaves (but probably not the plunder) who then settled into a ‘liberated’ lifestyle until they were finally ‘rescued’ by a visiting ship in 1796. 30
30 Seafaring Adventures and Conflicts in the Indian Ocean 3500 BCE -1811 CE. Julien Durup p.110
Despite all of these fascinating leads, we must never lose sight of the fact that we are still dealing with conjecture and that we will have to wait until future technologies prove us right or wrong. However, the author believes that one truly remarkable event he personally experienced during 20 years spent on Dárros Island, brings this matter of conjecture, together with the law of probability, into tighter focus.
I had the immense privilege of working and living for two decades on Dárros, an island atoll 140 miles to the southwest of Mahé from 1978 to 1998 and, one morning in the very early 1980s, I was alerted by our local fishermen that there was a large object floating on the horizon. We duly took one of the boats and headed off in its direction, baffled by its distant silhouette. For several miles, its unfamiliar contours totally confounded us as they were quite unlike anything any of us had ever seen. It is only as we came closer, that we recognised it for what it was: a massive, ocean-going, bamboo raft of at least 40 ft. in length with a small house on a separate storey towards the rear of the boat. Clambering aboard we found signs of recent habitation in the form of a giant ray drying on deck. There was no one on board but I recall a cohort of huge sharks circling menacingly beneath.
We towed the raft back to Dárros and brought it to safety inside the reef where we continued our inspection. The construction of the raft was immaculate and had been pegged with bamboo pegs rather than nailed while its lashings were robust and very secure. It had a magnificent, solid, wooden anchor of nearly two metres in height, operated by a crude winch. There was also a mast, but no sail. On either side of the ladder leading up to the small, covered cabin was a coconut lamp fixed to its wall and a harpoon with a metal tip. Inside the small cabin was a reed mat and, in one corner, a pile of what appeared to be Chinese newspapers.
We contacted the local authorities who soon arrived by plane with a representative from the Chinese Embassy. Further inspection revealed that the newspapers were from Vietnam. I would learn later that another similar raft was found in the location of neighbouring Desroches Island, supporting the argument that such expeditions were conducted with more than one vessel to ensure a maximum of security. Obviously, these rafts had ridden the very same westerly current described earlier by Faublée from their home in the East.
The author’s 20 years spent on the Outer Islands must be considered a mere instant in the vastness of time, so for us to have experienced such an extraordinary happening within such a short time-frame is most revealing.
I have often wondered if, in this case, history was being repeated under our very noses? One cannot discount that it was and that, in those millennia since mankind first took to the sea in ships, our islands may have been visited, and perhaps even once settled, however impermanently, by peoples whose footprints have long been erased from our shores.