(Calusa Bay Publications)
Denise Johnstone’s Reveil SEYCHELLOIS – Life in Seychelles 1770-1903 narrates the social history of the founding families of today’s generations. From the arrival of the first spirited French settlers in 1770, to the time when Seychelles became a separate colony of the British Empire in 1903, the book tenderly evokes the ethos of those early years when colonial rivalries and imperial expansionism set the world order.
Indeed, the chief virtue of this slim volume is the subtle simplicity of the descriptive accounts that aptly sustains the narration throughout the book. From the first chapter that tells about the dramatic events ( the burning of the spice plantation, (1780) and the burning of a murderer slave, (1809) during the first forty years (1770-1810) when the Seychelles was a French colony, right up to the last page when the island’s first British governor Sir Ernest Bickham Sweet-Escott (1857-1941) unveils the Victoria memorial clock tower on the 1st of April 1903, the book is absorbing in its brevity, and supremely enlightening in its contents.
With the erudition of a historian and the sensitivity of a story teller, Denis Johnstone succeeds so brilliantly in telling us about important stages in the history of her mother’s birth place. She manages so perfectly to integrate diverse revelatory aspects of the socio-cultural and economic history of Seychelles as a small colonial outpost, into excellent unity which provides us with a coherent understanding of the historical evolution of the Seychelles, and most importantly, the social realism of the different periods during the 19th century.
Right from the beginning of its colonization, the natural resources of the islands were exploited by inhabitants for sustenance and revenue. Besides the export of coconut oil and turtle meat to Isle de France (Mauritius), the islands were producing some 350 to 400 bales of cotton a year. By 1818, production had reached over 1,500 bales a year’ Of course, cotton plantations had been established by slaves who numbered over 6,000 and accounted for ninety percent of the colony’s population.
Pandanus leaves were woven into bags which were exported to Mauritius to store sugar. In 1856, 122,000 such bags were exported. In 1883, when vanilla production became a lucrative industry, having been introduced in the colony in 1866 and first exported in 1877, land owners everywhere in most islands of the colony dedicated large parts of their properties to its cultivation. And Denise Johnstone tells us that “ Women and children were employed to pollinate the flowers by hand. Every September, so many children were absent from school to work on vanilla plantations, that the catholic mission asked the education authorities to schedule the school holidays around this period”. What a nostalgic glimpse of bucolic scenery! In fact, the pages teem with imageries of bygone times. We are given enviable impressions of steamship visitors who ”would find peddlers by quay selling fruits, turtles and souvenirs…could buy shell necklaces, preserved bananas wrapped in straw, pretty wickerwork and coco de mer straw fans embroidered with silk from Madagascar” Among those ‘Victorian tourists’ were the Irish botanist and zoologist Percival Wright (1834-1910) who spent six months in Seychelles in 1867, where besides discovering ‘bwa citron’ (wrights gardenia) on Aride island, he also shot bats for his cook. The lady painter Marian North (1830-1890) arrived in October of 1883 amidst a smallpox epidemic which claimed over 70 lives. She stayed for 3 sweltering months, painting various scenes of Mahé which are on display at Kew gardens in U.K
This scrupulously researched and well-structured little book which also contains preciously rare photographs from the early1890’s has been written with gusto and historical objectivity. And despite its astonishing simplicity, it does not stint on details. For example, the chapter on the avalanche of 1862 is precise and exploratory. On the whole, the beauty of ‘Reveil Seychellois’ is that it wanders fortuitously through the several stages of the former colony’s past, conjuring up images of rickshaws and pirogues dwelling-houses of timber with corrugated iron pitched roofs, coconut estates, colonial slavery and of course, the pathetic horrors of leprosy. For the Seychellois reader, the book will be a poignant reminder of “the way we were”. For aficionados of Seychelles history, the book is a gem.