Magazine article New African

Seychelles, a Fascinating History: Seychelles Is a Wonderful Place. Baffour Ankomah Looks at the History of How Britain Came to Run It as Part of the Empire, Thanks to the Then Mysterious Coco De Mer Fruits Which Grew Exclusively on the Islands

Magazine article New African

Seychelles, a Fascinating History: Seychelles Is a Wonderful Place. Baffour Ankomah Looks at the History of How Britain Came to Run It as Part of the Empire, Thanks to the Then Mysterious Coco De Mer Fruits Which Grew Exclusively on the Islands

Article excerpt

The history of the Seychelles is a fascinating story of itself--"a tale of intrepid explorers, fearsome pirates and brutal battles for the islands' bountiful treasures", says the Air Seychelles' in-flight magazine, Silhouette (named after the third largest island in the group).

Uninhabited for thousands of years, the first serious exploration of the islands was by Arab and Indonesian navigators only 200 years ago. They are said to have left almost no physical evidence to remember their passage but some historians think they might have been the ones who introduced the coconut tree to the islands which now grows all over and was once Seychelles' main industry.

The Arabs are believed to have known Seychelles as the location of the then mysterious coco de mer fruits (which are shaped like double coconuts). It is said the Arabs came to the Seychelles to collect them, but kept the location secret so they could sell the rare fruits at inflated prices.

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Until the Portuguese began their exploration of the Indian Ocean, the fruits were unknown in Europe. But, according to Mohammed Amin's 1994 coffee-table book, Journey Through Seychelles, the fruits already had great value "on the shores of India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Maldives where they occasionally washed up. A maze of superstition grew up around them. The flesh of the nut was considered an aphrodisiac, and rulers who had cause to fear poison asked for drinking cups fashioned from the shell because it was thought to neutralise noxious substances."

As usual, once the Europeans heard about the fruits, "no price was too high", says Amin's book. "The Holy Roman emperor, Rudolf II, offered 4,000 gold florins for one. Once in royal possession, they were carved, glided, decorated, mounted and embellished with silver and gold. Examples can still be seen today in the British Museum, the Kremlin [in Russia] and other collections.

"Everyone agreed the mysterious nut must grow in the sea," the book continues. "By 1553, the idea of a tree which grew in the sea was firmly fixed in European minds. Joao de Barros, a Portuguese writer, added to the folklore by reporting that its medicinal properties were superior to bezoar, a stony mass found in the stomach of ruminants, which was thought to be an antidote to all poisons.

"The reputation of the nut grew. Within 10 years, it had become a panacea for epilepsy, colic, paralysis, bowel disease and nervous complaints ... Poets eulogised the coco de mer. Botanists pondered upon it, and kings in the Maldives kept small stocks which they gave as gifts to other kings and potentates. In the Maldives, if you found one and failed to hand it to the king, your hand was cut off."

What a fruit! It was its "strange" shape that thrilled the Europeans, at least the male species. The French author, Bernadin de Saint Pierre even went as far as likening it to "the anterior and posterior parts of the body of a negress at its bifurcation". No surprise there.

The British general, Charles Gordon (of Khartoum fame) added his bit: "The nut represented the thighs and belly ... which I consider as the true seat of carnal desires." This is why, says Amin's book, "there was such a fuss about the shape in the first place".

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But after the Arabs and Indonesians had come and gone, the Portuguese were the next to pass through the Seychelles archipelago. Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer, came by in 1503, and another of his countrymen, Fernao Soares, recorded the islands in 1506. From then, the islands appeared regularly on charts as the "Seven Sisters". Throughout the years, the names of the islands kept changing, depending on who came there.

Enter the British. They made their first recorded entry in 1609 when two ships of a British East India Company expedition, Ascension and Good Hope, arrived at Mahe. But they made no claim to the still uninhabited islands and left. …

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