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Territorial acts of settlement and global trade intersect with the behaviours of multispecies life
My father grew up on a plantation in the Seychelles archipelago, which can be found close to the equator in the Indian Ocean, north-east of Madagascar, and outside the path of cyclones. Every day of his childhood was passed with relative ease, a constant temperature, a limpid tropical light, a rainy season. He could reach out of his window – no glass, just shutters – and pluck a ripe mango from a tree stretching its limbs up the side of the old plantation house. The plantation house was composed of granite, cut from the body of the island itself, and from timber, with a corrugated iron roof that would thunder when rains came through. Facing towards the shore and the morning sun, the front terrace was wide and made of cool concrete, and above there was a timber veranda onto which the bedrooms opened. Hewn tree trunks formed fat columns, smooth enough for the sons of the plantation owner to shimmy down. The plantation owner was my grandfather. He managed the accounts of this and three other estates, and he also worked for Cable & Wireless, while his brother and co-owner saw to the hands-on agricultural toil. At the back of the house a long table was set where the plantation house staff, whose forebears had been enslaved peoples taken from Madagascar and the east coast of Africa, gathered to gossip, mend and prepare meals. Beyond the rear veranda was a kitchen garden, some hens, two pigs and a cow for milk. The house itself was home to a small terrier and a cat, a favourite of one of the plantation owner’s daughters.
The plantation animal story I tell is mostly based on my father’s memories. It begins with a rat hunt and the sound of bamboo clacking on my father’s back as he jogs up the mountainside in single file with his brothers. It’s best to be at the lead because when you disturb a wasp nest, the brothers behind you become the target of angry insects, not you. Before that, this story begins with acts of colonisation, and colonisers subsequently becoming colonised. While the French laid a ‘Stone of Possession’ in 1756, the British claimed the archipelago in 1811. The Seychelles only became an independent republic in 1976. Originally, when the French plantocracy settled, habitations – strips of land – were marked from mountain peak to shore, parcelled out for the mostly large, conservative, Catholic families. These families assumed a certain order of things, divided strictly along lines of colour: those who owned and governed, and those obliged to labour. As Mairi O’Gorman argues in her research on the Seychelles, property, especially when organised according to a plantation regime, is racialised: ownership assumes whiteness, while labour is delegated to Brown and Black people. Though originally unpopulated, signs of life had been evident on the Seychelles archipelago well before the French laid their claim to this strategic, if isolated, post. Arab sailors had stopped here in their dhows to replenish their stocks of water and food. They left behind evidence of make-do shelters, campfires and burnt-out tree stumps.
The mounting traffic in ship trade from the late 1700s through the 1800s, including the trade of enslaved people that persisted even after abolition in Britain, facilitated the global migration of rats, every ship’s non-human passenger. By the 20th century and prior to independence, the population of the Seychelles had become diverse, including a French plantocracy, a British administrative elite who had originally relied on the indentured labour of Indian people, and for the most part disenfranchised African and Asian peoples, who fulfilled the work of labourers, traders and shopkeepers. Coconut was a main export crop, dried and transmogrified into copra. While coconut is indigenous to the Seychelles, cinnamon, vanilla, pepper and patchouli, also exported resources, are not. Cotton and sugar were both briefly cultivated in the 19th century before American competition became too great. The rats arrived and especially enjoyed the islands’ coconuts, eventually proving a nuisance to the plantocracy.
The sons of the plantation owner constructed bamboo traps, the idea possibly originating in India and arriving on the archipelago following patterns of migration both chosen and enforced. The bamboo trap is constructed of a section of thick bamboo, open at one end and sealed by its natural joint at the other. Near the opening, a string noose is threaded through two holes and secured around a small stick of bamboo, which performs the role of a trigger, and is inserted through a third hole. The noose connects to a long string that is attached to a flexible sapling branch. Coconut is roasted in the kitchen at the rear of the plantation house and set inside the bamboo cylinder at the end of the trigger. The rat smells the irresistible aroma, sneaks up the bamboo cylinder, springs the trap, which then whips into the air at the end of the liberated sapling branch, snapping the rat’s neck in the process. The sons of the plantation owner know they have had success when they return up the mountain and discover bamboo segments waving in the breeze at the ends of branches. They pull out the dead rats, cut off their tails, which is all they need, discard the bodies, and return down the slope to dry their trophies before claiming 10 cents on each tail. Ten cents at the time could buy a large handful of sweets.
Between 1949 and 1952, in response to the damage caused by the migration of rats to the Seychelles islands, a total of 40 barn owls (Tyto alba) were introduced to capture the rodents in an attempt to restore the island ecology to an approximation of its original state. But there is no return to an imagined Eden; ecologies are inherently dynamic and apt to change. The island ecology had already been disrupted by visiting sailors; reports from a ship’s log in 1609 describe sailors carrying ‘tortells’ back to their ships and discovering that they tasted as good as ‘fresh beefe’. The barn owls developed a taste for the local birdlife, and for the local bats too, leaving the rats to their business of damaging the coconut crops. Well within shouting distance of the old plantation house stood a tall coconut palm in which roosted terns of the purest white: fairy terns (Gygis alba). One morning the plantation sons awoke to discover at the base of the tree a mess of white feathers and wings. The owls had come visiting for a feast. By 1969 a bounty was being offered for barn owls when captured and delivered to government officials.
For a while, possibly on loan from the Botanical Gardens that were established by the agronomist Rivalz Dupont in 1901, the yard of the plantation house was home to an Aldabra giant tortoise. My father remembers riding on its back as a small child, an image which secured a place in my own imaginary from when I was very young. The lumbering land tortoise can live close to 200 years, and I liked to speculate on what they might have witnessed through such a long life. When the giant tortoise forages for food it can fell trees and flatten undergrowth, in the process blazing paths for other animals to follow. Their flesh not only proved irresistible to hungry sailors, their shells became yet another valuable export commodity in advance of the rise of the experience economy across the Seychelles archipelago that followed the opening of
the airport in 1972.
The old plantation house, the usine where cinnamon was processed in massive vats, the drying shed where copra was manufactured, the various cottages occupied by estate workers, the kitchen gardens, the provision plots established by formerly enslaved people, the lie of the plantation lands which fanned out across a territory that reached up to Mont Signal where semaphore once directed sailing ships and their goods; all these gestures of settlement, territorialisation and global trade are found entangled with more-than-human forms of life both endemic and introduced.
The giant tortoise forges the path that the rat follows to forage for young coconut. The rat is ignored by the owl but pursued by the plantation sons who despair at the loss of the fairy terns who have become prey for the owl in the tree that the sons spy from their bedroom window when they look towards the calm shore at the bottom of the plantation drive. Following independence and a shifting political landscape – a coup was staged in the Seychelles in 1977, one with a socialist agenda that no longer favoured the plantocracy – the plantation was requisitioned and divided up. The children of the plantation owner migrated to Australia, left for Switzerland, settled in the United Kingdom. Barely visible to them, and only hinted at in what I describe here, is the labour exerted by Black and Brown hands planting and harvesting the crops that once sustained the plantation owner and his offspring before tourism rendered the hard labour of the plantation redundant.
Lead image: Paintings by the Seychellois artist George Camille depict dwellings in the islands’ hills, thickly surrounded by coconut palms. Credit: George Camille Gallery Seychelles
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