On the western outskirts of Victoria lies the old Bel Air cemetery. Here, the ravages of time and weather have reduced the graves, tombs and vaults and wrought-iron crosses into ruins of broken pieces of coral limestone and rusted metalwork. Among the rubble of broken stone traceries, string course mouldings and tilting headstones, one can make out fragments of an epitaph, a name, a date, a year and an age. Many children are buried here. They died of dysentery, anaemia, diabetes and other illnesses that today are easily preventable and curable.
Miraculously, the oldest surviving grave belongs also to … a child. A simple granite slab tells us that Catherine Heloïse Larcher was born on January 9, 1909, married on February 21,1822, died on September 3, 1825. Yes, she married at 13, and at 15 she had her first child, a girl named Charlette. Nine days after giving birth to a baby boy, Louis Antoine, she died at the tender age of 16.
Further away, to the south of Victoria, on the eastern side of the Mont Fleuri cemetery, there is a war cenotaph. It is inscribed with 289 names of young Seychellois men who died in East Africa during the First World War and whose bodies were never brought home. 791 men left Seychelles in December 1916 and February 1917 to join the East African labour contingent in Kenya, where many succumbed to malaria, bacillary dysentery and pneumonia. Of the 359 men who returned, 25 died of the same insidious diseases while they were in quarantine.
The war memorial was unveiled by Governor Sir de Symons Montagu George Honey (1872-1945) on November 11, 1928, Armistice Day.
Up, among the forested hills of La Misère, below the small stone chapel of Our Sacred Heart of Jesus, is the Beauvoir cemetery. Here, many Catholic priests, brothers, and nuns requiescat in peace. So far away from the altars where they took their vows. There are no chiselled epitaphs of high panegyric decorated with scrolled motifs. However, one grave is particularly conspicuous. A sprightly little angel perched on one side of the masonry cross.
It belongs to Father Theophile Dumas. On April 18, 1925, while he was walking on a mountain trail from Cascade to La Misère, he fell into a ravine and broke his neck. His body was found three days later. He was 29 years old. He arrived in Seychelles in 1923. The incident created great consternation among the population. A protracted investigation by the coroner necessitated the exhumation of the body in order to do an autopsy… which finally put paid to rumours of witchcraft, murder and sorcery.
So, a cemetery has many stories to tell. It is a place where desolation and decay blend into a mournful gloominess that invests it with a mood of melancholy enigma. In Seychelles, there could be about 100 burial grounds throughout the archipelago. From large parish cemeteries to small family plots, these graveyards are fraught with history. That is, if one is so disposed to know.
Bel Air oldest cemetery
The oldest burial ground in Seychelles is the Bel Air cemetery. It was opened in the late 1780s by the French settlers who created the L’Etablissement du Roi on Mahé in 1778. What can be seen today is what was left after the aftermath of the great Lavalasse of October 12, 1862, when raging floods washed away many of the older graves and tombs.
One of the first interments to take place here was for the burial of Julien Marie Hiacinthe who died on January 18, 1794. The vaults of the founding families of some of today’s generations are still there. The Dupuy family vault contains six members of the wealthy Mauritian family including Etienne François Dupuy (1810-1873), district magistrate and acting civil commissioner in 1862. The corpses were deposited in the vault enclosed in leaden coffins. Vaults were usually built of coral limestone bricks, the walls, floor, and ceiling being at least 31 centimetres thick. The floor surface of a vault was not less than two metres below the surface of the surrounding ground and the internal height of the vault from floor to ceiling did not exceed three metres.
Some notable figures rest here. The geometry and the stone work of their graves and headstone attest to the artistry of those times.
Jean-Baptiste Remy D’Argent was a notary public. He died on April 24, 1856 at 46 years of age.
William Harrison Hollier Griffiths was a district magistrate and acting civil commissioner in 1856. He was born at Camberwell, England on December 14, 1793 – the year Quéau de Quincy arrived on Mahé, – and died on April 30, 1857.
Jean François Hodoul, the notorious corsair is buried here. He arrived in Seychelles in 1791.
Before settling down to cultivate cacao plantations he roved the Indian Ocean, attacking British vessels and confiscating their cargoes, apparently with official sanction from Ile de France (Mauritius). He was 70 years old when he passed away on January 10, 1835. His first residence was Chateau Mamelles which he built in 1792. He was a magistrate in the trial of a slave named Pompée who was accused of having murdered an estate manager, Pierre Michel Isnard on August 21, 1809. The slave was burned to death on July 29, 1810 at 3.30am.
The Bel Air cemetery has a legend that has been perniciously immortalised by Creole folklore.
Yes, the “Giant boy” who at the time of his death in 1870s was 14 years old and measured nine feet six inches tall! Acromelagic gigantism? His grave is a nondescript, elongated whitewashed structure. Many victims of the small pox epidemic of 1883 are buried here. Theirs are unmarked graves. They were buried in coffins containing a layer of quicklime or coarsely powdered charcoal and which were filled up with the substance after the bodies had been deposited in them. On June 4, 1902, the local board of health under the chairmanship of William Marshall Vaudin (1866 – 1919) declared the Bel Air cemetery closed.
The Mont Fleuri cemetery opened in 1875
The Mont Fleuri cemetery opened in 1875. This is the largest cemetery in Seychelles. During the last 100 years, thousands of interments have taken place here. Thousands. There are graves and tombs and vaults from different periods of the 19th and 20th centuries. Different kinds of distinctive features, especially the headstones and tombstones, iron and masonry crosses of various designs. Those graves belong to paupers and wealthy property owners, civil servants and notable colonial government officers, children and centenarians, a British Catholic Bishop, Mgr Thomas Bernadin Clarke (1856-1915) carried his crosier on Seychelles soil from 1910 to 1915. He arrived in the Seychelles for the first time in 1883 when he was still a priest. And even a colonial governor, who – at the insistence of his wife – was re-baptised into the Catholic Church by Mgr Justinien Gumy (1865-1914) who gave him his last rites. Sir Malcom Stevenson died of rheumatic fever on November 27, 1927, three months after he arrived in Seychelles. He was 49 years old. Brother Ambrosius Meek, the headmaster of the Seychelles College was found hanged in his office on July 29, 1951. He was 41 years old. He was of the Order of plöermel Brothers of Christian instruction.
On March 29, 1891, a portion of the Mont Fleuri cemetery was declared a Muslim burial ground. This was done especially for the burial of Princess Reshia, one of the wives of the ex-sultan of Perak, Abdullah Jaafar Moratham Shah who was sent into exile in Seychelles in 1877. (He left in 1895). There are 76 graves in this burial ground.
Somewhere in this large abode of the dead, there are also 48 graves of members of the Seychelles carrier corps who took part in the First World War together with their colleagues whose names are inscribed on the war memorial. Their headstones arrived aboard the City of Leicester in early 1936.
The Beauvoir cemetery is a pleasantly sinister little place, well, in a rather quaint sort of way. In the register, it is called Rivière Sèche cemetery, named after a river that flows down to Grand Anse. It opened on July 26, 1873 for the burial of a 37-year-old Irish nun, Sister St François Xavier, 10 years after the capuchins of Savoy arrived in Seychelles to take charge of the Catholic mission under the direction of Father Ignace de Ville Franche (1815-1881), the vice-prefect. He was ordained Bishop on September 19, 1880 at Chambery, France. When he died on December 19, 1881, his body was entombed in the foundation of the Chapel of Sacred Heart of Jesus, the construction of which he had started. Here the graves are simple tombs of plastered masonry laid out neatly in rows: Father Justin Barman (1907-1995) arrived in Seychelles in 1934.
He spent 61 years here, more than any other foreign priest. Mother Joseph Grehan (1895-1996) was an English nun who arrived on March 19, 1920. She spent 76 years here. The first two Seychellois priests, Father James Changtave (1918-1981) Father Symphorien Morel (1922-1996) are also buried here. On March 12, 1935, two sisters at the St Joseph de Cluny Convent passed away, Sister Hughe Crowe (1861-1935) and Sister Yvonne Le Fouler (1877-1935).
There is the grave of Brother Gelase Ruffieux (18-96-1949) who spent 10 years in Seychelles, during which time he built the impressive Domus, the Catholic priests’ residence in Victoria.
On August 17, 1809, when his second wife Marie Joseph Dubail passed away at the age of 38, Chevalier Queau de Quincy had a sepulcher of coral limestone built for her burial. He was himself laid to rest beside her when he died on July 10, 1827, at 79. The following year his five-year-old grand-daughter, Marie Henriette Sophie Roseline Lefebure de Marcy, died and her corpse was placed inside the sepulcher. This sepulcher is in the ground of State House, on a site which, during L’Etablissement du Roi was known as Montagne du Pavillon – the actual site where the French flag was raised for the first time on August 1, 1791. During the succeeding years, a few chief civil commissioners were buried here: William Hales Franklin (1816-1874), Francis Theophilus Blunt (1837-1882)…… the last burial was for Governor John Kingsmill Robert Thorp (1912-1961) who drowned together with his 53- year-old financial secretary, Maurice Boullé, at Grand Anse beach, Mahé on August 13, 1961.
Our sacred burial sites are anywhere and everywhere. They can consist of several graves, such as the parish cemeteries or they can be one single monument on private property such as the magnificent mausoleum (1864), located next to a marsh on Silhouette island that contains the bodies of some members of the Dauban family who once owned the island – or the Puren vault (1876) at Ma Joie in which lies Joseph Elysée Puren de Keraudan (1826 – 1900).
There are fifteen burial sites on Praslin, and six on La Digue. There is the Calais cemetery (1860) on Cerf island, the Laprude cemetery (1892) on Cousin island, the Lemarchand cemetery (1892) on St Anne island and there is an unnamed cemetery on Remire island.
15,000 died in 115 years
Between 1790 and 1905, 15,433 people died in Seychelles (there were about 27,425 births). Alas, the graves of only a few of them can still be found.
On April 29, 1882, the cemetery bye-laws were adopted at a meeting of the board of health held at Government House, presided by the Chief Civil Commissioner Arthur Barkly (1843-1890). That was almost a century after the first cemetery had opened in Seychelles. These constituted 34 rules that were to regulate interments in the colony of Seychelles throughout the rest of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century – from the dimension of a grave which had to be 1.83 metres long, 64 centimetres wide and 1.828 metres deep, to the re-opening of a grave or a vault: no grave or vault in which the corpse of a person who died of a non-contagious disease had been interred could be re-opened for a fresh burial until 12 years had elapsed in the case of an adult, or eight years in the case of a child under 12 years of age, since the last burial in the same grave. The tariffs of public cemeteries were as follows: for a plot of ground not exceeding 1 metre 828 by 0.914 wide, there was a charge of 25 cents for each square 0.092. A mausoleum of more than 1.828m in height cost 50 cents. A tomb not exceeding 0.305m in height cost R10. A simple grave stone placed horizontally or vertically with inscription cost R4. Pillars with chains cost R3, and a cross of wood or iron not exceeding 0.609 in height was free.
On January 14, 1899, an ordinance was passed by the legislative council that made it lawful for the administrator to authorise cremation or burning of the dead. This, no doubt came in the light of the increasing population of Indian immigrants whose religious sect or cast prescribed that mode of disposal of their dead. At that time the administrator was Henry Cockburn Stewart (1844-1899). There were 389 Hindus in Seychelles.
During the second half of the 19th century a few new burial sites were opened, mainly by the Catholic mission while some old, very old burial sites were abandoned to decay with the passage of time and attrition, and eventually consigned to oblivion. That so many of our ancient graves, tombs and burial chambers have been ruthlessly sacrificed in the momentum of modern development is an absolute calamity. That so many thousands of old graves and tombs have been re-opened for fresh burials during these last fifty years or so is an inevitable fact of our history. Indeed, there could be no alternative….. In fact, our cemeteries will always have places to accommodate the burials of our dearly departed ones for a very long time yet to come.
There are many burial sites on private properties that are being left to crumble into depilation. This is disgraceful. Odious. Aren’t the owners of these tombs, vaults and enclosures conscious of their cultural responsibilities to keep these burial monuments in a decent state of repair? Aren’t they aware of their historical value?
A cemetery is a shrine where one can experience the mournful beauty of history. It is a tapestry of separated events that lures the visitor to explore, so that he becomes afflicted with wistful sentiments of nostalgia. One enters a cemetery with a rapturous curiosity, shifting among graves with the qualmish timidity of a trespasser who wants to enjoy the thrill of his transgression.
It can be excruciatingly evocative. A Latin cross of masonry… an upturned vase… an askew rusted wrought-iron cross… a faded epitaph from the last decade of the 19th century, subtly evoking the poignancy and the agony of grief and reminding us of the brevity of life. They are places of secret mysteries … our sacred burial sites.
Source: National Archives