TONY MATHIOT, invites you to treat yourself to a day at the Museum.
Historically speaking, do 254 years in the life of a small tropical republic have anything to show?
Is there History in two centuries and a half or so?
The History of our two former colonial rulers stretches way back to time immemorial. France, which colonized Seychelles from 1768 to 1810, has a history that dates back to the days of Julius Ceasar (58-51 bc), even further, to 600 bc, when the Greeks founded the colony of Massalia. And Britain, which colonized us from 1810 to 1976 was invaded and conquered by the Romans in 43 CE.
Well, if the story of Seychelles is older than the U.S constitution (1787) the Eiffel Tower (1889), Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) and Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony (1795), then certainly we must have an amount of “old things”… indeed, we do.
And the repository of our historical Souvenirs is in the modern, magnificent edifice of the National Library which opened in 1994 and is located exactly opposite Kenywn House, a refurbished example of a vernacular dwelling from the turn of the 20th century. An ironical antithesis that arouses a nostalgic sensation as well as a wistful curiosity for … history.
So come in. History is a little bit further on your right, behind the glass doors…
There it is, France’s Supreme concrete claim of ownership of our island. Measuring 57cm by 57cm, this is the Pierre de Possession (Stone of Possession) you must have heard so much about. Captain Corneille Nicholas Morphey (1724-1774) brought it to Mahé two hundred and fifty-four years ago on the 1st November aboard Le Cerf, and placed it on a granite boulder which is located behind the Adam Moussa building, some 30 yards away from Francis Rachel Street. It is a masonry block. You cannot make out Fleurs de lys that were engraved in the stone. They have not faded or rubbed off, but were effaced by some British Colonial inhabitant who wanted to express his atavistic vengeance. In fact, it is apparent that the stone itself has been defaced and damaged. The only inscription visible is I.DE.SECHELLES (meaning Isle of Sechelles). As you look at it and touch it, remember that it is the oldest object in the National History Museum. When it was placed on Mahé in 1756, the Seven Years’ War was raging on between France and Britain in North America, the West Indies and India as both colonial powers sought to win Maritime and colonial supremacy. Charles Routier de Romainville (1742-1792) who founded the L’Etablissement du Roi in 1778 must have felt it too. So must have Malavois (1757-1825, Quéau de Quincy (1748-1827) and all those British Commissioners, administrators and Governors who were posted in Seychelles. All those hands must have passed over this stone.
Did you know that in September of 1894, the Stone of Possession was taken from Mahé abroad a ship named S.S. Australien by a French General, Henri Frey (1847-1932) who wanted to give it to the Paris Museum? It’s an interesting story… Anyway, when it was returned at the orders of a furious administrator Thomas Risely Griffith, it was placed in secured safety in the grounds of Government House until 1965.
Consequently, many inhabitants lived and died without ever having seen the Stone of Possession, unless they were high-ranking officers in the colonial Government and were invited to one of those occasional ‘levees’ at Government House.
But then again, more than a few inhabitants during the early 20th century would never have heard about the Stone of Possession.
Wander about and you’ll come across THE Queen Victoria statuette. Measuring 27cm it is the smallest representation of Queen Victoria’s likeness in the World. This is the Second oldest object in the Museum. Until 1977, it stood above the Diamond Jubilee Foundation, near the Supreme Court building, on Independence Avenue. The Fountain was unveiled, rather belatedly on the 5th of January 1900 to celebrate the 60 years (1837-1897) of Queen Victoria’s reign. When she died on 22nd January 1901. She had attained the longest reign of any English Monarch. In 1977, the terracotta statuette was removed and placed in the National Museum. In 1992, an alabaster replica of the Statuette replaced the original one. A donation by the British Government on the occasion of the 40th anniversary (it should have been made of ruby, then!) of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. She was enthroned on 6th February 1952. At that time Seychelles had a Governor called Frederick Crawford (1906-1978).
Close by, is an impressive scale-down model of our cherished Lorloz, yes, the Victoria Clock Tower, which was inaugurated on 1st April 1903 by our first Governor, Ernest Bickham Sweet-Escott (1857-1941) as a memorial to Queen Victoria. It cost Rs.6,447.62cts. The Clock tower was originally black. It received a Silver coating in1935 to commemorate King George V’S Silver Jubilee. It must have been at the recommendation of Gordon James Lethem (1886-1962) that the Clock tower was re-painted so. You have seen photographs of its inauguration, and you must have always wanted to know when and why it changed its colour… most people don’t, you know.
The black and white photographs on the wall are of the eighteen British Governors who ruled Seychelles from 31st August 1903 when the country separated from Mauritius and became a crown colony, to June 1976, when Seychelles achieved its Independence from Great Britain.
These photographs do invoke a retrospective awareness of the Supreme function of British Imperialism that these dignified colonial Governors exercised during their respective tenure in our country. Indeed, the few years that each one of them spent here were brief episodes of a long career in the colonial service – but they certainly had a significant impact on the social evolution of our country, as can also be said for other colonies were they were appointed Governors before or after they were here, and where their Legislative Councils executed Fundamental acts of Legislation that had whatever impact on Society and people.
Since Colonialism has nowadays assumed connotations of iniquity, one might naively impute allegations of moral turpitude or unfairness to anyone who was a proxy for the ‘Empire”. Nevertheless, many of these Governors left a personal indelible mark in history….
Let’s look at some of ours.
Gordon James Lethem (1886-1962), who spent only a couple of years in Seychelles (1934-1936) during which time the population was around 30,000 became Governor of British Guyana (1941-1947) where a town, Lethem, has been named after him. Eustache Edward Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes (1864-1943) was our Governor from 1918 to 1922, during which time he carried out the first reclamation project, by reclaiming land from the sea to create the popular Fiennes Esplanade where the kiosks of local crafts and souvenirs are presently located. He also established the Fiennes Institute at Plaisance which provided a home and medical care for the aged, the destitute and the infirm. This eleemosynary Institution lasted up to about five years ago when having fallen into a state of pathetic decay, it was abandoned and its occupants were moved to modern facilities elsewhere. Our former Governor is also the great grandfather of actor Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient, The Constant Gardener).
A very interesting and tragic one is Malcom Stevenson (1878-1927). He arrived in the colony in May of 1927 and died of rheumatic fever on the 27th November. He was Anglican and his wife was Roman Catholic. He was ‘re-baptized’ in the Roman Catholic faith on his death bed, and was buried in the Mont Fleuri Cemetery and not in the State House Cemetery. Malcom Stevenson was the first Governor of Cyprus when it became a crown colony in 1925.
And then there’s John Kingsmill Throp (1912-1961) who arrived in Seychelles in 1958 when the population was 41,901 and copra was the mainstay of the colony’s economy. In fact, during his second year of tenure, 5,292 tons of exported copra brought Rs5,452, 264 to the colony. Sadly, the Governor drowned on 13th August of 1961, along with his newly-appointed Financial Secretary, Maurice Boulle (1908-1961) at Grand Anse. He left behind his wife, a son and a daughter. Maurice Boulle left a wife and 6 children. The following year, on 19th May 1962, the Sir John Thorp Memorial Hall which was attached to the Cathedral of St Paul was opened by the succeeding Governor Julian Edward George Asquith, Earl of Oxford and Asquith (1916 – ) In 2007, his son (Julian’s) was the British Ambassador of Egypt. Apparently he (Julian) is still alive!
Of course, among the very few most popular ones is Ernest Bickham Sweet-Escott (1857-1941). A road at Anse Royal immortalizes his memory and he is our only Governor whom philatelists would be familiar with, having been featured on the R1 postage stamp of 1976. Sir Percy Selwyn, Selwyn Clarke (1857-1976) remains a venerable figure in our history. A doctor by profession, he was director of Medical Services in Hong Kong from 1937 to 1943. His tenacity of purpose combined with an altruistic disposition endeared him to the inhabitants, among whom, those who are still alive today will remember him fondly. He administered the colony of Seychelles (1947-1951) at a watershed time in our history, when the Political consciousness of the inhabitants were being awakened, especially with the first general election of the colony (1948) following the formation of The Seychelles Tax payers and Landowners Association, almost a decade earlier (1939), the members of which were elected to sit on the Legislative Assembly. In 1973, Selwyn Selwyn Clarke wrote his memoirs “Footprints” which is available at the National Archives, in another part of the building where you are now. When he died in Hampstead on 13th March 1976, he left his body to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital for research. As for Governor Sir Bruce Great batch (1917-1989,), well, he had the opportunity to entertain Queen Elisabeth II, when she came to inaugurate the airport on 20th March 1972. He also oversaw the forced removal of the indigenous people of the Chagos Archipelago. He was our only Governor who never married and had no children.
The diorama of “L’Etablissement du Roi” is a marvelous model of the first settlement that Charles Routier de Romainville (1742-1792) created on Mahé in 1978. The L’Etablissement du Roi encompassed on its Northern border, the Moussa River – which is the river that runs between the Happy Youth Club and the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, on its Western border, the site of the present State House, on its Southern border the site where Stone of Possession was placed in 1756 and where negotiations of the first capitulation of Seychelles to the British took place on 17th May 1794, and on the East, the settlement was bordered by the sea. A splendid work of act. This is, in fact, the origin of our Victoria. Incredible!.
Did you know that 791 Seychellois men participated in the First World War (1914-1918), and that 250 of them perished in German East Africa? Yes German East Africa! The nefarious effrontery of Colonialism! And did you know that about 900 men volunteered to go to North Africa, Libya and Egypt during the Second World War (1939-1945). And yes, many of them were among the millions of people who lost their lives during the war that brought 20th century cruelty to its peak. And did you know that many years, after the Emancipation of slavery (1st February 1835), Seychelles became a sanctuary for liberated African slaves who were rescued from Arab dhows by ships of the Royal Navy? And that the first batch arrived on 14th May 1861 aboard HMS Lyra?
A museum is like an Art Gallery. It’s a place where you must walk leisurely, pleasurably as you observe and assimilate its priceless offerings.
There are ingeniously crafted models of Creole dwellings of timber that existed once upon a time. From the simplest and humble ‘Payot’ hut to the magnificent “Grann Kaz” Plantation House. Oh, those picturesque garrets and pitched roofs, with finials and prickets. Yes, all those houses were once architectural icons that showed off the sheer beauty and rustic elegance of the Colonial Creole dwelling. All of them masterpieces. Feast your eyes….
Well, the history of the National Museum is not old (pardon, the oxymoron!).
It was a retired British Officer of the Indian Army, captain Archibald Tindall Willfred Webb (1889-1968) to whom we owe much gratitude for the creation of our Museum.
Upon his arrival, early in 1961, he was appointed Government archivist. Having an overwhelming amount of historical documents at his disposal, he soon developed an insatiable interest in all aspects of our History. He made extensive research and wrote copiously. And in 1963 he published! “The Story of Seychelles” which sold for R4 a copy.
On the ground floor of the Carnegie Building (which recently celebrated its centennial anniversary) Captain Webb began to organize a variety of old objects to establish a museum which was financed solely from the proceeds of his book. The museum which combined Natural and History opened its doors in early 1964 and a year later, the “Stone of Possession” was removed from the Government House grounds and placed there. By 1966, the sum collected from the sales of ‘The Story of Seychelles’ and paid into the Museum fund had reached Rs3,350/-. Gradually, the collection of artifacts and objects increased,…. Rusted canons salvaged from shipwrecks, a giant furbelow clam, bones of an alligator killed in the 18th century…
And well, the rest like they say, is History.