A hundred years ago, the First World War was in its second year and Seychelles shared a common obedience with many other British Colonies to the British Empire.
TONY MATHIOT relates the events of that momentous year.
The last session of the Legislative Council for the 1916 was held on Thursday 16th November at Government House. The Governor, Charles Richard Mackey O’Brien (1859-1935) was absent from the colony from the 23rd July 1916 to 24th March 1917, during which time, in accordance with the fourth clause of Letters Patent 1903, the Chief Justice Ewen Reginald Logan (1874-1944) administered the Government. Thus, His Honour presided over that last session. The other members present were: Alfred Gelle, the Legal Adviser, Louis Ogilvy Chitty, Treasurer and Collector of Customs, Joseph Bartlett Addison (1875-1928) Francois Charles Savy (1864-1938) and Francois Prosper Loustau- Lalanne (1869-1924). In his address, Administrator Logan talked lengthily on the deleterious effects that the War, which was then in its second year, was having in the Colony…. <The war is still with us and it is still impossible to foresee even the approximate date of its termination although the recent marked successes of the Allies on all Fronts give rise to the hope that the end may come before another financial year expires… the price of commodities has risen enormously during the past year and it is specially felt in a small colony like our own, remote from the great trade routes and yet dependent for most of its supplies on outside sources. Great difficulty has been experienced in obtaining freight for our principal export coprah…>
Indeed, such was the infrequency of maritime traffic to our islands that a supply of goods that was ordered by a leading firm of merchants in December 1915, arrived in the colony on the 27th October 1916, almost a year later. However, during the year 1916 we did manage to import kg 2,484,796 of Bengal rice which retailed at Rs20.00 per bag of 75 kilos (the average pre-war price was Rs16.00) kg 243,575 of salt, 24 tons of coal from South Africa, kg 301,538 of sugar, some 17,200 gunny bags from India, and even one piano from France! Some 23,680,965 coconuts were collected and 92,959 coconuts left our islands for the pharmaceutical industries and confectioneries of Asia and Europe, and even 586 coco de mer nuts managed to be exported to Singapore, Mauritius and India.
Nevertheless, it was a year of great hardship to the over 24,000 inhabitants who by then had resigned themselves to the various precautionary stringent measures that Governor O’Brien had implemented in the colony after the outbreak of the War in August 1914.
The First Ordinance of 1916 came into force on the 10th March. It consolidated and amended the old 1899 law relating to quarantine. The new law stipulated that vessels should receive pratique (clearance) at Port Victoria before communications with any of the Seychelles islands. In the absence of such legislation, a ship could have landed at any of our four other islands and thus transmitted contagious diseases from other ports in the Indian Ocean. For security reasons, publication of shipping intelligence discontinued as of 16th December 1916. This came after a ship, S.S Arabia was sunk in the Mediterranean in November, and among the mails lost was a mail bag dispatched from Seychelles on 7th October 1916. This included eight registered articles. The administrator discreetly let it be known < …that responsibility is not accepted for losses due to the act of the kings enemies.>
It seems that with the prolongation of the War, each successive year saw the implementation of new expedient measures in order for the colony to survive the adverse circumstances of the war.
The First proclamation of 1916 was published in the Seychelles Government Gazette of the 8th January. It imposed the maximum price at which sugar could be sold: Rs 29.50 cts per bag of 75kg and 42 cts per kilo. Progressive export duties were imposed on coprah coconuts, coconuts oil and soap. In March, the Sugar Cane Ordinance imposed on annual tax of Rs250 on every acre of land planted with sugar canes for the production of bacca. Bacca, the fermented juice of the sugar cane plant was a local brew that the laboring class of the population had developed a penchant for since the mid-19th century when Seychelles was ruled as part of Mauritius. It had been a vexatious issue for a succession of civil commissioners and administrators, because its consumption most often than not, resulted in disorderly conduct and social violence. Not surprisingly, bacca was the subject of various legislation bills and enactments.
The Sugar Canes Ordinance 1916, necessitated the creation of an Excise Department to regulate the sales of bacca on which tax was levied with a view to raising extra funds to meet the expenditure of the government. The Excise superintendent was Xavier Martial Leon Le Vieux. But despite the introduction of new taxation to alleviate the effects of the war on our economy, contrary to what had been anticipated, the year ended with a significant deficit- the reasons among which, one was the fact that merchants in the early months of the year refused to remove their goods out of the bonded warehouse at the long Pier to avoid paying customs duty.
The Government earned revenue from the rent of crown lands and also from guano, of which some 1000 tons were removed from Assumption Island. 980 tons of guano were exported to Mauritius. Revenue for 1916 was around Rs 390,000/-Kg 875,745 of hawksbill turtle shell were exported to UK and France.
The National budget for 1916 was Rs 453,332/- a further sum of Rs 15,712.67 cts was approved on 4th May 1917. This surplus was caused by the increased number of prisoners undergoing sentence, and the increased number of patients in hospital and the increased prices of provisions for both establishments. 513 persons were admitted in the hospital, including 22 prisoners. The Public Works Department (PWD) saw a decrease in its expenditures because prisoners instead of paid labourers, were employed in the reclamation of the fore-shore along the Long Pier. Prison labour also worked on the bridges of Praslin which had fallen into complete disrepair, and on the bridges and roads of south Mahe. During that year, 988 persons were committed to prison, 180 women and 808 men.
The Empire Day celebrations which were traditionally celebrated on the 24th May each year at the Gordon Square (Freedom Square) had to be postponed because prizes for the children’s sports competition had not yet arrived. The celebrations were held one month later on Saturday 24th June in conjunction with the Belgian Children’s Day. It was presided over by Governor O’Brien before he left the colony.
On Friday 4th August 1916 at 4pm, a public patriotic meeting was held on Gordon Square to commemorate the 2nd anniversary of the declaration of War. During the meeting which was attended mostly by civil servants residing in the Victoria area, a collection was made for the Red Cross Funds (Rs 67) and a resolution by the citizens of Seychelles to uphold the ideals of Justice and Liberty was put to the vote. Similar meetings were organized throughout the British Empire.
The War was in its second year, and most of the inhabitants were not even aware of the storm that was raging across the ocean in East Africa, and the atrocities that were being perpetrated there and elsewhere on the battlefields of Europe. The last time then, in recent history, that Great Britain had been involved in a major military conflict was in the Anglo- Boer War 1899-1902 which Britain won and which resulted in the creation of the Union of South Africa , incorporating the British colonies of the Cape and Natal, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. During that time, the administrator of Seychelles Ernest Bickham Sweet Escott (1857-1941) experienced an urge of patriotism and earnestly proposed to the Secretary of State for the Colonies Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914) that a voluntary Defense Force be established in the colony. The scheme never materialized owing to lack of funds.
As of December 1916, for security reasons, the publication of shipping intelligence in the Government Gazette was discontinued. During that year forty two steam vessels visited the Seychelles.
The Second anniversary of the War found the British army which then comprised units from all parts of the British Empire acting on the offensive and gaining the upper hand. One year before, on 8th August 1914,the British opened hostilities in German East Africa by bombarding the coastal towns of Bagamoyo and Dar- Es- Salam. The German Commander, General Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck
(1870-1964), defeated a greatly superior landing force in the Battle of Tanga in early November 1914. In November 1915, the British secured naval control of Lake Tanganyika.And in July and August 1916, landing forces took Tanga and Bagamoyo. In September 1916, the towns of Dar- Es-Salam, Lindi and Taboro were captured.
What implications could that have on a small colonial outpost out here in the Indian Ocean? During the First Year of the War some among the few British nationals who were occupying various posts in the civil establishment were enlisted to participate “for the glory of our empire”. Among them was David William Mc Leod, the Inspector of schools and Principal King’s College, who left on the 28th December 1914 for the Service at the Front.
In addition to the exigencies of the War, Administrator Logan was also responsible for the Welfare of an African King and over seventy of his followers which included his mother and father. King Prempeh (1872-1931) of Ashanti was then in his 16th year of exile and he was to endure another 8 years of banishment. It was completely unexpected. One can only wonder about Administrator’s initial reaction. On 28th October 1916, came an urgent request from General Jan Smuts (1870-1950), commander of the British Army in German East Africa exhorting the Administrator to send 5,000 –yes ,5,000!! Seychellois men < for more labour for military requirements>
Never in the history of Seychelles had any of her inhabitants had the slightest experience on the battlefield or of warfare, for any matter. During the subsequent weeks, scores of Seychellois men, most in their early 20’s enthusiastically answered the recruitment notices that had been posted at all the 12 police stations in the colony. Mostly labourers on coconuts estates and cinnamon plantations, they must have considered General Smuts request as a blessed opportunity, a chance for good prospects. So they came voluntarily, eagerly, excited by the possibility of travelling abroad.
By the end of November, a total of 1,007 men had volunteered for recruitment- but after rigorous medical examinations, 791 men were accepted into the Seychelles Carrier Corps who were to supply Frontline Units with food, guns and ammunition.
The first contingent of 670 labourers, 2 officers, 7 commissioned officers and 27 overseers left on 19th December 1916 aboard S.S Berwick Castle. They arrived at Kilwa on the Coast of the British East African Protectorate (Kenya) on Christmas Eve of 1916. Before they left, the men received blessings from the New Catholic Bishop Mgr Jean Damascene Lachavanne (1849-1920)
….And eleven years later at 9 am, on the 11th November of 1928, being the 10th anniversary of the Armistice, a special memorial service was held in the St Paul Cathedral and in the Romans Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception For all those who “from all parts of the Empire gave their lives to their countries and for the safety of the Empire as a whole”
All flags were flown at half-mast.
At 11 o’clock a gun was fired from the ship HMS Enterprise and two minutes of silence were observed.
At 12.15 pm, at the Mont Fleuri cemetery, Governor De Symons Montagu George Honey (1872-1945) unveiled the War Memorial dedicated “to the Glory of God and in memory of these men of the Seychelles Carrier Corps who risked and lost their lives for King and Country in East Africa in the years of the great war, and whose graves are not known.”
This most august ceremony took place 11 years before the outbreak of another global war…