Geologically, Seychelles has had a long history. It separated from land masses that became Africa, Madagascar and India some 66 million years ago. After this separation, it became unique as the only granitic oceanic islands in the world. More recently Seychelles has varied in size from an island as big as Sri Lanka at the peak of the last ice age to the archipelago of small islands that it is today, following substantial sea level rise as the ice melted and leaving only mountain tops exposed.
Only within the last 250 years has man colonised the islands. His impact has been dramatic and mainly negative. During this very short time, however, the colonists developed techniques and behaviours that suited living requirements on these isolated islands and were based on the limited range of resources available. This led to the evolution of Seychelles’ unique culture. For many of those years coconuts, their cultivation, utilisation and transport, dominated the islanders’ lives, while the staple food, fish, was procured from nearby waters by fishermen in small boats, powered only by oar or sail. Dwellings were basic, made from locally available materials, especially timber, and roofed with thatch. This was often made from coconut leaves, keeping out most, but by no means all, of the plentiful rainfall.
At the dawn of mass tourism, stimulated by the opening of the international airport on Mahe less than half a century ago, tourists saw all these features of island life and were reminded of abundantly read stories such as Robinson Crusoe. Many modern-day tourists, on the occasions they emerge from their concrete, air-conditioned hotel rooms and move away from the pool or local beach, might encounter models of pirogues in some of the shops selling tourist trinkets. But most will be ignorant of what they were and of the role that they played as vital workhorses in the procurement of fish and in inter-island transport.
Few pirogues remain and the pace of development in the islands has relegated much of the culture that made Seychelles what it is to the not-very-distant past. This was brought home to me on our recent visit to Aride, an island on which I was landed by a pirogue, rowed by oarsmen, in 1972 after a 4-hour journey from Mahe in a schooner. On the recent visit the journey involved a flight from Mahe to Praslin, followed by a 40-minute ride in a large inflatable dinghy powered by a hefty outboard engine.
Near the top of the beach, however, we found under a shelter the decaying remains of an old pirogue, possibly even the one that took me ashore in 1972. The island, now owned and managed by Island Conservation Society, has a small museum in which are posters that document the island’s history, as far as it is known, since man’s arrival. It seems to me such a pity that the pirogue, which used to play such a vital role in the island’s earlier management, has not received better preservation. The old manager’s house (in which I slept uncomfortably on a coconut fibre mattress and pillow in 1972) survives, but now with a metal roof instead of thatch. There are also the remains of an oven that once heated the copra-drying “kalorifer” (copra being the white “meat” of the coconut, which was and continues to be used to make oil and other products). These are illustrated in the museum and their functions explained but the pirogue was not deemed worthy of mention.
The ever-increasing rate of modernisation and development of the islands seems to leave no place for the preservation of reminders of cultural history. There is one good museum but Seychellois and tourists must go to Union Estate on La Digue to visit it and see an ox-driven moulen kopra (a huge pestle and mortar used to extract oil from copra) and kalorifer in action, among other items of no-too-distant Seychelles history. It would be wonderful to other historic artefacts collected and preserved on Mahe and Praslin for the benefit and education of young Seychellois and tourists alike – before it is too late!