“When I went to my island I did so from a purely necessary point of view to buy a coconut plantation, which just happened to be upon an island. It was only after I had come to live there that the full charm of this wonderful little island grew upon me.”
One of the granitic Inner Islands of the Seychelles, Frigate (or Frégate) Island is located fifty or so kilometres from Mahé and the capital Victoria. The French and British contested the ownership of this tropical archipelago for centuries until the Seychelles became a British colony in 1903. The island was named after the frigate-birds found there in great abundance.
Written in the 1920s, these letters from plantation owner H C H Conor – the former owner and “king” of Frigate Island – were addressed to his young daughters, Eileen and Joan, describing life on the island in the Seychelles, where they were born. Britain granted the Seychelles independence within the Commonwealth in 1976, however to this day, Frigate Island is still private – currently owned by a German businessman. It is no longer a coconut plantation but instead has become an exclusive holiday resort.
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I once owned an island, a whole island all to myself, about 800 acres far away in the tropics. My friends sometimes called me king. I was not really king, for the laws of the colony to which my domain was attached held sway over my island.
From our house on Mahé you could see the island far away to the east, looking like two hillocks sticking up out of the deep blue sea. You children have asked me so often about the island that I am now going to tell you all about it. It was such a dear old island I want you to try to picture it all truly so that you, my little girls, will not be mislead by the descriptions woven by the hazy recollections of your brother.
The island is called Frigate Island and is situated 30 miles by sea from Port Victoria the capital of the colony. It was about a mile and a quarter long and about three quarters of a mile wide. The east side and half the west side are protected by coral reef, the north and south ends rise straight from the sea to a ridge which runs the length of the island and reaches at its highest point 200 feet.
In most coral reefs that surround islands there is an opening or pass and through this a boat can get to shore. Passage is not always easy, but with skill and care the task can generally be accomplished. The pass to my island lies on the eastern side. Inside and behind the reef stretches a long beach of blindingly white sand, consisting solely of coral and shell broken and ground by the action of the sea. In years gone by, the island had been the home of innumerable sea birds, countless thousands had resorted to it in the breeding season and in the course of centuries the acid of their excreta helped by the tropic rains and blazing sun had broken down the old granite rock and formed a thin soil very rich in phosphate which grew luxuriant grass. From the beach back to where the rise of the hill began was about 30 yards of perfectly level land of beautiful soil made by the washing of the hill through many thousands of years.
How did I get there from Mahé? Why on a little boat with two leg of mutton sails. The boat was decked in and had a funny little cabin, half under the deck and half above it. It did smell too. A mixture of bilge-water and rancid coconut oil and salt fish. But you even got used to that. There was just room on deck to get round the top of the cabin and just room astern to sit on the deck by the sheet and steer. Just in front of the cabin, roped down to two rings on the deck was the kitchen, a sort of iron box and there the cook would cook the food for the three men who made up the crew. He always started by getting a saucepan very hot and then throwing coconut oil in it and when he did that I used to go right into the bow for the smell was as bad as that which came out of the cabin and I couldn’t stand the two at the same time.
I liked going over to the island at night. We used to start at about 8 o’clock or at least I said we should start then. I always knew the crew would be late so I never went to the boat before nine. I suppose the skipper said to himself ‘Master never comes at 8 o’clock so I shan’t go till ten’, and the crew said to each other ‘Captain never goes till ten, we wont go before eleven’. So I was very angry with the captain, and the captain with the crew, as we got on board and they started getting the anchor up.
I remember many times on calm nights when there was a moon I used to watch the great towering black mass of mountain with its trembling lights here and there on the mountainside as we slid silently up the harbor. The only sound to be heard was the trickle of water against the side of the boat, a dog barking and the thump thump of a tom-tom. It was all so warm and comfy; there was not much need of steering and I sat and watched our own particular trembling light and wondered what sort of dreams you, my daughters, were having. But I knew on each night the voyage would probably be a long one so I soon handed over the wheel to the captain, rolled myself up in my rug and went to sleep. When we made a good voyage we used to get over in six or seven hours and would reach the island before daylight.
It all seemed very mysterious as we looked at the black velvety mass of island and listened to the dull thud of the rollers on the sand. Then as the dawn came we would come sailing round the point of my island and see on our right a long line of white breakers flinging themselves on the reef. I loved that first sight of the reef because you got a view of the breakers end on. You would see the great big deep indigo blue swells far out at sea and they appeared to be coming along in a stately leisurely sort of way, but as they came nearer and nearer to the reef they seemed to begin to get angry. Here and there a white crest would appear as they slipped out of their stately march into a terrific rush till with one tremendous swoop they curled themselves upwards and curving over giving a quick glimpse of a huge blue green tunnel all dry inside which made you long to run up it, then, crash! In a moment the blue green mass was toppled into a seething mass of the whitest foam which raced trembling and jostling up the white sandy beach.
But you didn’t get that fascinating view for long for as you came further out from the shore you got more wind and quickly sailed along the reef. You now got a good view of the island. A little way, about 60 to 100 yards inside the reef was the wide beach of beautiful white sand and then from the very edge of the white sand rose the lovely green feathery topped coconut palms. Hundreds of them, some young ones with no trunks, some half-grown with reddish trunks, some great tall grey-trunked palms perhaps 70 or 80 feet high which as they grew in the course of years had spread this way and that, so that as they slowly waved their beautiful heads above the lesser palms below they seemed to be watching over them. Soon you saw a row of huts, built and thatched with the brown dry leaves of palms. These are the huts of the laborers.
Usually it was possible to land quite comfortably, but at other times it was difficult and dangerous. At one time of the year we had to anchor off one end of the island because the sea opposite the pass through the reef was too rough to be comfortable. At that season we used to see the big black lump of the island rising out of the sea, first very dimly and then getting plainer and bigger and blacker and we sailed on straight at it until we heard the sound of the breakers on shore when we dropped the anchor and furled the sails. Then when the sun rose at six o’clock we would pull up the anchor and row off round to the pass which is marked by a gap in the breakers on the reef.
One of the crew got the anchor ready and another held up a monster shell with a hole in the end of it and started making a most mournful row, like a cow that has lost its calf. That is to tell the people on shore that we had arrived. There was not really any need to do that for a boat is always spotted as soon as it comes round the end of the island. Plop went the anchor and rattle went the chain, there was a bustle on the beach as the men ran the canoe out of the boatshed and down to the water edge and fetched the oars. While they were getting ready, we just looked over the side. The water was so clear the bottom seemed no distance away yet the water was 20 or 30 feet deep. There were not many big fish just here, but you would see lots of little fish, some brilliant blue with yellow stripes, others crimson, they moved about so leisurely and lazily they seemed to be waiting for something and so they were, for when the crew have had their breakfast they got theirs too.
On a calm day the steersman had no trouble in coming straight through the pass. Our canoe was rowed by seven men and the steersman stood in the stern steering with a 15-foot-long oar. The men didn’t wear much clothing on the island, just an old sack tied round their waist and perhaps an old straw hat. The steersman who was also the foreman on shore always wore a shirt and trousers, to show his rank I suppose. In a few minutes the canoe came along side and you would look down into a row of smiling black and brown faces all eagerly asking the news and exchanging jibes with our crew. We then tumbled on board and sat where one could in the bows or astern behind the steersman. One’s luggage was passed over board and off we went to the shore. As we went through the reef one would notice the strong current running out of the pass and could imagine what a force the current must have on a rough day when huge rollers are pounding thousands of tons or water over the reef a great deal of which had to find its way back through this narrow pass. When we had rowed through the pass it was only about 100 yards to the beach where the rest of the population of the island were gathered: men, women and children all smiling and talking at once.
We jumped out of the canoe onto blinding white sand, soft and sticky. Looked at carefully, the sand would be seen to be composed only of shell broken very fine by the action of the waves and of fine coral. One did not stay longer than possible on the beach for the glare of the sun was too strong and the heat very great. On the top of the beach on the right was the boat shed where the canoes, big, medium and little were kept, and also a big whale-boat fitted with a little motor.
To the left a huge banyan tree had giant branches, some of which shot straight from the stem, and yards away from the trunk dropped aerial roots to make supports. The space covered by this tree measured about 50 yards across and there was room for two coconut mills under its shade. Among the branches hundreds of beautiful little snow white sea swallows or terns made their homes. They were so tame and inquisitive they would come and hover right in your face as if to wish you welcome. Though they have such lovely white plumage their skin was black. They made no nest but laid a single egg on a fork of the spreading branches and nature had provided a means to keep it securely in its place by arranging that the bird laid an egg the same size at each end. I seldom found a broken egg under the tree. Often I found young birds under the trees, little weak greyish coloured things with sharp black beaks which I put in any convenient niche on the trunks where the mother bird soon found them. These birds were most restless. They never seemed to sleep. At any rate some were always awake, so that for at all hours of the night one could hear their commotion.
Straight in front of the beach and viewed from under the big banyan tree stood the house about fifty yards away. On the right was a small kitchen garden, opposite which on the left was a coconut mill and a rough grass plot, beyond were open cow sheds and what used to be an old masonry kitchen now a fowl house, then , further along on the edge of the beach another row of huts for the men.
The house was built of coral blocks and roofed with shingles. Shingles were split out of very hard wood and put on like slates. They last for years when properly put on. They were dark red when new but soon turn a soft grey colour which is very pretty. There was a big verandah facing the sea and one at the side facing the kitchen which stood apart from the house. There was one big sitting room all doors, I think nine of them, which were hardly ever closed so you can imagine how warm it was. Two bedrooms at the back completed the house and though the description does not sound very inviting I used to find it very comfortable. My great trouble was the mosquitoes during one season of the year but I always had a mosquito net on the bed and I rigged up a kind of tent of mosquito netting which would enclose a comfy chair. I used to let this down from the ceiling at night when I wanted to read and so defeated the mosquitoes who pinged away in rage all round.
Beyond the house as one came to it from the beach was the oil store, built of coral and thatched with dried coconut leaves. Round this building about twelve feet from the wall was a row of posts 12 feet apart and on the top of the posts were fixed wooden runners to take 12 feet square shallow trays. On these trays were put the split coconuts to dry. Beyond this building was the managers bungalow, the island shop and store, and the hospitals for men and women which were scarcely ever used, and beyond again on the edge of the beach and under the shade of the coconut palm a long line of quaint huts for the labourers. The huts were made of a bamboo frame with walls of dried coconut leaves and thatched thickly with leaves. Each hut was about 14 feet square with a little verandah with a separate kitchen which the men put up themselves, far enough away to avoid risk of fire.
Behind the house and directly beyond the copra buildings and cow sheds stood the coconut trees. All trees are beautiful but I think nothing can exceed the beauty and perfect grace of the coconut palm. Take a well set out plantation. Wherever one stands and one looks we see an aisle bordered by noble columns canopied by the bold sweep of the long fronds just meeting overhead and through the shimmering streamers on the fronds the sunlight is filtered and diffused and melts in distance to a faint blue haze, shot here and there with shafts of brilliant light striking now trunk, now swards beneath.
Strolling across this shady plateau one presently heard the sound of running water. It was the one stream on the island, a little brook which takes its rise at a spring 200 yards further up the valley. When there has been a high rainfall this little brook swells to a quite imposing cascade. It rushes and tumbles over the huge boulders in its pathway, then when it reaches the level, as if to prevent its loosing itself at sea too soon, it turns sharply to the left and hugs the foot of the hill till at last it is pushed onto the beach to burst its way through the sand to sea. But its force is now exhausted, a tide or two, and the new made mouth is soon filled up and the roaring cascade shrunk to a little brook sucked by the ocean underground.
On the landward side of the labourers’ huts was a big pond, or marsh as it was called. This took the drainage of the plateau or big flat which lay at the foot of hill. At certain seasons of the year wild duck used to come to this pond for a day or two but never remained for long.
This pond was not very healthy in the dry season as it used to get rather smelly and to breed mosquitoes, so I tried to drain it by cutting a channel though the old coral rock to the sea. It was easy enough till one came to the beach. As soon as the tide was high the exit became barricaded up again with sand. So I waited till the pond got very full after big rain and till the turn of the highest spring tide then got seven or eight men with shovels to shovel away the sand as hard as they could shovel. That soon started a little trickle from the pond which gradually increased in volume cutting its own way with a little help till in a while there was a roaring torrent rushing into the sea between high sand walls.
By the time it was low tide, the pond would be nearly empty and then we had a wild rush to hold what we had gained from the sea. A stout barricade of faggots and planks was built across the channel to keep the sand out when the high tide came, behind this I built a proper canal. So by filling the pond and washing away the sand with the water collected I was able by degrees to build a canal by which I could drain the pond whenever I liked. It used to be great fun catching the fish. When the tide came in, many fish used to be washed up into the pond and they could not get out when the tide went out because of the sand. When the pond was opened to let the water out they used to come tumbling down the stream, rolling over for they couldn’t swim against it and couldn’t keep straight swimming with it. It used to be the greatest fun catching them, although it was not an easy thing to do.
The island was planted with coconut palms, but when I took over I found that for years a stout long stemmed grass had been allowed to over-run the place. Since each season’s growth dried itself rather than rotted away there was a pretty good mess to clean up. As it turned out it took me about a couple of years to overcome this jungle so that one could get a clear view of things further than ten yards distance.
Some years before I arrived, the man who occupied the island kept pigs and allowed them to run as they pleased. I believe that he used to call them to meals by blowing a horn like ‘Little Boy Blue’, but as the island was a good size the pigs soon remained out and became semi-wild. I found that the pigs, or some of them, had learnt how to get at the inside of the coconuts that were lying about under the trees. They used to strip the husk off the nut and I believe had found out that if the nut itself was exposed to the sun it would crack. I cannot say whether the pigs thought this scheme out or simply tried to get at the inside, but being thwarted by the hard shell and left it, and returning later found the nut split and capable of being opened. The fact was I frequently found nuts in all stages, some husked, some lying uncracked, and others completely cleaned out.
I determined to wage war against them. The actual surface of the island was very rocky. In some places rocks of 50 and 60 tons lay higgledy-piggledy on top of one another, forming splendid retreats and lairs for the pigs. Everywhere rocks of smaller size lay thickly about. As the grass was well above one’s head, a false step off one of these rocks frequently lead to an unwished for header down the slope. I have vivid recollection of taking such a header on one occasion while charging blindly down the hill after a pig. I turned a complete somersault and the world continued revolving for some little time after I came to a full stop against another rock, which fortunately for me was thickly covered in the remains of many seasons growth of grass. The only way of getting the pigs on the hillside was with the help of dogs. I used to take out a couple of lurchers with one or two native labourers who were always very keen. The pigs had made regular tracks through the grass but these tracks would suddenly disappear: that is the grass would be as thick ahead as on each side. The cause was that several seasons of grass growth had fallen against a rock and the pigs had tunneled under this rubbish, meanwhile new grass had grown over the old stuff.
When I went to my island I did so from a purely necessary point of view to buy a coconut plantation, which just happened to be upon an island. It was only after I had come to live there that the full charm of this wonderful little island grew upon me.
The letter ends here; either unfinished or with pages lost….
The Seychelles Islands are unusual being composed of low density granite within a dense basaltic ocean basin and are essentially part of a microcontinent : “The Seychelles is part of the granitic Mascarene Plateau which broke off from the Indian Plate about 65 million years ago. This rift formation is associated with the Réunion hotspot which is also responsible for Réunion Island and the Deccan Traps in India. Because of its long isolation, the Seychelles hosts several unique species including the Coco de mer, a palm which has the largest seeds of any plant and the world’s largest population of giant tortoises.” (Extracted from Wikipedia).
Colin Conor is the grandson of Herbert Cecil Holford Conor (1875 – 1961)