Island of Aldabra - Seychelles
Aldabra The Miraculous Territory
Aldabra is a place of wonder, a World Heritage Site, a marvel. For naturalists, both professional and amateur, it is a sort of Mecca; one of those places they would love to see before they die, says Judith Skerrett.
Naturalists dream of visiting Aldabra because it is unique: here life has evolved undisturbed by man ….. well, almost undisturbed by man. Aldabra also has a human story running alongside that of the turtle and the giant tortoise and sometimes man’s intervention has verged on the disastrous.
Aldabra is not an easy place: even for the tortoises. The atoll is a long way from anywhere. It has little fresh water. The ‘land’ hovers a few feet above the sea; the mushroom islets look like ballerinas on tiptoe in the water, an d once ashore, (assuming you have not been ripped to shreds by the razor sharp coral), the surface you must cross is a piece of petrified ocean with holes and hollows designed not to fit the human foot. You cannot step firmly on a flat surface. Relax and you are punished with slashed ankles; which explains why Aldabra receive so much from the attentions of man as other islands.
But man gets everywhere and he could see that Aldabra was unique and intriguing, and it had it uses. However, although he called in, at first he did not stay. When the crew of a French ship visited in 1742 they were, as sailors had to be then, as sailors had to be then, on the look out for food supplies. A giant tortoise you can treat like a can of preserved beef, keeping them alive on the deck for a long time, requiring minimum attention, and supplying fresh meat in plenty. The ships were en route form Mauritius to investigate the mysterious Seychelles islands to the north. They marvelled at the tortoises: “ There were some that six men could not lift to put into our canoe…”, but they were desperate for water and found none.
Meanwhile, beyond Aldabra things changed. Seychelles became British in 1811. To the dismay of plantation owners they were no longer allowed to import slaves legally, and so they began smuggling slaves. Remote Aldabra was used to hide slaves before smuggling them to their new owners piecemeal. Having an inkling of this, the authorities paid a visit in 1830. There were no slaves, but they did find almost 1500 muskets hidden.
As early as 1842 there were concerns about the huge number of turtles being taken; although in 1841 two visiting ships had no difficulty catching 1,200 tortoises in no time at all. But trouble was looming for Aldabra’s wildlife. The atoll had mangroves in abundance it was suggested mangrove poles (useful for building) be cut on a large scale. Naturalists in London were dismayed and put pen to paper, already alarmed having heard numbers of tortoises were dwindling. . Even Charles Darwin wrote on the matter, expressing the hope something would be done about the threat. As a result, although Aldabra did not become a reserve in the modern sense, the authorities did attempt to protect the tortoises, and experts eager to find out how bad the situation was sent Captain Wharton to investigate. In August 1878 he reported back. Wharton saw little to recommend Aldabra; he could not even find any wretched tortoises! As for the atoll itself, “…. A more uninviting place I never saw…” he wrote, “ … the surface of the island, which is an up-heaved atoll, is coral rock, jagged and rough to a degree that makes its most laborious to get about even were it not for a most stubborn and tangled brushwood which covers it and tears one’s clothes and person to pieces…. there is no soil, no sand even for planting coconuts, no water except in the cavities of the coral. Mosquitoes are intolerable; and this is the best season of the year for them”. Wharton was not happy thrashing about on Aldabra and continues in similar vein: “….beyond a land rail there is nothing,” he grumbles, “except mosquitoes…. I am sure I am safe in saying that Aldabra will never be inhabited regularly… I think your mid may be at ease as regards any probability of Aldabra being inhabited….” He got away as soon as he could but it was not an experience he forgot. In his memoirs he still vividly recalled his tramps across Aldabra as “…. the most aggravating and slowest piece of locomotion I have ever engaged in….”
There were actually those who hoped Aldabra might make an agreeable residence and just a year later an unlikely band of potential settlers were on their way to Aldabra. They were Norwegians and they wished to create a simple, Christian community. Some were veterans of a previous endeavour in Madagascar by the Norwegian Missionary Society who had been told (by the crew of a visiting British warship!) Aldabra was uninhabited and unclaimed. These well-intentioned settlers never made it to Aldabra. At Madagascar they learned the disappointing truth that Aldabra was British and had insufficient fresh water to support them. They abandoned Aldabra and settled at the Cape instead.
Meanwhile the French were making noises about Aldabra, thinking they still had a claim to the atoll because treaties were vague as to the islands belonged to Seychelles. In 1882 there were rumours of a Seychelles resident being granted the lease of Aldabra by the French and six years later another lease was ‘granted’ by the French. What made mattes worse; this gentleman was a former British government employee! The authorities were miffed. The governor of Mauritius wrote “… I venture to suggest…. The advisability… of requesting the Lords of the Admiralty….to send a man of war to Aldabra”. HMS Redbrest was despatched to remind the French that the atoll, mosquitoes and all, was British. Admiral Kennedy was in no doubt that the French would claim the islands “…if they thought there was the slightest chance of receiving them”. A new flagstaff and a couple of Union Jacks were handed to Mr.Spurs, a British subject to whom Aldabra had been leased for five years, to stress the point the islands were British. This, in combination with a discreet word between diplomats, settled the matter.
It was not plain sailing for Aldabra in the 19th century. It is the recurring theme of Aldabra’s history that as one threat is narrowly averted, the next presents itself. Once it was fishermen and Norwegian idealists; nowadays, for instance, it is poachers from the Comoros and the danger of the accidental introduction of invasion species. In the 19th century the importance of keeping ecosystems in balance was not generally understood. The tortoises enjoyed a favoured species, but no one saw harm in turning Aldabra into a commercial enterprise. There was no shortage of bright ideas as to what one might do with it. Spurs had the cheerful expectation of taking 12,000 turtles a year from the atoll; bringing in Chinese workers to catch and dry sea cucumbers (trepang) for export; introducing goats and cats, planting coconuts and it was suspected he traded illegally in giant tortoises. The next big idea was to take guano and the islands were leased to Biggerstaffs of London, whose business was phosphates. Fortunately for Aldabra, its guano was not considered of good quality. Monsieur de Charmoy leased the island in the early years of the 20th century with hopes of resurrecting the mangrove pole industry and meanwhile the Seychelles Director of Agriculture suggested he establish plantations of maize, cotton, sisal, and vanilla. And of course the British government outdid all this in the 1970s with their own bright idea of filling in the lagoon and building a massive air base….which never happened, thank heavens.
The attitude towards Aldabra really began to change at the end of the 19th century. It gradually came to be seen less as resource and more as a wonder. The scientists realised Aldabra was unique and world-famous experts began to visit, leading expeditions and collecting specimens for museums in Europe and America. They continued to nag the British government about the protection of the tortoises and turtles. By the 1950s the lease of Aldabra included a clause under which South Island was to be entirely protected. Jacques Cousteau, visiting in the same decade, remained concerned about the atoll’s future and tried to lease Aldabra himself in order to make it a wildlife sanctuary. He was not successful; but he did do much to raise public awareness in Europe. In a report of 1951 – 1952 the governor prophetically noted: “…the increasing number of visitors who have come to Seychelles drawn by its scenic beauty”. What he was describing was the beginning of a new direction for Seychelles: a place people visited to wonder at. And Aldabra was very much one of Seychelles’wonders.
By the 1970s attitudes had changed so radically that the fight was on to prevent the atoll being turned into a military base. Where Wharton had seen a sort of hell, and others a supermarket, Pearson Phillips, writing in the ‘Daily Mail’ saw “…a place reminiscent of those stories in schoolboy annuals about miraculous territories beyond inaccessible mountain ranges…” Aldabra was worth protecting simply for being Aldabra. Man has changed; thankfully Aldabra has not, which is what makes it such a special place. Man and Aldabra have not always made the most comfortable of bedfellows, but it is to be hoped that for generations to come this atoll will now be cherished as a place of wonder.