Seychelles plantation history and ancient tombs: Henri Dauban's memoirs bring Silhouette's mysterious heritage to life
Henri Dauban sitting on the front veranda of the grand old plantation house known as the Grann Kaz, c. 1958. Henri and his brother Edouard extensively remodelled the house as it stands today. (Dauban Family Foundation)
(Seychelles News Agency) - Almost every Seychellois citizen and visitor to the Indian Ocean archipelago must have been here: the famous tourist beach of Beau Vallon, a ‘Golden Mile’ that stretches along the north-easternmost bay of the most populated island of Mahé.
And each person fortunate enough to stand and watch the last golden-pink rays of sun sink below the horizon at Beau Vallon will have noticed the sun’s rays reflected on the not-too-distant outline of a nearby island, mist swathed around its rugged mountain peaks.
This is the aptly-named island of Silhouette, the third largest in the archipelago but most of the Seychelles’ population of 93,000 inhabitants have never set foot there, and so it remains an island of mystery, steeped in legends and hundreds of years of history.
It is across from Beau Vallon beach that I stepped into a local restaurant last week to meet with one of the descendants of the Dauban family of French origin which owned the entire island for a hundred years, from the 1860s to the 1960s. Looking across, we could see the island in the distance; a fitting vantage point to conduct such an interview.
Laura Dauban greeted me with a smile; she and her husband had stepped off a plane from Europe that morning, and both of them were more than a little weary. But Laura is a woman on a mission; she has brought along with her a suitcase laden with a consignment of a book she thinks every Seychellois and visitor interested in the history of the islands should read.
Laura, who currently lives in Strasbourg, France and works as a British diplomat, has spent much of her free time over the last few years editing and collating the memoirs of her relative, the late Henri Dauban, who passed away in 1991, well before her first visit to the Seychelles in 2009.
|The front cover of the Memoirs of Henri Dauban, which is now available at Antigone Books in the capital of Victoria and at Hilton Labriz hotel on Silhouette island (Dauban Family Foundation) Photo License: CC-BY|
A family reunited
Henri was the grandson of Auguste Dauban, who inherited one lot on the island from his father, Joseph Francois Dauban, and eventually bought out the other nine lots to take possession of the entire island in the mid-1800s.
Two of Auguste's sons, Edouard and Charles, had a falling-out in the early 1900s and the family gradually parted ways. Charles’ son Richard (Laura’s great grandfather) was educated and settled in England and Edouard’s son Henri was educated in France before eventually returning to the Seychelles to carry on the family's plantation business.
Despite a tragic tale of missed connections during World War II, the two first cousins for many years believed each other to be dead until by chance in the mid-1980s, one of Laura’s family members picked up a British newspaper to see an article about Henri.
Laura’s grandfather, the late Richard’s son, rushed to the Seychelles to find Henri at the end stage of his life but overjoyed to be reunited with his long-lost family.
Henri’s memoirs, for which he was seeking a publisher around 1985, were never published, although he had handed a few copies of his manuscript in English and French to relatives and friends, including Laura’s grandfather.
When Laura’s grandfather pushed her to visit the Seychelles for the first time in 2009, she described setting foot on Silhouette as an epiphany.
“It’s really special, I really felt at home there, it was crazy, because I never grew up in this area,” said Laura. “I was supposed to go back to the UK but I ended up staying out here for eight months writing the family history.”
|The editor and publisher of Henri Dauban's memoirs, Laura Dauban (Laura Dauban) Photo License: CC-BY|
Memoirs of a life well-lived
Laura, who was writing her own historical fiction about the Dauban family history, began to organise Henri’s memoirs and comparing the version she had to copies which were held by others, such as Henri’s son Thomas, and Henri’s artist friend, Michael Adams.
“I was doing it because it was a key part of my own research, and then I thought wow, actually you know there’s a really good story in here,” said Laura.
The book tells of some of Henri’s most fascinating tales, including his intimate knowledge of Silhouette, his chance inclusion in the British javelin team in the 1924 Olympic Games and many humorous and hair-raising adventures of his work on some of the Seychelles’ most remote and beautiful islands.
His detailed insights into horticulture and natural history reflect his deeply enquiring mind, as well as an almost mythical vitality often found among those fearless early pioneers and explorers of the Seychelles islands.
“Henri, who was born in 1901 and died in 1991, really saw Seychelles change… and it’s a history you don’t really see written down by anyone first-hand,” Laura said. “He had strong views. He was honest, direct and straight-talking, and at least you always knew where you stood with him. I never met him, which is a shame, I’m rather sad about that, but I feel I know him really well. I see a lot of his traits in everybody in the family.”
Interestingly, Henri also meticulously puts forth a very convincing argument of why it was believed that the beach known as Anse Lascars on Silhouette was the final resting-place of six Maldivian seafarers before the arrival of French settlers, a claim which has been refuted by scientists who performed carbon dating on some of the remains found in the tombs.
|The Dauban family household and guests, including Henri's younger brothers Pierre and Leon, pictured circa 1908 (Dauban Family Foundation) Photo License: CC-BY|
The creation of the Dauban Family Foundation
“At home in the UK we have got letters written by all these people explaining the family history, and each generation has made an effort to preserve not necessarily what they have done but what they understood the generation before them did, and this is how I see my role of doing this,” she explained.
But despite having put so much time and effort into editing the memoirs with the invaluable help of Henri's son Thomas, Laura feels strongly that she should not profit from the book, and thus decided to create a UK-registered trust called the Dauban Family Foundation, which would collect all profits from Henri’s memoirs and use them for environmental projects in Seychelles, possibly on Silhouette itself, which is now a National Park managed by the Islands Development Company (IDC), a state-owned entity which was set up to manage and develop islands owned by the Seychelles government.
“We took from the land. It’s nice to give back to the land,” said Laura. “One of the ways you can protect a place is by knowing its history.”
|Haunted by the lady in white? The old plantation house, known as the "Grann Kaz" or Big House pictured above in 1901 with a woman standing on the front veranda. Originally built in 1860, the first thatched roof gave way to a tin roof and a second storey was later added. (Dauban Family Foundation) Below, Grann Kaz as it stands today as a Creole restaurant managed by the Hilton Labriz hotel (Seychelles News Agency) Photo License: CC-BY|
Examining the legacy of plantations and freed slaves
For Laura, being a member of the Dauban family is an incredible privilege.
“A lot of people don’t know where they come from; they don’t know the stories of their ancestors, and I’m hugely fortunate to be able to go right back to the 1830s and find letters between my great-great-great-great grandfather and his twin brother,” she said.
“The thing about Seychelles that’s amazing is that so many people have amazing stories, but collecting them is really difficult. Everybody needs to do something like this, to research their history. It would be really worthwhile.”
But is this privilege, of being a European plantation-owning family which has benefited from the labour of freed African slaves, a contentious issue for her as a human rights diplomat and lawyer?
Laura answers my question readily; indicating this is something she has already given a great deal of thought to. Indeed, she has found one thing in a letter written by her great-great-great-great grandfather Joseph Francois Dauban which she describes as “problematic”; the fear that the abolition of slavery in 1835 might financially ruin Dauban’s father-in-law.
“I was really troubled when I read that, I thought that was really appalling,” she said frankly. “But then I looked more into this man, and I saw that he was a doctor, and he treated cholera during the epidemic and he died because he was the only doctor in Port Louis, Mauritius, who continued to treat people when the outbreak came back. And he went everywhere and treated everybody. So whatever that letter was, maybe it was just a moment, maybe he saw his medical duties differently to his inheritance, I don’t know.”
“I think what does upset me is when you hear [people] say ‘you used to keep slaves in the basement’, or that Auguste was a slave-owner,” she continued. “First of all, slavery was abolished a few years after he was born in France, so by the time he did make it out here it was all over, so he certainly wasn’t keeping slaves; the basement [at Grann Kaz] was not used for slaves quarters at all, it was for wine storage!”
On further investigation while going through the Seychelles National Archives, Laura found reports made on the conditions of freed slaves and workers on plantations commissioned by the Foreign and Colonial Office, as Seychelles was then a British overseas territory.
“I thought oh my goodness, what on earth are they going to say about the Dauban family plantations? And it was actually extremely complimentary, and it said they were paid better than any other plantation, they are given more rations than anywhere else, and they were given the same food that the people were eating in the plantation house.”
|Haunted by ghosts? The Dauban Family Mausoleum then (pictured above) (Dauban Family Foundation) and now in 2015 (pictured below). The impressive mausoleum contains the remains of Auguste Dauban, his wife Catherine and their first child Eva who died when she was just two and a half years old. (Seychelles News Agency) Photo license: CC-BY|
Silhouette and the Virgin Mary
It’s clear that Laura, passionate about her family’s history, has been a repository for all sorts of interesting anecdotes passed down from generation to generation, so I ask her to tell me one.
“There are so many stories, but as I look at the island now, one that strikes me is the story of Henri’s mother,” began Laura. “She was taking one of the Dauban boats between Mahe and Silhouette, and she was a very religious lady. She was saying her rosary, and she suddenly saw a vision of the Virgin Mary - and this woman is not a mystic at all - and the Virgin Mary said to her ‘As you have greeted me on Earth, so I will greet you in Heaven’.”
Visitors to Silhouette will discover two shrines to the Virgin Mary on their ramblings about the island; one up on the rocks at Pointe Ramasse Tout, overlooking the jetty of La Passe, and another along the mountainous trail that leads to Grand Barbe on the other side of the island. Both shrines were put in place by Henri’s mother.
“She was so religious that she got permission from the Vatican to hold Mass on the veranda of the Grann Kaz every week, and that was the time before there was a church on Silhouette,” said Laura. “It was so important to her that everybody’s souls were saved, everybody had to come to Mass on the veranda of the Grann Kaz!”
Ghost stories from the shadow island
The old plantation house, known as Grann Kaz, first built by Auguste Dauban in 1860, now stands as a Creole restaurant managed by the island’s only hotel, Hilton Labriz. Upstairs remain a few items of furniture left behind by the family after the island was sold, and Laura is slowly piecing together family artefacts and photographs that can be used as an exhibition for visitors to the house.
But according to popular legend, both the old plantation house and the Dauban family mausoleum not too far away are haunted by the ghosts of long-dead members of the Dauban family.
“People talk a lot about ghost stories, and there have been sightings and they all think the ghost of Eva Dauban, the first child of [Auguste and] Catherine, is still bouncing on the bed [upstairs], crying, laughing or shouting… some people say they see Catherine Dauban or a white lady around the property,” said Laura.
But Laura also has something of her own ghost story to tell.
“I’ve slept in the Grann Kaz twice now, and the first time I slept there it was a huge big deal, because the head of security was having a fit, saying to the manager that he was going to have to patrol all night, but the manager told him that it was her own family, and if these ghosts do exist what would they do to her?”
“Anyway, I thought all this was utterly hilarious, and I was sleeping up there, and it was a hot, still night. All the windows were open but there was no breeze and I was lying very very still,” she recalled.
“I’d gone to bed very late and I remember I woke up and there was a cold breeze on me, so I thought, oh gosh, finally the wind has come back again, that’s nice. And then I moved and I realised, no, there is no breeze, it’s still hot and still, but over me, it was like someone was breathing on me.”
“But you know, I was so tired, and I was just like, if that is a ghost, bring it on, because I’m really hot! I was really so tired, and in the morning I was really cross with myself, thinking oh no, I could have had a really close encounter, but I just went back to sleep, what a loser I am!” she laughed.
The Memoirs of Henri Dauban are available from Antigone Book Store in the Seychelles capital of Victoria as well as at the Hilton Labriz hotel on Silhouette.