top of page

Africa during the Scramble: Exile to Paradise

By Gary Oswald

Port Victoria, Mahe, Seychelles c.1895

Wars inevitably lead to exiles. When the Haitian Revolution saw the Black Slaves of Hispaniola take control of that island, the white residents of that island moved to exile communities in Cuba and the Southern United States, in one of the first modern refugee crises. And, of course more recent wars have resulted in the same problems, the boat people who fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon are one such example, the Syrian refugees who entered Turkey and Lebanon during the Syrian Civil War are another. And on a smaller scale there are governments in exile. During the years in which Napoleon's France swept through Europe, London found itself host to a horde of exiled politicians and military officers representing their conquered countries, a little over a century later, during World War II, the same scene occurred again.

And the wars of the Scramble for Africa proved no exception. Most colonial powers ran their colonies indirectly with the royal family of conquered nations kept in place and given orders by the residents. Those monarchs who did not cooperate or who put a particularly fierce fight were often exiled and replaced with a relative rather than killed. Some of them were taken back to Europe like Cetshwayo's stay in London, some to elsewhere in continental Africa like Behanzin's time in Algiers but a lot ended up in the Islands of the Indian Ocean.

These were some of the remotest places on Earth, often among the few places that had been entirely uninhabited prior to the European Age of Exploration and were therefore seen as a safe place to dump prisoners who you did not want to be able to return home. Political Prisoners from the British Raj often ended up in the notorious prisons of the Andaman Islands, French political prisoners often ended up in Réunion and for those in British Africa and the Middle East, the preferred destination was Mahé in the modern day country of the Seychelles.

The Islands of the Seychelles were originally settled by the French in the 1770s after decades of sporadic visits from their local base of Mauritius. Mahé was ran as a slave plantation with slaves bought in from India and Africa to grow spices for the few French colonists on the Island who would then sell it to passing traders. In 1794, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the islands received both orders from France that slavery was to be banned and visits from a British warship that had orders to capture all French possessions in the Indian Ocean. In response the Islands declared themselves independent and therefore neutral and so they would kept their slaves, thank you very much.

The British accepted this and left the Seychelles alone, allowing their ships to pass unmolested. The French don't seem to have actually noticed, in the aftermath of the revolution most of their oversees departments were politely ignoring any orders from the metropole after all, especially any involving slavery. In 1798 there was an attempted slave rebellion in French Réunion and the rebels were sent to the now neutral Seychelles in exile. In 1801 a ship arrived from mainland France bearing more exiles, 70 Jacobin extremists who Napoleon had purged. Technically speaking the independent Seychelles had no obligation to take any of these new arrivals but they needed the manpower so went along with it. This set the tone, the Islands would spend the next century and a half as a dumping place for Europe's unwanted.

In 1814 the colony was ceded to the British by the France, their declared independence quietly ignored, and under British rule over 400 political exiles and 2,300 freed slaves would be bought to the Islands. The existing slaves were freed in 1835 and largely abandoned the spice plantations and farmed coconuts instead. They were joined by Indian and Chinese labourers and then by whatever people the British Navy dropped there. When the Sultan of Zanzibar agreed to ban the export of slaves, any slaves found in Arabian dhows stopped by the British on their anti slavery patrols would be taken to Mahé. Later, upon the British establishing their complete control over Zanzibar, they were joined by exiled Omani slavers including the Sultan of Zanzibar himself, in what must have been an awkward meeting.

The first deposed statesman to arrive was the Sultan of Perak in Malaysia after the murder of the British Resident there. That happened in 1875 and he was joined by the Zanzibari and the Kings of Ashanti, Bunyaro and Buganda in the 1890s. In the early 20th Century there came Mohamoud Ali Shire, a Sultan from Somaliland, Sa’ad Zaghlul Pash, the former Prime Minister of Egypt, Queen Yaa Asantewa, who led the Ashanti in the notorious War of the Golden Stool, and most of the Arab Higher Committee in Palestine. In 1921, during the last days of the Irish War of independence, there were plans to take IRA prisoners there too but the war ended before they could be carried out. In the 1950s the residents included Stanley Kitaka of Uganda and Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus.

Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus. World Telegram & Sun photo by Orlando Fernandez.

It happened simply because the Seychelles was a long way away from anywhere, it was difficult to get messages between the exiles and their followers and rescue attempts would require a blue water navy which few rebels had access to. To some extent this was complacency on behalf of the British rather than an accurate reading, Mohamoud Ali Shire managed to get messages to his followers to Somalia through sailors operating out of Ceylon. And it also showed they didn't care about them talking to the native Seychellois themselves, who, post independence, often said that they took strength and radical ideas from their conversations with the exiles. British Power was such that no revolt happened or was ever going to happen, but it is a fascinating idea to think of the Seychellois learning about war and power from the exiled leaders there.

Which is why the real reason I want to talk about it. Not because I think Mahé, the Island where the exiles were housed, was ever particularly important, but because I think it's a fascinating setting for a story. We know that the Kings of Buganda and Ashanti talked to each other, for one. We know that Makarios gave sermons to the Seychellois. We know that Ali Shire took an Indian woman as his concubine. As a setting for culture clash storylines, for unlikely friendships, it appeals to me. And it has great potential as a way to introduce an AH setting. Which Kings are there and are not there tells you a lot about how the British Empire looks without unnatural exposition.

The exiles understandably resented their exile from their homes, they wrote many letters to their captors asking to be returned to their families and homes which are filled with signs of loneliness and depression. They were not mistreat and were allowed freedom within the Island itself, the Sultan of Perka played for the local Cricket Team but they were exiles with all that implies and their health often suffered as a result of their depression. Makarios said that he would have enjoyed living there had the circumstances only been different, but as it was he couldn't. In order to prove that he came back after he had been freed to invest in scholarships there and viewed it very much as his second homeland. This was not, for all the misery, an uncommon reaction, the residents hated being exiled but they normally liked the place they had been exiled to. Prempeh, King of the Ashanti, wrote in a departing letter that he would never forget either the kindness of the people or the beauty of the islands and his son choose to remain the islands rather than return home to a land he barely remembered.

Mind, Prempeh had probably the easiest time of all the exiles, he had bought with him his wives, daughters and ministers and he was housed in a 17 acre property kept supplied with a full Itinerary of goods and utensils and was later fitted with electricity and running water. And more and more exiles of his people arrived, by 1901 he was the leader of a community of 75 Ashanti in the 'Ashanti Camp'. Because this he was also a subject of paranoia among the British officials who were terrified that this tight community of tall regal blacks would lead a full insurrection. These fears proved completely baseless. The Seychelles were entirely peaceful during their time as a prison camp.

What if they weren't though? The Andaman Islands and their own, far more brutal, prison camps, were of course captured by the Japanese during WWII and their prisoners recruited into the Indian National Army that the Japanese set up during their invasion of British India. There is undoubtedly a story in an equivalent invasion of the Seychelles by a hostile force happy to use the exiles there as leaders of 'free Ashanti' forces.

And it's not just state actors who could do that. The Fenian Brotherhood had after all managed to raid Australia and free several Irish prisoners in the Catalpa Rescue and that was hardly less isolated. In early 1937 Pierre Besnard of the French Anarchi-Syndicalist League proposed that the easiest way for the Republicans to win the Spanish Civil War war to start a rebellion in Spanish Morocco where the Nationalists were recruiting their troops. He went further and said the easiest way to do that was to bring back the anti colonial rebel Abd el Krim, the leader of the Rif Republic, who had humiliated the Spanish at Annual. Abd el Krim was being held at the French island of Reunion and Besnard proposed that if the Spanish Republicans could agree on a deal, Besbard could visit reunion, deliver a proposed agreement and break el Krim out of prison if the latter accepted it. The Spanish, not wanting to declare war on France, turned him down, of course but it was a seriously proposed idea. A century earlier Thomas Cochrane had planned to break Napoleon out of St. Helena and take him back to Argentina. Prior to that, in the very early stages of the Atlantic Slave Trade, there had been African attempts to free slaves held at Sao Tome ready to be shipped to Brazil. For as long as prisoners were put on Islands other people had been trying to break them out. Isn't there a story in someone attempting to do that in Mahé?

Of course, Prempeh and the other political exiles were not the only Ashanti forced from their lands and taken to strange climates during this time period, others were taken to Paris for entirely different reasons. In the next article in this series I will look at one of the most notoriously cruel aspects of the Scramble for Africa. The Human Zoos.


Discuss this Article


bottom of page