Seafarers and Explorers

By November 2, 2017 Nature, North Island

The first documented records of man landing on North Island took place in 1609. Two ships from an East India Company expedition were blown off course and sighted the high profile of Silhouette Island at 10:00 on the morning of 19th January 1609. By 14:00 they could discern several other islands and being concerned of running aground stood off until the next morning.

On the morning of the 20th January with careful sounding the vessels approached the islands and in search of water sent a skiff ashore on North. The wonderful description recorded by crew member John Jourdain makes it clear that the boat went ashore at Petite Anse.

Soe they came to a small iland, being nearest unto us, which lyeth aboute twoe leagues to the north of the heigh iland, where they landed in a faire and sandy cove where we might have anchored very well

Jourdain, 1609

Despite it being mid-January they found no standing water. They consequently moved on towards Mahé but not before the skiff brought aboard 7 or 8 giant tortoises from the island and reported that there were many such animals to be found there.

But because our men made noe signe of any water wee anchored not. Soe the boate retourned and brought soe many land tortells as they could well carrie. The Tortells were goode meate, as good as fresh beefe, but after two or three meales our men would not eate them, because they did looke soe uglie before they weare boyled and soe greate that eight of them did almost lade our skiffe.

Jourdain, 1609

Unfortunately, no account of other aspects of North Island’s fauna and flora appears to have been recorded at that time, that might have given great insight into the island’s original and natural state.

We must wait over 170 years for the next account of North Island in the history books. In 1784 a Clipper, with many passengers on board, owned by Signor Anacleto Gomes was shipwrecked on North Island. After a series of misfortunes, the vessel moored in 4 or 5 fathoms off the west coast of North Island where, by the light of the moon, passengers watched “innumerable turtles” going ashore up the beach:

Le tonnue etant mouille du board on appercut au clair de la lune des tortues sans nombre qui montaient a terre

Gomes, 1784

Later that same evening the anchor rope was severed on the coral and the vessel ran aground. Fortunately, all passengers made it safely ashore. On searching the island, they found a wetland full of tortoises which muddied the water, doubtless from their habit of wallowing. Nevertheless, the water was sufficient in their time of need for drinking and for the cooking of tortoises and birds upon which they survived until their subsequent rescue:

On a trouve de l’eau dans une marre pleine de tortues qui la rendaient detestable mais excellent pour le moment on sera est servi pour boire et faire cuire des tortues et les oiseaux.

Gomes, 1784

By 1787, Seychelles had been colonised for the best part of two decades and the competent Mr. Malavois had been sent to the central archipelago by the French Governor of Mauritius to assess and report on the state of affairs there.

In his first report, dated 1st March 1787, Malavois gave an account of the islands in the central archipelago including the following comments (summarised and translated) on North Island:

A steep sided island formed by three rocky hills between which lies a freshwater marsh which has standing water all year round. The island now has little woodland cover, following a fire several years ago. The central plain between the three hills has enough cultivable land to form a small plantation; but it is would be essential to destroy the rats which teem on the island. Giant tortoises still occur there and are the largest in the archipelago. Green turtles nest but Hawksbills are rarely seen. There is a near shore reef along the west coast and to the north [sic] there is a small bay where, during the southeast monsoon [sic], one may disembark with ease. One can moor all round the island in 25-30 fathoms on a coarse sand with some coral.

Malavois, 1787

Between 1787 and 1997 there is little documented information on the history of North Island. Inspection of the land deeds at Government’s Registration Office shows the record for North Island to be incomplete with deed documents only being traceable back to 1955 when a Mr Gustave Beaufond passed on the island to family members.

It is known that the island was operated as a farm by the Beaufond family. For many years, the Seychelles was part of the historical spice trade routes between Europe and India. Fruit and vegetables were produced on North Island as well livestock with chickens, pigs and cattle being raised there.

The mid-19th century saw a European commodity market for vegetable oils grow rapidly and resulted in huge swathes of land across the tropics being converted to coconut plantations as a consequence. It was only after the 1840’s, during the abolitionist years, that the islands’ plantations began to change shape. Coconut proved to be far more labour-efficient than other plantations and the Seychelles agricultural industry shifted completely towards copra, the dried-out kernel of the coconut, which yields coconut oil when pressed.

Astonishingly, the Beaufond family owned the island for more than 100 years prior to selling it on the 22nd December 1972, following the collapse of the copra industry, to a German resident in Seychelles. The collapse was mainly due to competition from American sunflower oil producers. In 1976, it apparently changed hands again to another German national who maintained ownership until 1997 when it was sold to Wilderness Safaris.

After the island was sold in the seventies, it remained a private farm but, without farm workers tending to it, it became overgrown. The farm buildings went derelict and the domestic animals ran wild. Humans have only inhabited the Seychelles for the past 250 years, during which time they have had a considerably negative impact on its environment. In recent years, the Seychelles government (as well as many independent environmental groups) came to the realisation that the Seychelles’ wealth lies in its natural beauty.

North Island was bought in support of this philosophy and in recognition of its potential as a Noah’s Ark; a sanctuary where natural habitats could be rehabilitated and where critically endangered Seychelles fauna and flora could be reintroduced and given a place to regenerate. North Island’s conservation programme was set into action to reverse the damage caused due to decades of direct and indirect human intervention.

In 2005, North Island successfully completed the eradication of the black ship rat; a difficult feat and a major milestone that now makes North Island the world’s largest tropical island with hills in the world that has been successful in this endeavour. In addition to this, North Island was also successful in reintroducing the critically endangered Seychelles White-eye Bird as well as Giant Aldabran Tortoises. Native bird species such as the Seychelles Blue Pigeon and White-tailed Tropicbirds have returned to island with an increase in nesting on North Island’s shores which is further evidence of the program’s success. North Island is a Green Turtle stronghold and critically endangered Hawksbill Turtles nest on our beaches once more.

It is very seldom that the opportunity arises to make such a significant and positive impact on a region, a specific area, its wildlife and surrounding environment. As well as recreating a natural environment for the creatures of the Island, another challenging element in the North Island Programme, has been the recreation of a natural environment for people, paying particular attention to the spirit of North Island. The result is a special destination that touches the lives of its guests and inspires them long after they have left.

North Island is an example of a sustainable, ecologically sensitive utilisation of a precious natural treasure. We have embarked on a long homeward-bound journey. It may take many years to fully rehabilitate the Island and complete this journey; however we are confident that it will be very worthwhile. We are certain that we will get there and hopefully continue to assist other islands in doing the same.