Seychelles is an archipelago located near the Equator deep in the Indian Ocean, 1,500 km from the African mainland. While familiar for centuries to Arab traders, the first European known to have explored the islands was Vasco da Gama, in 1503. The Seychelles had no indigenous peoples and the islands remained uninhabited for centuries due to their remote location.
In 1742, France which controlled the (relatively) nearby Île de France (Mauritius), dispatched a mission under Lazare Picault to reconnoiter the islands. In 1756, another mission was sent under Captain Corneille Nicolas Morphy to formally claim the Seychelles for France; however, no settlement was established.
In 1769, the French mariner Jacques Raymond de Giron-Grenier led a mission to map the Seychelles, whereupon he discovered that they lay along a hitherto undiscovered ‘fast’ sailing route from the Cape of Good Hope to India. This suddenly transformed the location of the Seychelles from being extremely obscure to highly strategic.
In 1770, France sent the first party of settlers to the Seychelles, who soon established a thriving slave-plantation economy, growing sugar, rice and cotton. However, the period of French rule was not to last long, as the islands were conquered by Britain in 1794, during the French Revolutionary Wars. Yet, for stability’s sake, Britain wished to maintain the existing French plantation system, so for the next twenty years pursued a ‘light touch’ policy, whereby the islands essentially remained under the day-to-day control under of their local French leaders, but under British naval oversight.
Britain annexed the Seychelles in 1810, and in 1814 the islands were formally granted to Britain and made part of their colony of Mauritius. However, most of the French landowners remained, with their traditional privileges and lands intact, while the Gallic culture prevailed. While slavery was abolished in the 1830s, the islands’ economy and social structure continued to depend upon its plantations, which yielded a variety of produce, of which cocoanuts had become the most important crop during the 19th century.
Seychelles was governed as part of the Mauritius until 1903, when it became its own crown colony, so regaining its distinct political identity. Seychelles became an independent nation in 1976.
Enter Albert-Auguste Fauvel: A Brilliant and Versatile Adventurer-Scholar
Albert-Auguste Fauvel (1851 – 1909) was an extraordinarily brilliant and versatile scholar who made great contributions in a wide variety of fields; he was a cartographer, historian, geographer, naturalist, ethnographer and logistics expert, as well as being responsible for shrewd analysis of matters of commerce, law, politics and military affairs. While highly regarded in niche fields, Fauvel is someone who deserves to be much better known today.
Fauvel was born in the port of Cherbourg, the son of a naval officer, August Fauvel. He got the travel bug early, as his father regaled him with stories of his missions; August notably participated in Ludovic de Beauvoir and the Duc de Penthièvre’s voyage around the world (1865-7).
Albert-Auguste joined the French Navy and was generally posted in the Far East. While he enjoyed life at sea, he was forced to leave the service due to his poor eyesight. Fortunately, he learned to speak and read Chinese with remarkable virtuosity, and this allowed him to receive a posting with the China’s Imperial Maritime Customs Service (IMCS).
From 1872 to 1884, Fauvel worked for the IMCS, first in Chefoo, and then in Shanghai and Hankou. He travelled the country widely and was a voracious reader and workaholic, who at night, after his day job, would spend many hours writing treatises on a variety of subjects, to be published as either academic articles or stand-alone books. While he was self-educated, he had a remarkable ability to comprehend complex scientific subjects and to master the right terminology, such that his works seem as if they were written by a veteran professor, as opposed to a customs officer.
Fauvel published a series of works on Shantung, which are today considered seminal accounts of the contemporary region, notably The Province of Shantung: its Geography, Natural History, &c. (Hong Kong, 1875); The Wild Silk-worms of the Province of Shan-tung (Hong Kong, 1877) and a stellar map, Province du Shantung (Paris, 1876).
Regarded by scientists to be perhaps Fauvel’s finest work, was his pioneering study of the Chinese alligator, Alligators in China: Their History, Description & Identification (Shanghai, 1879), still considered to be one of the great monuments of herpetology in the Far East.
In 1884, Fauvel left the customs authority and took a posting as a senior logistics specialist for the La Compagnie des messageries maritimes (MM) shipping firm. From that point on, he spent the rest of his live traveling all around the Indian Ocean and the Far East, spending significant amounts of time in various ports, including Bombay, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai. He published literally dozens of academic articles in prestigious journals throughout Europe and Asia, on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from the Chinese Railway service to diamonds to ‘a sweet-smelling fungus’ and the Russo-Japanese War. Far from being an armchair amateur, all Fauvel’s articles were based upon firsthand experiences, augmented by his skilled analysis.
Notably, from the 1880s until he 19-noughts, Fauvel spent a great deal of time on the Seychelles, a place that he grew to love perhaps more than any other. He befriended all the islands’ leading personalities and delved into its history and natural wonders. He notably conducted an in-depth study of the Coco de Mer (Lodoicea), or giant sea coconut, a much beloved fruit (weighing between 15 and 30 kg!) endemic to the Seychelles.
However, Fauvel deeply regretted that although many of the islands’ grandees were of French descent and the Gallic culture still flavored daily life, there was almost no knowledge, or local records, of the Seychelles’ history from its formative French colonial period could be found on the islands, while almost nothing was available globally in the public domain. While snippets of information and the odd archrival references appeared here and there, nobody had ever made any effort to research the early colonial history of the Seychelles in a comprehensive manner, with virtually all the vital documents that explained and determined the islands’ history remaining shrouded in mystery. Fauvel vowed to correct this.
The Present Work in Focus
Fauvel spent countless days and hours while on home leave scouring various French archives for the original seminal documents of the early colonial history of Seychelles, uncovering many gems that had not been seen, in some cases for 150 years. He also undertook the first serious study of the cartography of the islands, locating manuscript and rare printed maps in libraries and museums all over the world.
Around 1900, Fauvel completed a grand manuscript encompassing all his finds and research, the “Histoire des Isles Seychelles sous domination française”. He applied to the French Colonial Ministry to sponsor its publication (which promised to be a relatively expensive effort), but this was declined, as the ministry cited a lack of financial resources (moreover, the Seychelles had not been French colony for almost a century). Unable to afford to print the work himself, Fauvel lamented that it would likely never see the light of day.
Enter Sir Walter Edward Davidson (1859 – 1923), who became the Governor of the Seychelles in 1904 (serving until 1912). A man of great intellectual curiosity, he befriended Fauvel and was deeply interested in this manuscript, believing it to be in the public interest that it be published. Davidson saw to it that the book of text was printed at the colony’s new Government Printing Office in Victoria, while the accompanying portfolio of maps was published in England. He noted in the introduction: “The work is printed by the local government under considerable difficulties… The maps have been admirably executed in England under the careful supervision of Mr. H. A’C. Bergne” (p. xxv).
The Unpublished Documents on the History of the Seychelles Islands Anterior to 1810…was not issued until 1909, whereupon it gained the distinction of being by far the grandest publication printed in the Seychelles up to the time.
The text is divided into an introduction and 3 parts. The ‘Introduction’, dated January 1, 1909, is masterfully written by Governor Davidson (pp. ix – xxvi), granting the reader a summary of Fauvel’s work, in which he expresses that “It is due to the enthusiasm and industry of Monsieur A.A. Fauvel that the interesting information with which these records teem has been brought to light…” (p. i). While the introduction is written in English, pretty much all the rest of the work is in French.
The first part of the body of the work, ‘I. Cartography’ (pp. 1-27), is the first Carto-bibliography of the Seychelles, listing 94 maps from the dawn of European discovery of the islands until the contemporary time. It is an excellent selection that includes many very rare manuscripts and printed maps that even today would be hard to locate in institutions, let alone at the end of the 19th century.
Briefly turning our attention away from the book part itself, is the giant portfolio entitled ‘Ancient Maps of Seychelles Archipelago’, that accompanies the work and illustrates the carto-bibliography, in which Fauvel reproduced 38 of maps, depicted on 14 sheets (7 in colour). While some of these images are easily obtained online today, many are of either unique or very rare items not easily seen by today’s scholars. It is also quite helpful for one to be able to view the cartographic evolution of the Seychelles in one place, and for these reasons, the portfolio of images maintains its utility, even in the internet age.
Turning back the book, the second part, ‘II. Journals, Reports & Memoirs’ (pp. 28 – 323), contains the bulk of the work. Here Fauvel painstakingly transcribed dozens of all the critically important manuscripts regarding Seychelles history that he could find in French and Mauritian institutions, with these sources including the individual libraries of the French Ministries of the Navy, the Colonies and Foreign Affairs; the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the National Archives of France; the Bibliothèque municpiale de Caen; and the Archives of Mauritius. These documents include the seminal primary sources regarding the French period of colonization from 1742 to 1810, including the logs of explorers, accounts of early settlers, descriptions of the island written by French governors and grandees, as well as key legal documents and declarations.
The third part, ‘III. Bibliography’ (pp. 364 – 417), which Governor Davidson describes as “a compilation of extraordinary completeness… of the greatest value” (p. xxv), lists books, pamphlets and various manuscripts regarding the islands’ history, geography, treaties, religious affairs and natural history, etc.
While Fauvel’s work was published 112 years ago, in many key respects it remains an unparalleled resource for scholars, as it is still the only place where one can encounter many of the seminal documents of Seychelles history printed in full, and certainly the only place where one can find such a grand anthology of such sources. For this reason, Fauvel’s work had remained popular with specialist scholars, and it was reprinted in 1980 in Brussels.
The present example of the work comes from a sizable collection of books, maps and manuscripts that remained from Fauvel’s estate that recently came to market. As Fauvel died in November 1909 in Cherbourg, we do not know if he ever personally held the present copy of the work, or if it was simply received by his family after he passed away.
A Note on Rarity
The work, especially complete with the portfolio of maps, is very rare. While we can trace around 10 institutional examples worldwide (it is hard to tell which of these are original 1909 editions, let alone complete with the portfolio), we cannot trace any examples as having appeared on the market in at least 30 years.
It was likely issued in only a small print run and especially given the size of the portfolio and the fact that it was created in a tropical climate, it would have had a very low survival rate.
References: British Library: General Reference Collection 09061.g.19; Bibliothèque nationale de France: FRBNF30421813; University of London – Senate House Library: DT469 S4 FAU); Royal Botanical Garden Kew: T11.3; Cambridge University Library: RCS.A.484c.5; University of Texas at Austin: Harry Ransom Center Book Collection DT 469 S4 F388; OCLC: 457828201, 122695986, 1006151238, 1079775530.