News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Friday, March 25, 2005

James R. Manchan's Paradise Raped: Life, Love and Power in the Seychelles (1983).

(To save time I'm going to edit these essays less in future and just let them run loose as they come, free and easy and disorderly maybe and perhaps even speaking in tongues sometimes, but at least without fretting over them as I used to, wasting more time in the fixing of them than in their making - which seems pretty foolish when I think about it now)

I chose this book at this time because I'm studying international relations and thought it’d be fair to have an informal introduction to the field at the hands of a former Prime Minister deposed by violent revolution in the 1970s. Manchan was the first elected Prime Minister (1976) of the Seychelles, an archipelago located approx. 1000 miles off the east coast of Africa to the north of Madagascar and which were formerly a British colonial territory, previously purloined from the French. I thought it'd be thought-provoking to have a sort of shallow politician's perspective on things as opposed to the shallow academic blather which would set out principally not to explain events but to explain the explanation of explaining events that needed explaining. The politician would be fluent in folk-speak, the familiar and undiluted tongue of the working people who read newspapers and their Bible. And being a politico, he'd probably have learned how to tell a story to an audience. His fibs would be more readily apparent and intelligible than the fabulous stretchers inserted into the waffle of the orthodox professor whose focus lays with placing nose to grindstone and ears to the ground to be both up and down with what's hot and what's not in the world of university fashions.

Manchan says he’s a loveable guy with a girl in easy reach of each arm and has several photos of famous glamorous pusses to prove it. He’s conservative, pro-business, and fights valiantly to keep the country under the aegis of the United Kingdom and yet in this morality play he’s the paleo-KTV singer, the winer and diner, the panache dresser, the people’s person with black and white blood and a hint of almond eyes from his Chinese grandmother.

The villain of the piece is Andre Rene who having failed to weasel his way into the top job by fair means, plays foul. He stridently insists on cutting the apron strings and achieving independence from the White Man yet surprises continental African supporters by turning out to be a rat-faced white dude himself. (photos back this up too) Rene strikes me as being a sort ethnic impersonator wannabee. He tries to steal the role of ethnic underdog in a country that in part because it has no indigenous population has no ethnic majority or even minorities per se. Rene seems a sort of Don Quixote fighting impossibly for the impersonator successes of Asa Carter or Ward Churchill. Instead, he succeeds by impersonating an ersatz socialist, sets up a political party, achieves a military coup d’etat after which he lets his hair down, gets some killing and looting out of his system and settles into his natural pose as the local warlord.

After the fall of the USSR, and the collapse of the Stalinist iron rice bowl, Seychelles went quasi-open and democratic in 1991 and our hero returned to the islands to lose one election and then didn’t bother contesting the next. Rene just stepped down this year, 2005, putting a crony in charge.

On page 51 there's an interesting anecdote which helps to explain the economic sloth of people who are traditionally self-sufficient. According to my favored anthropologists, farming did not become popular with its invention. Instead, farming was invented, abandoned, reinvented and re-abandoned over and over again for thousands of years. Nobody wanted the damn thing on their hands because it’s too much work. Farming, though raising the flag on economic efficiency, is no great shakes compared with hunting and gathering. Farming, where put into practice didn’t represent another clever step forward for mankind’s living standards but actually signified desperation with a relentless retreat in living standards. It was declining forest yield, overpopulation, and the threat of starvation which led to the desperate defensive move we call farming. Similarly, building the Great Wall of China did not represent the growing strength of China but its periodic decline. A strong China used offensive maneuvers such as saber-rattling and battles, brides and bribes to defeat or win over enemies. A weak China built walls when it could not defend itself in a can-do fashion and was the sort of last resort that suggested a dynastic collapse was in the mail.

Page 51: ... a banker on holiday on Mahe came into my office. He was shaking his head and grinning to himself.
"I've just been talking to a fisherman a few miles from here", he said "I'd been watching him from my room. Each morning he takes two hours to row slowly out to his one-basket trap. It seemed to me such a waste of effort that I suggested to him that he get a bank loan and buy an outboard motor, which would save time so that he could make six trips in the two hours. He looked at me as if I was crazy."'
'"Six traps?" He said. "What would I do with all the fish?"'
'"Money," I said. "With all those fish you'll get more money."'
'"But what will I do with it?" He asked.'
'"Well, once you've paid your loan off," I explained, "you will be able to save it to you have enough to relax and take life leisurely." He shrugged. "I'm doing that already," he said.'
The banker chuckled to himself. There was no answer to the fisherman's logic. It was a typical Seychellois attitude which went hand-in-hand with a gentle quality of life that over the years had caused visitors to describe the Seychellois as inhabitants of the last lost paradise, a place where paradoxically you can be poor but rich and happy, a land of little yet of plenty.

Manchan's political opponent was Andre Rene. While Manchan represented the side of tradition and political conservatism, René took the side of political revolution and international socialism. Interestingly, and perhaps typically, you can find the same sort of irresolvable debate going on in the China section of the Asia times online forum between the non-China writers (sincere and reasonably knowledgeable) and the China correspondents (insincere and unfathomably/willfully ignorant about their own country). On page 62, Manchan demonstrates how this worked in the Seychelles in 1976. The following may remind you of ongoing debates on Iraq and China.

From pages 62, 63: From the very beginning the [international socialist] paper carried articles deliberately calculated to disparage the USA and to lower the esteem of the American people in the eyes of the Seychellois. They were painted as villains in Vietnam and racialists at home.... No matter what they did, they were wrong.
[The Americans] had the only modern refrigerator system on the island and began by buying stocks of lobsters. René accused them of depriving the locals of food. They took the point and imported their lobsters from Kenya. René then accused them of failing to support the local fishermen.
The same logic might apply to fraternizing with the girls. Ignore them and you discriminate. Don't ignore them and, with your money and sports cars and offers of US passports, you inspire jealousy...
One of the conditions of the agreements between London and Washington was that the Americans could import food and provisions into the island free of duty. Rene attacked them. Here was the richest nation on earth, he said, depriving a poor island of much-needed revenue. The Americans reacted quickly. Through the auspices of the Catholic Relief Service Agency they imported tons of bulgur wheat in sacks as a substitute for the rice which was the Islanders staple diet. The trouble was that the Seychellois hated the stuff and René attacked them for dumping en masse leftovers that their cattle and pigs had not consumed.
(Recently I saw that the lessons still had not been learned. Traveling in Micronesia in the Pacific, I saw a number of islands under American trusteeship. Behind most of the thatched houses stood beautifully mounted 50 hp Johnson outboard motors, monuments to American generosity but of no practical benefit as the Islanders had no idea how to replace a simple spare [tire].)

And from page 69: people working under pressure often need an opening valve to let off steam. Some go for alcohol. Others smoke heavily. A few become the unfortunate victims of drugs. I discovered with Isabel that my strong -- or may be weak -- point was that I found great solace in the company of women, particularly those who were both intelligent and beautiful. A tête-à-tête by candlelight would normally provide a temporary and useful respite from whatever political problems and frustrations that beset me.

Indeed, over the course of the 200 plus pages of this book, the author refers discreetly but firmly to his picking up and shagging of a dozen or so celebrities in various stages of marriage or divorce. He was known as the Pierre Trudeau of the East for his swinging bag and adventures. At first this seemed a bit clownish. And association with Pierre seemed unfortunate as the late Trudeau did as much as any politician in recent Canadian memory to lead the country down the primrose path to being put out to pasture.

Then I came around to Manchan's way of dealing with an attack of low-esteem. Alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes are essentially diversions and aides to forgetting a situation. In other words, tools of someone who is passive for the moment. Picking up floozies is a power booster and confidence restorer. Particularly when you spend time with intelligent cuties, hard as such animals are to find (One of Manchan's more intelligent plants informed him one evening that she was the spirit of Nefertiti). On the other hand with even just a facsimile of intelligence, you have something to talk at, given that talking with is out of the question. Either way you can get things off your chest, debate them if you like, and come up with fresh ideas and solutions. You don't obsess because you can't: you're in the company of somebody you're trying to talk up. And sex is healthy: both more of a workout and yet easier on the body than designer pollutants. After chit-chat and love/hate sex, you don't wake up feeling removed from the situation but feeling empowered to deal with it. Gives a fine sheen to WhamBamThankYouMam.

Given the international socialist misery which gripped the Seychelles after the violent revolution of 1977, which brought in witch hunts, political prisoners, political assassinations, and at least one street massacre, I developed an appreciation for the simple happy politicking necessary to work a simple happy people.

From page 73: our party responded to Rene's political violence with restraint. I knew that the great majority, brought up under Christian ethics, abhorred violence and I knew that the way to the hearts of the people was through song and laughter.
My brother Mickey, perhaps the best vocalist the islands had produced, became a great asset to our campaign bandwagon. He wrote over 50 songs which on the whole popularized the theme of nonviolence, said 'No' to independence and called for fraternal understanding.
... we fought the election with Mickey's songs and a carnival atmosphere. The songs attracted big crowds who, in between the singing, were being educated about what we saw as the social and political consequences of breaking our links with Britain. The lesson of Zanzibar was regularly recalled. 'Think of all the dozens of political leaders who made use of emotional issues to seek popular support for independence,' we said. The result was the most gruesome type of dictatorship and the denial of human rights.

Songs and a carnival atmosphere worked, keeping the islanders away from the lunatic sub-Saharan African dictatorships that broke out after the British and French left. In the end, Andre René had to resort to machine guns and importing warriors from the Tanzanian army to get rid of Manchan who was too popular and who lived in a nation too prosperous to be overwhelmed with the usual left-wing conspiracy theories and politics of envy.

Perhaps most interesting in this book to me was evidence provided by the author for the positive aspects of colonialization. Taiwan clearly benefited from being watered and manured by the Japanese colonial regime. Americans on the other hand paid more taxes for less government benefits as an outcome of an expensive war for independence waged ironically to reduce taxes (recall the hated Stamp Tax, the Boston Tea Party, the maintaining and installing of troops in American residences after the British had paid for and successfully fought the French & Indian War).

From page 70, 76: The Gibraltarians did not want independence because of their fear of Spain; the Fijians were worried because their Indian immigrant population had exploded to an extent that it formed the majority on the islands.
... Britain, anxious to dismantle the empire, soon bought off the Fijians by offering them a constitution which assured the native minority the government mantle over the Indian immigrants. Naturally they took up the offer and became independent.

The author, who was prime minister both before and when the Seychelles became independent, never wanted independence. It was the British which forced independence upon him and the islands. One wonders how many pages of professorial dirge Noam Chomsky dictated to secretary Edward Herman on this hideous nastiness and into how many beet-red Irish rages Robert Fisk must have suffered whilst feeling their pain. Here, in the conspiracy-free zone, it appears that the colonies were too expensive for the British to maintain as a side show and the British foreign office ended up bribing colonies to leave the circus. Yes colonialism, shame that it was, was so shameful that it took years of begging and plenty of payola to get them off Britannia’s bloody teats. And, to be sure you didn't miss it, the Brits even went so far as to provide Fiji with a system that was antidemocratic to please the reigning indigenous locals (what an earlier generation of tear-squeezers and pain-feelers called noble savages). I hope you enjoyed that irony as much as I did. Well, in this world, there's plenty more where that came from.

Last but not least, let's take a quick look at how NGOs operated in the 1970's and, as far as I can tell, continue to operate:

Page 86: News that the airport project was on washed up on our shores a shoal of entrepreneurs and our difficulty was to differentiate between the snapper and the shark. We did not want any fast buck merchants and we hired Dun & Bradstreet, the international status investigators, to check every individual and company who arrived with plans and ambitions. The status reports threw up some astonishing backgrounds. Among the sharks were undisclosed bankrupts and a fair selection of wanted criminals ready to take advantage of those whom they thought were still backward islanders. They were soon told to get off the islands but fortunately there were many serious businessmen ready to risk precious capital in the name of free enterprise.

Keep in mind that the author, Manchan, studied law in London and Paris and is a Knight of the Empire who's father was a successful businessman. NGO's typically go into ridiculously corrupt countries where the Big Chief and his adjunct swamis either know nothing about the likes of Dun & Bradstreet or wouldn't want foreigners peering and nosing around in the nation’s business anyway, disturbing family and friends.

That's enough for today...

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