- Start of an Adventure -
As a boy and - only later was I to realise this - being 'white', growing up in London in the 1940's & 50's, the term 'West-Indies' if it came to mean anything at all to me, was an imagined 'Oneness' - an integrated group of Islands in the Sun.
As time passed, this imagining was fuelled by early memories of cricket matches attended at the Kennington Oval, and of watching 'The West Indians' play the MCC at a 'local' match and at that match, being able to get the great Learie Constantine - who happened also to write the cricket coaching 'strip' in my weekly boy's paper - to autograph my bat, there were Frank Worrell, Weekes and Walcott; that famous pair of bowlers Ramadhin and Valentine and...so the memory fades, giving way to memories of a polyphonic canned assortment of Steel-Band sounds, Harry Belafonte, Blue-Beat, and those 'white calypsonians'(from Denmark) Nina and Frederick; later, becoming engrossed in reading Ian Fleming; the loud, colourful, happy people in the markets of South London, living near and working at the Hospitals where later, I too lived and worked early in my medical career; and the sad, cold, unhappy people, wearing incongruous straw-hats and cotton dresses, sitting on sad piles of boxed luggage at wintry London's Victoria Station fresh on arrival from Southampton off the transatlantic steamers about to start a brave new life in the 'Land of Hope and Glory', just as I was off to play for a while in the Austrian snows; then of course there were the Bananas; not those dried tough strips that had arrived during 'the war' in Canadian Food-parcels when I was a small boy, but the 'real ones' yellow and plump, beloved by all English children - all that is except my small and only sister, who, denying their name and mistrusting them implicitly, still wanted the war-time variety which had rapidly disappeared from others' memories once these magical, handy, 'unzippable' ones started arriving in the shops, with little labels stuck on them like 'Fyffes' and 'Geest'.
Then there were those bold Postage Stamps from Barbados with 'Britannia' riding the sea-horse waves in a chariot, not of fire but of water; and Brown Sugar, usually referred to as 'Demerara' that came from British Guiana - so not really West-Indian at all; remembered - but semingly hardly relevant to me at the time - News-Coverage of the setting up of a 'West-Indies Federation', and news of a revolt in an island called Anguilla, to which English Police had been sent, including coincidentally a rugby playing friend from my days of working in Cornwall, when I had enjoyed the diverse camraderie to be found with the Camborne R.F.C., in the south-west of England , whence had sailed such men as Drake, Morgan, Rodney and Nelson in days of old to a Caribbean, mingled in my melting-pot of memory and imagination with tales such as 'Treasure Island' full of adventure set in a strange climate and with the stuff of which dreams are made.
So, dreams became reality, leaving Heathrow London one cold wet February morning in 1973 to arrive in a hot dry waterless Antigua a few hours later - why ever would Princess Margaret have wished to honeymoon in such an arid spot? - then seeing the LIAT flight to St Kitts leave immediately upon our arrival, so being denied my first footfall there until the following morning, which started cool and blue skied with colourful flowers around - Paradise? - and became later, hot and dazzling as the sun rose higher over the palms and strange birds dived for fish
in the waters off Basseterre, while yet stranger birds soared silently, high overhead, scanning the horizons from age to age whence they had viewed the comings and goings of men down here in the sandy soil which was now to become home, at least for two or perhaps for as long as three years. How strange they seemed, the common 'Boobys' and the ubiquitous 'Frigate Birds' those first days and the Sun was so hot.......
'The Joseph N. France General Hospital' - unusual name -'Surgeon Specialist to St Christopher, Nevis and....but careful now!....... Anguilla' - 'quelle appellation' - not much evidence of the French though, except for the names so far. Two days to orientate - shouldn't it be occidentate 'here' in the West? - then to work.
The Hospital was cool, sometimes; shady, sometimes; quiet, sometimes; one's colleagues were few, three others on staff, an MO attached to the outpatients at times, and most important of all to the Surgeon, the Anaesthetist on call at any time, and here on operating days which became longer and longer in the one operating theatre. The Nurses were attractive, keen and smart, but communications in our 'common tongue' were at times difficult while patients' symptoms were described in 'terms' with which one had to come to 'terms' indeed.
But it didn't rain, so we didn't get wet.
Work progressed, it was never done, but there were few accidents on the roads; they cut the Cane (trains and tractors sometimes injured people - badly); and during the driest weather that first year I went on a guided hike to 'The Crater' with local friends, and came to know this Island 'home' a little more each day.
In August it rained and we all got wet. The roof dripped a steady supply to utensils of all sorts, a few lucky potted-plants and some unlucky patients. Hurricane Alert!' - and everyone (almost) was sent home. Storm passed, and we returned unscathed to 'busy-ness as usual'.
Then it happened; We ran out of gauze, we ran out of gas, we ran out of steam, and then it all stopped........for Cricket!!
'Carnival' was Dr Sebastian's home on New Year's Day, Premier Robert Bradshaw serving champagne in the kitchen, whilst the whole of the populace it seemed paraded through the house.
Years passed. Three Medical Colleagues went tragically; Two Premiers Robert Bradshaw and Paul Southwell went, before the fullness of their labours had been realised; the cycle of struggle continued; the Hospital roof was fixed and refixed, and usually it stopped raining.
Much of my surgical work was concerned with common problems particularly the management of chronic leg ulcers of indeterminate aetiology, and surgical conditions related to Diabetes, and the 'water-works'. Accidents and emergencies commonly were associated with 'The Crop' as the Sugar Cane Harvesting was called, or with alcohol misuse and domestic strife. The waiting list for Elective Surgery increased by one hundred each year - simply a case of two patients per week being added over and above those being taken off - after six and a half years the tide turned, it was time to take a break. Six hundred and fifty patients awaiting elective surgery it was indeed like trying to hold back the tide, an impossible situation under the circumstances.
Mary and I returned to England 'on leave' at the insistence of the ODA who had also intimated that a further contract in St Kitts was not on the cards, as there was to be appointed a local surgeon who had been assisted in his training by the Commonwealth chaps and who was thus bound to spend his immediate future fulfilling his surgical comittments to St Kitts.
Having upon arrival in London, my ‘home town’, enrolled with a couple of medical recruitment agencies we set out for Leicester and became embroiled once more in the daily happenings, and mis-happenings at The Ashram.
One Wednesday afternoon in late September, when there was a chill in the midlands air presaging the onset of Autumn, and just as we were about to venture out to tea with a very elderly old friend of Mary's, the phone rang......I turned back to answer it......"Morgan here,.....Major Morgan, Allied Agency. May I speak to Mr. Fosbery?"
I affirmed he had made the right connection, "Are you still available for posting?" the Major enquired brusquely.
Again I affirmed, "Good,....not a full contract you understand, there's a three month Locum wanted, General Surgeon…Seychelles…Indian Ocean…Will you take it?" I shielded the mouthpiece and enquired of Mary still standing ready for our outing at the door of the Salon, "how do you fancy three months in the Indian Ocean?" the chill in the English weather was already impinging on her remaining hip and she enthusiastically nodded assent.
For the third time I affirmed over the phone," I'll express mail the forms to you this afternoon. You should return them immediately. Plane leaves for Seychelles on Sunday!" and so started another period of our life, quite changed from what had preceded it.
Sure enough the ‘forms’ came next day and were immediately returned after filling the required details. Mary and I made our way back to London, staying once again at the quiet hotel in Sussex Gardens which we had found on our arrival a few weeks before.
From there I went to finalise arrangements with the ‘Major’ and by Sunday we were headed to Heathrow and the journey to Mahé, main Island of Seychelles.
The islands comprising ‘The Seychelles’ so styled - a recently declared Republic - lie scattered as small gems on the vast expanses of the Indian Ocean, an enigma both as to their geological origins and later socio-historic development. Formerly a British Colony, they had before that been settled by the French out of Mauritius during the 18th century - The archipelago consists of a group of ninety-two very small islands and atolls just south of the Equator having a total land area of a mere 171 square miles yet covering 150,000 oceanic square miles, stretching for over 700 miles north to south and coming to within a couple of day’s sailing of the northern part of that great and sinisterly mysterious island of Madagascar which is the largest insular feature seen on the map of the Indian Ocean, in the south. The three main islands are correspondingly each about the same sizes as St Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla in the Lesser Antilles archipelago between the Western Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea and have as well about the same overall population as that ‘Trinity of Islands’ as they were termed in the early Associated Statehood days towards the end of the British Colonial era in the Eastern Caribbean.
Seychelles’ vegetation is lush and tropical, no sugar cane estates here, but coconut plantations abound. There are two seasons to the year, one, like the prevailing climate in St Kitts and the Eastern Caribbean, is the South-East Monsoon. The other, the North-West Monsoon is very wet, humid and overcast. They each last for six months and change abruptly in May and October. We arrived at the end of the first, just in time for a riot by the high school children against the proposal to set up National Youth Service training-camps on one of the smaller outlying islands, and also to be invited to the Russian Embassy cocktail-party in celebration of yet another year of progress since the ‘Glorious Revolution of October 1917’.
Mahé - pronounced Marhay, main island of the Seychelles group is almost solid granite, rising steeply to heights comparable with those of the 3000 to 4000 foot volcanic peaks above the gentler slopes of St Kitts. It lies a thousand miles of the coast of Kenya in East Africa, and fifteen hundred miles from the western city-port of Bombay in India.
The geological enigma lies in the fact that 42 of the Seychelles islands, which are the larger and central members of the group, are composed of solid continental granite, this despite their position in mid-ocean, in other words, they are neither coralline nor volcanic as are all ‘true’ oceanic islands. The remaining 50 islands and atolls are coralline and all 92 islands rise from a fairly shallow continental shelf. Included amongst the atolls and lying 700 miles from Mahé is Aldabra, second largest atoll in the world and largest in the Indian Ocean and into the vast lagoon of which the Island of Mahé could easily be fitted.
The British Airways flight to Seychelles from London’s Heathrow goes East South East, via Switzerland for a short stop at Zurich, on over Jugoslavia, then Turkey and the Middle-East to Bahrain for a refuelling stop where the men all wear the customary Arab head-dress, and the crew that come aboard to clean and service the plane’s passenger quarters appear to have come from Korea. Airborne again after somewhat over an hour’s delay the fight continues South over the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea to the Indian Ocean and onwards, down into the Southern Hemisphere to land after about 15 hours’ flying 4 hours ahead of London’s zone time, at the International Airport on Mahé, one of the smallest national capital territories in the world where the commemoration stone seen by arriving passengers simply states that this airport was ‘Opened by The Queen’ - that major event was in 1971. Until that time, the only way to reach the Islands of Seychelles was by sea. The steamer from Mombasa on the East African Coast took several days, and that from Bombay India rather longer. In those days the pace of life was slow but for the Seychellois idyllic in their ‘Garden of Eden’.
Following democratic Independence from British Administration in 1976, Seychelles' Government was overthrown from within by a militarily supported left-wing coup a year later. Such was the status-quo when we arrived in October 1979. That, and the imposing of 'Dusk to Dawn Curfew' following the riots.
All credit due, an enormous amount of aid money was being put into the Seychelles' Health and Education Services and with an almost new Surgical Block in which to work and with an 'equal and opposite' Surgeon Specialist colleague , a shared 'FRCS Registrar' and a House Surgeon, who could ask for more? - Paradise? - well, in the 19th century, General Gordon thought so when he proclaimed one of these Islands to be the site of the biblical Garden of Eden (on somewhat shaky evidence according to everyone else).
When the name of the game is 'Coup', beware those who play the opposite game of 'Counter-Coup'. Crop-injuries of St Kitts' days were replaced by those sustained in the course of military training, weapons exercises and the like.
It was not uncommon to hear artillery firing in the hills during manoeuvres, and one rubbed shoulders with heavily armed Tanzanian Soldiers in Seychelles' Government employ supporting the revolution, at every turn in town and in the market-place. At first therefore, it did not seem unusual to receive a number of wounded soldiers at the Hospital late one evening in November 1981, but this was 'Counter-Coup' in action.
Brought in from overseas under guise of a tourist group, an organised band of `Soldiers of Fortune' or 'Dogs of War' and 'Technicians' arrived to link up with the underground supporters of the former ousted President. In essence their plans were designed to bring about a bloodless reversal of Power and the triumphant return of the former Leader, but plans went awry as so often they may, and the results were traumatic when battle ensued at the airport.
Most of the casualties resulted from Government forces against themselves however, as they pounded the airport buildings overnight with shells, whilst the invaders (most of them), unbeknown, had departed on a hi-jacked Air-India plane to Durban. Most, that is except an advance-party who had already been on the island for a few days setting up the whole situation.
The hunt was then on for these few remaining 'mercenaries', all of whom were eventually captured, but not without injuries which it befell the writer to treat. The reader should know that there was no love for their captives (some of whom were Zimbabwean, some English and others South African) by the captors, especially the Tanzanians. It was in my capacity as surgeon to two of these wounded that I found myself one night at the Hospital facing-down a firing-squad about to settle the fate of the 'mercenaries'.
The moments were intense, some nurses had been ordered out others to lie on the floor, the two prisoner-patients were manacled, hands overhead, to the bed-frames, torsos bared. As their surgeon and only moral support, I rushed between the adjacent beds, facing the squad before they could proceed and commanded a halt.
Call it brave or bravado, tension was a drawn bow-string in front of those AK47's aiming now at three of us. By siding with the enemy I too had become the enemy in Tanzanian eyes, and quite as expendable, having challenged them either to stop or to shoot the three of us. The confrontation was time in eternity, adrenalin-high, the scene transfixed, quarry and predator magnetised each by the other both knew the slightest move might trigger the end.
When it came , righteous anger had prevailed, at least for the time being. Next morning the prisoners were removed from hospital care by the military without formal discharge, to recover however they may and to go on trial, with their fellows, for their lives. After spending months in a prison camp, all were tried and condemned to execution.
Sentence, eventually, was not carried out. Did Power-Politics take a hand in exchange-bargaining, as some said, or was it a goodwill gesture on the part of the Revolution? The prisoners remained in Seychelles until 1984 and were then returned to South Africa.
That Christmas I received cards from my two former patients back in South Africa, telling of safe return to their families and homes with grateful thanks. One of them now works with disabled children there in his home town in the field of sports, helping them to minimise their handicaps. The other also engages in public service working in communications; neither had been soldiers nor wished they to be back in 1981. Both had felt that the cause of `Counter-Coup', as promoted by those who had recruited their skills, was justified. They were the brave men, but 'other people's politics' is a dangerous game to play. All should agree on that.
By 1982 most of the Seychellois Privates had become disillusioned with their Tanzanian Officers and NCO's. Army Rebellion ensued. On the morning after `August Monday' I awakened to the sounds of gunfire and mortar bombs at rather close quarters. Over the radio came the announcement that Junior Ranks of the army had rebelled and taken over control of all major services and installations during the night - the final hours of a holiday week-end.
At that time I was living on and fitting out my vintage 30ft Ketch 'JAHO' for the 9000 mile voyage back to St Kitts. Moored in the harbour near to the Bulk-Fuel storage-tanks and Port Administration Buildings held by the 'rebels' and across the water from the main road to town, one was literally 'under-fire' from mortars and machine guns as battle raged for two days. Once the rebels announced they would blow-up the fuel-tanks if demands to meet with the President were not met. Count-down went from 'in 1 hour' to 'in 5 Minutes!' during a war of words over the air waves from the captured Radio Station.
Flown in from Tanzania, government reinforcements brought the uprising to a bloody end after two days. Many died at that time, mostly young Seychellois soldiers wanting only a better deal in their own army serving their own revolution in their own country, at the hands of their own Government's foreign 'mercenaires'.
We had experienced periodic 'Dusk to Dawn Curfew' from our early days in Mahé at the time of the first riots. Later, with the failed Counter-Coup it was reinstated. During and after the rebellion again curfew was order of the night and for a while of the day as well. A Marine-Curfew was in effect throughout the time I was there, Oct 1979 - Oct 1982, always by night, and then by day during the repeated periods of unrest.
Being transported back and forth for hospital duties under these circumstances by armed Military Escorts, in a rubber-boat bouncing across the water at speed, and finding one's head in a direct line of fire from automatic weapons in the hands of some Tanzanian jungle-fighters, or, walking back towards the port after a day in theatre, being kept in machine-gun sights by their pals ashore, were not experiences to be relished by the faint hearted. But all this - and Heaven too? - was part of the daily round, as the wheels of the Seychellois Revolution moved forward.
One evening on board, there came over the radio a selection of Steel-Band music from somewhere far, far away. I was surprised at how nostalgic those sounds were. The call of the Caribbean was strong. Soon, all preparations having been made, it would be time to face the reality of a decision made long before. Namely to sail the old Ketch home - to St Kitts - by way of South Africa and the Cape of Good Hope.
When, early in 1982, Margaret Thatcher 'went to war' against the Argentinian invaders of Britain's Falkland Islands it happened to coincide with the end of my contract with the Seychelles' Government. Consequently it seemed not unreasonable to a former Royal Naval Reserve Officer (Medical Branch) with, in addition to several years' wide surgical experience, recent involvement in the management of combat injuries, to cable the Admiralty volunteering these services somewhere in the South Atlantic. The reply was courteous in Service terms and while thanking me was careful to point out that unless 'the affair' escalated (in which case they would contact me again) I was too old at 41 to be readmitted in terms of the 'Present Engagement'. So much for 'broad surgical experience and capable expertise'! 'Too
old at 41' ? That settled it, I'd sail the South Atlantic
We did not call at the Island of Ascension a year later, after leaving St Helena. Controls still being in effect limiting anchoring-time allowed consequent upon the Falklands' War.....but more of the Atlantic anon.
the story continues.................
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