When a Paradise Was Nearly Lost, Then Saved by a Forbidden Fruit

This is a story about a Garden of Eden run by a supreme ruler. It also involves a forbidden fruit. This tale is a bit more recent than the biblical version. And it has a happier ending.

The year was 1981. The Cold War was raging. A man by the name of Albert Rene was running a tiny nation called the Seychelles, an archipelago of 115 separate islands scattered in the Indian Ocean, just below the equator.

It is a beautiful place, maybe one of the most idyllic I have had the good fortune to visit. The islands are unique in that they are carved out of granite. The only ones in the world. Where other islands are borne of volcanic lava or from coral reefs, these came to life as remnants of a great continental split of a land mass known as Gondwana that was an aggregate of what is now Africa, South America, Australia and India. About 140 millions years ago (give or take a few months), things started splitting apart. India did a 90-degree turn, headed northeast and eventually crashed into Asia with enough force to create the Himalayas.

Remnants of India were littered (and maybe loitered?) in the Indian Ocean of today to become the Seychelles. They couldn’t have picked a better place. Temperatures in the region — on both land and in the sea — hover around the 80-degree mark Fahrenheit, all year long. Unlike other tropical paradises, it is free from typhoons, cyclones and other stormy phenomena.

Now, back (or maybe ahead, geologically speaking) to the Cold War days. The United States, which had a satellite tracking station on the island of Mahe, the main island in the Seychelles, apparently wasn’t too fond of Rene, a benign dictator who favored socialism.

The U.S. government, always interested in protecting its property and often all too eager to conflate social democracy with outright communism to justify its interests, decided Rene had to go.

And so, with the help of the United Kingdom and South Africa, the U.S. put together a rag tag team of mercenaries to oust the Seychellois leader.

(In the grand scheme of clandestine operations in the Indian Ocean, this was small potatoes when compared with what the U.S. and the U.K. did to the peoples and island of Diego Garcia.)

The plan was simple. The mercenaries would pose as some sort of fraternal organization out on a goodwill tour. They would be bringing gifts for the little Seychellois children. In the bottom of their bags would be gifts of another kind: Kalishnikov automatics and other weaponry.

Getting through customs would be a breeze. Then they would wait a day or two and take over the key government buildings, the airport and the radio station to announce the coup d’etat. They aspired to use as little force as necessary and figured that would not be a problem, given the meager defenses in the country.

But they would be armed and would do what was necessary, even if that meant lethal force, including assassinating Rene.

Now, about that fruit.

Lychees are an Asian delicacy that are part of the soapberry family of fruits, which includes Longans. These fleshy morsels are about the size of a walnut. They have a rather hard, spiky shell that, when peeled, reveals a fleshy texture that tastes, to me anyway, like a cross between a peach and pear. The flesh hugs a pitted seed like a peach, too.

One of the mercenaries, the story goes, was very fond of lychees. He had a bag of them on the commercial flight that he was taking into Mahe. He was advised — strongly — that he should not attempt to bring the fruit through customs.

The Seychellois culture, like many tropical island paradises, is somewhat laissez-faire about a lot of rules and regulations, but when it comes to protecting its indigenous flora and fauna, it is a zero-tolerance kind of place.

Apparently, the mercenary really, really liked this fruit. And so he went rogue (a rogue mercenary is an oxymoron if ever there was one). He was caught at customs. And once the customs officer discovered the fruit, he decided to do a more thorough examination of the soldier’s belongings.

It didn’t take long for the customs agent to find the AK-47 hidden in the bottom of the bag of toys. Ironically, the agent didn’t know it was an automatic weapon. He thought it was something worse: a spear-gun. If the agent didn’t like the fruit, he was apoplectic about an illegal fishing device. Flora and fauna first.

The mercenary panicked, grabbed the weapon and — as they say — shots were fired. It was mayhem for a few days. Some of soldiers managed to escape by hijacking a commercial jet to South Africa. Others were caught and imprisoned.

For those incarcerated, it was not a pleasant time. They were beaten and tortured for months and then put on trial. They were convicted, and sentenced to death.

The story got out and became something of an international sensation. Then, one day, the prisoners were summoned and sent to a rather grand home in the hills of Mahe. There, they were greeted by none other than President Rene. They figured this was the last gesture before execution, but they were (no doubt, pleasantly) surprised to learn they were wrong.

Rene told them he was commuting their sentences. He didn’t need the bad publicity. They were to serve out some time on a remote island — under much more gentile conditions — until the story subsided. Then they would be released.

Before sending them to the island, though, Rene delivered a little lecture to the soldiers, explaining the difference between socialism and communism, and providing examples of the work he and his government had done in building schools, hospitals and roads and bridges.

(This story is laid out in the book: Deathrow in Paradise by Aubrey Brooks, one of the mercenaries who understandably had a political change of heart right there and then.)

Rene ruled the Seychelles until 2004. It has been one of the fastest growing countries in the Indian Ocean and African regions. He did build a solid infrastructure of schools, hospitals and government programs for the people of the Seychelles. How benign a dictator he actually was is open to interpretation. There are allegations of civil rights abuses.

Rene died this week after a long career in shaping his country’s future.

Things might have turned out quite differently, had it not been for that little piece of forbidden fruit.


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