BY RICHARD GRAINGER (ENGLAND)
MV Aruana started life as the MV Prins Willem George Frederik, which was built in 1954 by Amsterdamsche Droogdok Maatschappij NV in the Netherlands. She was single screw, with a speed of 13 knots. She had a gross tonnage of 1,588 tons, an original length of 250.4 feet, with a beam of 42.1 feet and a draught of 14.7 feet. There was accommodation for eight passengers.
I n 1959 she was lengthened at Bolnes with new measurements of 1,957 gross tonnage, a new length of 397.5 feet and a deeper draught of 15.6 feet.
As the Prins Willem George Frederik, she was owned by Oranje Lijn of Rotterdam, with Rotterdam as her home port. However, she was taken over in 1967 by Aruana Compañia Naviera SA of Panama and renamed MV Aruana. Her old name could still be seen as it was still embossed on the stern and was just painted over with the hull colour and the new name painted in its place. In 1976 she became the MV Alimos under the ownership of Action Steamship Corp of Piraeus but was laid up there in June 1978 and sold in July 1979 for scrap in late 1979 at Perama in Greece.
SIR SEEWOOSAGAR RAMGOOLAM.
For a time, Aruana tramped around the Indian Ocean, calling at Durban, east coast ports of southern Africa, northern Madagascar, Seychelles and Mauritius. In 1972 I boarded Aruana, to grant pratique when I was accompanied by the shipping agent, Ogilvie Berlouis, who worked for Harry Savy Company. The Port Authority used one boat, the Jeanette, to take out all the officials needing to go on board ships for clearance which did mean that the return journey was determined by the slowest worker, usually customs, as they rummaged the ship, so I spent time with Ogilvie as we waited to go ashore. He never talked about local politics but was a fund of knowledge on matters about East Africa, including Frelimo, the freedom fighters of Mozambique, and Mauritius. Naively, I just thought he was a bright young man and did not realise how deeply he was involved in political matters and had an interesting future ahead of him. He informed me of the pariah state of South Africa due to apartheid and the sanctions imposed on trade by the Organisation of African States (OAU) and countries like India. Mauritius was a member of OAU with Sir Seewoosagar Ramgoolam as Chairman from 1976 to 1977. Despite this, Ogilvie enlightened me to the rather elastic and pragmatic approach to sanctions, which everyone knew about but turned a blind eye to the issue. Ships of the Shipping Corporation of India, like the MV Lal Bahadur Shastri from Bombay, called at Port Victoria in Seychelles, then went on to Mauritius. Cargo from India that was bound for South Africa was offloaded and transferred to Aruana to be carried on to Durban and continued the fiction that there was no trade between India and South Africa.
On the night of 4 June 1977, there was a coup d’état in Seychelles when the supporters of the Seychelles People’s Party, who had been training in Tanzania, overthrew Sir James Mancham’s Government whilst he was attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London.
As a curfew had been imposed, Nurse Pragasen, wife of a Minister deposed in the coup, was prevented from going to the airport to deal with passenger checks on an incoming British Airways 747 flight, so I was telephoned to ask if I was prepared to go to the airport. I was told they would have to consult Mr X, who I assumed was either Inspector Pillay or France Albert Rene himself. I went to the airport and found there were vehicles parked on the runway with the plane asked to fl y over to identify itself. It must have been a pilot from the Battle of Britain as he put the wheels and fl aps down and roared along the runway at full throttle. The noise was deafening, and I could feel the vibration in my chest. The plane landed, and I went out onto the apron to collect the necessary papers and empty disinfection spray containers as routine. There was a surprise as I was approaching the plane. Two soldiers in camouflage outfits with many bandoliers of ammunition and other war paraphernalia were holding a machine pistol in both hands under the plane. There were two things of note in passing; the first was that Ogilvie was one of the soldiers and was now Minister of Defence, whilst the second was that despite the elaborate uniforms, he was wearing flip-flops.
There was a nautical connection to this flight as a large Dutch deep-sea tug was in the area during the hurricane season. She was due in port to change crew, so there was some consternation when some thirty burly Dutchmen got down from the plane, and the thought of a countercoup was raised.
PRINS WILLEM GEORGE FREDERIK, 1954.
As the tug had yet to get pratique, I went down to the harbour to give clearance and was able to tell the captain his crew had arrived but would be delayed. The captain was not put out as he was celebrating a substantial payday. A Korean fi shing boat had gone aground on one of the nearby islands. The tug captain convinced the poor Korean captain that his ship was in great danger and was persuaded to sign a Lloyd’s Open Agreement. The tug’s lifeboat went to the vessel and attached a line, then fussed around trying to look busy whilst they waited for the tide to rise and float the victim back into deep water.
When I drove to the airport and the seaport, there was no evidence that a coup had taken place other than an absence of traffic and people on the road. At the port, the security gates were only partially open, and there was no one around, so MV ALIMOS. “A DOUR AND SCRUFFY PHILLIPE D’OFFAY WAS SAT WITH A MACHINE PISTOL ACROSS HIS LAP” cautiously getting out of the car to scout for snipers, I opened the gates and went to the pilot boat. There was not even a watchman overseeing the fuel tanks, which I thought would be a security risk. Things had changed when I had to go to the port to clear the next ship, and there was an armed guard on the pilot boat for some reason. A dour and scruffy Phillipe D’Offay was sat with a machine pistol across his lap, which he had used recently to shoot in the back and kill Davidson Chang Him, the brother of the Anglican Bishop of Seychelles.
There was an unsubstantiated rumour that MV Aruana played an innocent role in the preparation for the coup d’état as the arms used in the raid on the Police Armoury, at Mont Fleurie, at the start of the takeover had been smuggled into Seychelles from Dar es Salaam in a refrigerator addressed to France Albert Rene, who became the new President. Not every day is as exciting for a port medical officer. However, the Aruana and 5 June are firmly fixed in my mind, and I remained ‘Doc’ to the Minister of Defence despite his rapid promotion and a very different political and cultural change that had taken place in Seychelles.