When the twenty two inhabitants from the Regnese tribe first saw the white cliffs of Dover in 1932 they were reported by their escort, Corporal Colin Fenton, to have clustered together at the bow to mutter a joyous prayer, a “grateful cry to a God for bringing them to their salvation” (1). Little was known about the Regnese, only that they were a primitive people facing extermination from a famine that had erupted on their archipelago home known as Boer Rocks – the island’s inhabitants called their home Nechalu.
Nechalu in the age of exploration
The Regnese, as well anyone can estimate, inhabited the islets for up to three millennia. Nestled 200km from the Seychelles, it is supposed that they settled the area during the Pangaea before being cut-off by the continental drift (1).
The Regnese were first discovered by the Costa exploration from Lisbon, Portugal; sailing aboard the Maria Luz at the tail end of the 15th century. The captain of the Maria, Gonçalo Loureiro, a hungry enterprising explorer, saw very little in wealth to procure and take from the Regnese, but decided to abandon one section of his crew, headed by Carlos Gonçalves Costa to trade and explore the isle. Fascinated by their theology Costa provided a passionate report of a very complex society, contrasting dramatically to that of his home in Europe:
“… of pitch skin and white lips. Women, taller than the men. Polytheistic and monogamous – one God of love and thus only one there is to love. Every God, or spirit, has its own plain of existence, neither can see nor comprehend the other. The Menites, in their world, are the bearers of rational thought as their mortality proffers them to see between all eternities, their privilege is to do the bidding of the immortal and powerful Gods, who are merely insane individuals with no scope of existence beyond the protection and nurturement of their charge. I watched them eat fish raw. Yet would bake certain vegetables within a kiln of cut stone”
Carlos Gonçalves Costa, 1642
You will notice the Mr. Costa refer to ‘Menites’ above. This was his name for the Regnese, and they called they were for over a century. Curiously though, the Regnese, in name, did already exist. It was the Shaw expedition of 1632 that had first come across Nechalu and made this short entry before shipping off to more profitable climes:
“… created stove through stone carving and the intensity of the sun of noon. Fisherman but only using heat upon the crustacean bounty. Fish stripped and eaten almost alive. The Dances of Regnese are powered by the rhythm of the Gudugudu thus my belief that theirs is an off-shoot of Yoruba cultures of Western province Africa if not for a wild separation within the Regnese’ relationship with the Gods. The Regnese see themselves as messengers, perhaps even ‘negotiators’, between imprisoned Gods. An offering to a God is not purely a sacrifice for the favour of the God’s power but also a cryptic message of reasoning, a symbolic discourse, from one God to another.”
Nicholas James Shaw, 1632
The Menites and the Regnese were assumed to be two very different peoples on two very very different archipelagos for quite a long time. The first clarification of this misconception was also incorrect. When Charles Vannier (3) journeyed to observe the Regnese, he found only the Menites.
Closer to Madagascar than the Mauritius (by only around 800km), the island’s status and its peoples identity had been defined always from the outside, with the Dutch claiming it as part of their African colonies for centuries before handing jurisdiction to the British (following the Barnabus Confinement 1752), who then applied Indian heritage to its inhabitants. The ownership was of little relevance to the Regnese people, having no discernible natural wealth nor any physical traits desirable for conscription, and thus they were left on their isolated rocks and, in spite of the indifference of the great colonial powers, insisted upon existing in relative comfort.
It was only in 1931, following the failure of the Indian National Congress to attend the First Round Table Conference between Britain and India that Nechalu became useful. In the battle for public support, Gandhi’s ‘pinching of salt’ was a milestone in his non-violent resistance. His abstention from the INC was another thumb in the eye. Meanwhile, the Regnese were suffering a famine like they had never before known. It was a man-made disaster, but an accident nonetheless, the George II cargo ship suffered a hull breach and sank 200 km or so from Nechalu. Its massive stores of oil spilled out and latched onto the tiny archipelago. Solely reliant on the ocean for their food supply, and with little storage of existing stocks, the Regnese were so bereft of strength that their compatriots’ corpses were starting to rot on the ground where they fell. The British came to their aid, but only to bring further further disaster in the form of influenza, that threatened to wipe out those left. The British Liberals, unsympathetic to the rhetoric and tactics of Gandhi, argued that the plight of the Regnese was an opportunity for the government to clarify British colonial rule; to “re-centre the definition of ‘protectorate'”(1), despite the Regnese having never met a member of the Commonwealth. The Regnese were evacuated from their dying rock and brought to England, for re-homing and recuperation. The national press were called to capture their arrival, and to relay the message that the British do not let its colonies starve and die (5).
The arrival of the Regnese that day was an exotic treat for the populace of the ravaged colonial power. The headlines of the day celebrated the exotic visitors; intimating that the Regnese people ‘chose’ to re-home in Britain after the Germans had commandeered their home. Britain was to be a temporary refuge and the Regnese would be returned once peace had settled in the waters surrounding Nechalu (6). That day, nestled below the cliffs of Dover, Lord Willingdon posed with the nation’s new guests for a photo opportunity. It’s a telling portrait, 22 dark skinned islanders, seemingly unaware of the photograph, are mostly blurred, either shivering or darting their heads around to take in the alien land, and Willingdon stood front and centre with a martial calm.
“Britain’s place in the world was not made by tyranny, but by cooperation and by sharing the benefits that one has rightfully secured. These people needed our help and we shall stand by them in this time of need”
The responsibility of the integration of the Regnese into British life fell unto Prof. Ethan Morley of Willesden Green College hospitals. His mandate was clear; the British government wanted his subjects to speak about their life in Britain with positivity and gratitude as soon as it was possible. Six months later, a news report had the Regnese extolling their happiness in England’s green and pleasant land; though none of it was true. Despite grand efforts to bridge the language gap, the Regnese were unresponsive to communication. “We have to consider that the island suffered a famine that killed five out of every six of the population. These people are traumatized.” Despite best efforts of the hospital there was no saving the health of them. Many fell sick and died in Willesden. Several broke out from the hospital, and were subsequently imprisoned in a the Rothman Barracks in Norfolk. Morley kept working with those who remained, but he found sense only coming from one of them, the one whom he found possible to confirm to call Balon-Munda.
“Balon-Munda is the only one I can find some passage of communication with. Though, despite his willingness, I find his impression of myself and the staff here very disconcerting. He does not entirely believe in my existence – if what I understand is correct, he does not ever see us as like himself IE a human. The trauma has convinced them that they are dead. They believe me to be a collective delusion; that I am some kind of purgatorial ghost – one of the mad Gods that they once arbitrated for back on Nechalu. They are waiting to join their loved ones in the afterlife and have no interest in engaging with us.”
Within the next decade, the elder members had their wish granted and passed onto to join their relatives. By then, the second world war was raging and Whitehall’s insistence on winning any kind of PR war against Gandhi became temporarily moot (7). For Morley, he wanted the saga to come to an end and continued to petition the government to allow the Regnese to return home. His requests had fallen on deaf ears – the oceans were dangerous and the navy simply did not have the resources to spare to transport the twenty islanders back to their home. Morley did however manage to relocate the Regnese to Hollow Farm, a psychiatric hospital set in the bucolic hills of Ilfracombe. At Hollow Farm they became an active part of the staff, helping with the bedridden and the delusional with care and consideration. It was this period that began the resurgence of interest with the Regnese…
(1) Fenton’s observation is reported but not quoted by the Daily Mail. In later years, he refused to speak with researchers about the ‘prayer’ he witnessed.
(2) The diligent work of Oliver Stokes, on behalf of Warboys Academy in Cambridge, the corpora of the Regnese language translates Nechalu as meaning ‘The Highness’ or ‘The Over-reaching’ – though this is hard to prove as the Regnese subjects, including the notoriously cantankerous Walton, were far too removed from the words’ original meaning to know for sure. If their theories are correct it would support a theory that, when the Regnese first occupied the area, before the continental drift, that they could well have been mountain-dwellers. Recent scans show that Nechalu is the peak of a great spire reaching up from the ocean depths for 42,000 feet.
(3) Famed explorer, trader and bigamist. So far counted, are 12 separate families, from Columbo to Boston, bearing the name Vannier (or of some declination – Varner, Barnher et al)
(4) HC debate 15 April 1932 Vol. 231 F12
(5) “albeit when the numbers who need saving are in their hundreds rather than the millions dying in India a decade or two before” Mansoud 1982 ‘Fraternal slavery’
(6) In fact, the British constructed a permanent naval platform in order to maintain control over the Relitan Strait.
(7) Gandhi supported Indian conscription in the war effort.