A grain of sand explored
The real life story of a Robinson Crusoe from Dewsbury, Yorkshire
Courtesy of imageBROKER/Alamy
Brendon Grimshaw lived on an island in the Seychelles called Moyenne, which he bought for £8,000 in 1962. He lived there from 1972 until his death in July 2012.
I wanted to read his book, A Grain of Sand, but it must be out of print and now sort after because the two copies I could find were hundreds of dollars. Instead my research focused on the documentary shot in 2009 of the same title.
Who was Brendon Grimshaw?
Born in 1925, the only unusual aspect of his childhood I could find was he flew in a bi-plane in Southport when he was 8 years old, presumably on his summer holidays. Less unusual was leaving school without any qualifications at 15. He explained in the documentary that he didn’t like Maths and Science at all, but did enjoy writing. His shrewd mother, who discovered that the headmaster’s son at Grimshaw’s school was working at the local newspaper as a journalist, managed to get him an interview with the editor.
Grimshaw didn’t regard himself as a rebel, but must have been a single-minded soul, because he always felt that he did what he wanted to do. He persuaded the editor of the Batley News to take him on and went on to become the youngest newspaper editor in England at The Star in Sheffield.
He responded to an advert as a sub-editor with the East African Standard in 1953 and worked there for 8 years before returning to England via The Seychelles. He returned again as editor of The Tanganyika Standard in Dar es Salaam, giving him access to key political figures including Julius Nyerere, the President of Tanzania, who nationalised his newspaper in 1969.
Brendon describes the sense of power it gave him, as the editor of an influential newspaper, but only as a force for doing good when he saw wrongdoing. He was also acutely aware that colonial work and life was coming to a close, which is why he flew via The Seychelles and bought an island.
Buying an island
When pushed on why he decided to buy one, he couldn’t explain. He’d decided to take a month’s holiday in the Seychelles before returning to the UK to explore further. The few islands that were for sale were well out of his price range anyway.
It was only on his last day, when he was visiting a lawyer’s office and the phone rang that he politely gave the lawyer some privacy and wandered over to the window where he stared out onto the street through the open window. An 18 year old boy walking past looked up and asked him whether he was interested in buying an island? He showed him Moyenne which was a 3 mile boat ride from the capital, Victoria, on the island of Mahe, where he’d been staying. Despite the island being overgrown with scrub so dense, coconuts couldn’t fall to the ground and an infestation of rats, he fell in love with the half mile wide, 22½ acres of land. There was only one problem, the owner, a Seychellois, (not the boy) had inherited the island and wasn’t interested in selling. Brendon suggested a meeting over dinner that evening which went well and at 4 minutes to midnight, the owner changed his mind and decided to sell, believing he could trust the Yorkshireman to look after the island properly.
Rene Lafortune dubbed Grimshaw’s Man Friday
There was too much work for one man to manage when he moved to the island, so he hired a Seychellois, Lafortune, who was 19 years old at the time, the son of a fisherman. They started the process of rejuvenating the island, not to make a national park, but to make it habitable for Grimshaw to live on. It might have been accidental conservation but they went about creating a new Garden of Eden.
Clearing a path around the island was a priority, which led to the discovery of the two pirate graves in the northwest. Their tombstones read Unhappily Unknown. The story went that they were two lowly buccaneers who had been murdered in order that their spirits would protect the buried treasure on the island. It was a story that Brendon liked and shared with visitors later, about the hidden treasure somewhere on his island.
Plain hard work
Whilst it’s easy to be spirited away by the romance of Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday pottering about on their beautiful tropical island, the reality was 12 hour days, clearing scrub, planting trees and forging paths through the undergrowth. It became an all consuming task which took all their time.
The first 50 mahogany trees were introduced to the island to see how they would go, after an area of bush had been cleared. When that worked, the following year another 150 were planted. There are now about 700 of them, 60-70 feet tall, well adapted to island life. 40 species of palm trees now grow on the island, including the exotic bwa-bannann (known as the wood banana) and 13 coco de mer, or sea coconuts.
Rainwater had to be saved and pumped up the hillside by hand to the wooden shack called home or a barrel of fresh water was rowed back from the main island. Grimshaw admits that it was backbreaking, exhausting work, which left his hands regularly blistered.
He was resourceful and independent. When asked why he didn’t seek help to build his home, he thought it would have been more effort to get a builder to the island, than to do it himself with Lafortune. He certainly wouldn’t have used any of the 16,000 indigenous trees which were finally planted on the island.
Visitors and making a living
Some visitors used to talk about the mahogany as a beautiful wood to make luxury items. He was bemused by their need to think about using the trees for furniture. I planted a tree to stay there as a tree, not as a source of wood.
The estimated annual cost to maintain Moyenne is $50,000 so he welcomed day trippers from the main island of Mahe for £10 a day. There is no jetty, so every visitor wades ashore, barefoot, which must evoke feelings of being on a deserted island, at least for a minute or two. Visitors are free to roam the island until dusk on the 4.5km of pathways, but watch out for one of the fifty Aldabra giant tortoises blocking your way. Another indigenous species largely extinct in the Seychelles, introduced to Moyenne and now thriving.
They opened a bar called the Jolly Roger on one of the seven beaches where Grimshaw, who wasn’t a recluse, regaled his visitors with those tales of treasure.
Courtesy of Marion Kaplan/Alamy
The fight to protect
As Grimshaw aged he knew he had little time left to protect the island’s future. Of the 5 islands closest to Moyenne, 4 had luxury hotel developments with rooms costing over £7,000 per night. He was offered $50m by a US hotel chain for his island but turned them down. With no children and Lafortune dying in 2007, he knew he had to act. He created a perpetual trust and signed an agreement with the Ministry of the Environment. Moyenne is now part of the St Anne Marine Park and granted its own special status, the world’s smallest national park.
The man from Yorkshire gifted the island to the Seychellois people on his death in 2012, his job of doing good finished. He now lies in a grave on the island next to two pirates.