Obituary: Sir James Mancham, deposed playboy president of Indian Ocean 'islands of love'

15 January 2017 - 02:00 By The Daily Telegraph
James Mancham befriended Peter Sellers and George Harrison and even had an affair with a Bond girl.
James Mancham befriended Peter Sellers and George Harrison and even had an affair with a Bond girl.
Image: AFP

Sir James Mancham, who has died aged 77, was the former playboy president of the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean.

A bon vivant known for his love of beautiful women, he was the first president of the idyllic islands when they became independent from Britain in 1976. He had the unique distinction of having served as Seychelles' first chief minister, then prime minister and then "founding president". Only a year after being installed as president he was the victim of a Marxist coup led by his prime minister, Albert René.

Mancham made no secret of his love of women, and multiple relationships were, he said, part of the inheritance of a boy born in the "islands of love".

The son of wealthy Seychellois merchants, his mother French and his father Chinese, James Richard Marie Mancham was born on August 11 1939. Sent to London to study law, he was called to the bar at Middle Temple in 1961.

He returned to the Seychelles just as the British were encouraging the elected governing council there to take greater control of domestic affairs, and he formed the Democratic Party in 1964. At first, as a member of the council, he identified closely with the "grands blancs", the plantation-owning classes, who argued in favour of minimising taxes on their coconut production, but gradually he started to campaign for greater rights for the poor farmworkers, most of whom were black.

Mancham believed the Seychelles would be better off maintaining some kind of close association with Britain even after independence.

As first chief minister from 1966, he lobbied in London for the islands to become a self-governing protectorate along the lines of Gibraltar.

He hoped Britain would grant the Seychelles special status akin to what France had done for nearby Réunion.

When it became clear the British had no wish to maintain such small colonies, Mancham set his sights on becoming its first president. He campaigned to make it "the Switzerland of the Indian Ocean", and hoped to attract wealthy investors to a tax-free haven.

While archrival René courted friends and tactical alliances in the eastern bloc, and had his People's United Party recognised as a "liberation movement" by the Organisation of African Unity, Mancham pinned his hopes on attracting high rollers.

He befriended Peter Sellers and George Harrison, Adnan Khashoggi and the Shah of Persia. He had an affair with Bond girl Olga Bisera and boasted of flirting with Jackie Kennedy's sister Lee Radziwill.

When he was denounced by political opponents for mingling with the jet set, Mancham retorted that he needed to bring rich, high-profile individuals to the islands to promote tourism and investment.

Asked once whether his private life eroded his political credibility, he observed: "Ever since I was a schoolboy I have enjoyed the company of beautiful ladies and I won four elections while everybody knew about this. I have always felt that life should be a series of honeymoons. What is a tête-à-tête if you don't have stories to tell?"

Mancham was only 37 when he was overthrown, and one of his comforts in exile was music. There was a song, he said, to match every turn in life. During his brief presidency he was asked to describe his ideal day.

"It would begin with a long drink, toasting the rising sun and singing Che [sic] Sera Sera. After a day's work, I would toast the setting sun and sing Tonight, Tonight ... Then I would like to wake up in the morning, look in my mirror and sing There's Never been a Night Like This. Now? I can only sing No Regrets ..."

Settled in Putney after the 1977 coup, Mancham campaigned tirelessly for democracy to be returned to the Seychelles. Although he claimed Margaret Thatcher was sympathetic to his cause, Britain had no interest in deposing René.

Mancham always denied having any involvement in the counter-coup attempt of 1981, when South African mercenaries led by Colonel "Mad Mike" Hoare tried to storm the airport. At South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation hearings it was stated that Pretoria would have liked to have seen Mancham back in charge, as a bulwark against communism in the Indian Ocean.

Mancham returned to the Seychelles to stand in democratic elections in 1992. However, he and his Democrats failed to dethrone René's Progressive Front.

René restored much of Mancham's land to him and he took up residence in a new home, Villa Isabella, built into the rocks on the north coast of Mahé.

Mancham was knighted in 1976 and adopted UK nationality in 1984. He married Heather Evans in 1963, with whom he had a son and a daughter. The marriage was dissolved in 1974 and in 1985 he married Catherine Olsen, who survives him with a son and his two other children.