William McAteer - the Seychelles historian awarded a special honour by Her Majesty the Queen |22 January 2022
Son shares historian father’s life and work
On Friday January 14, Seychelles NATION published an article about William (Bill) McAteer who earlier this month was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by Her Majesty the Queen in the United Kingdom’s New Year’s Honours. The award is in recognition for his work in researching and documenting the history of the Seychelles.
While it was not possible for Mr William McAteer to speak to the Seychelles NATION, his son, Ian McAteer who lives in the United Kingdom (UK), shares with us what we were curious to learn about the life, family, adventures and work of his father.
Seychelles NATION: Tell us about your family history.
Ian McAteer: I was born in Nairobi in 1958. My father is from Glasgow and went to Kenya in 1955 to work on the East African Standard. He met my mother in Seychelles in 1955 and they married in Nairobi in 1958. Our family lived in East Africa for 25 years – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania.
My mother is a Mellon, the family way back were originally from L’Union Estate in 1807. Her mother was a Payet from La Digue. I have traced our Seychelles ancestry back to some of the first settlers – Mellon, Hangard, Lefevre, Lebeuze, Philogene, Barallon, Pondart and Larcher. I also have slave ancestry, so like many Seychellois, I am proud to be a ‘Heinz 57’ – thanks to my Mum.
My mother was brought up on Cerf Island, on a small plantation in the 1930s and went to the convent in Victoria. She was a school teacher. She had four brothers and one sister. Most of my relatives are no longer in Seychelles, though I do have cousins here.
I first came to Seychelles for Christmas in 1974; we stayed with my mother’s cousin at Pointe Conan. My parents purchased land in Glacis and built a house in 1977, and they retired here in 1994. Since then I, my family, and my two sisters (Jean and Brigitte) and their families, have visited Seychelles almost every year. My business designed the Seychelles tourism brand in 2006 and that year I was in Seychelles four or five times.
After Kenya I was at University in UK, studying law, I then qualified as a barrister, and then started in advertising in London at Saatchi & Saatchi. Thirty years ago I moved to Edinburgh and in 1996, I started my own advertising agency, The Union, based in Edinburgh. I still live in Edinburgh but intend to spend much of my retirement in Seychelles, the place I love.
Seychelles NATION: You mentioned that you’re very close to your father. Tell us more about your relationship.
Ian McAteer: My father has always been a hero to me; his job as a journalist and editor of newspapers meant there was always some excitement; I thought it was all very glamorous. He climbed Kilimanjaro in 1965, I thought that was cool. Latterly, as he started writing the history of Seychelles and publishing his books, he used me as a sounding board for ideas. We often had long, enjoyable discussions (and some arguments!) on his verandah in Glacis. I also helped him with the publishing; we spoke on the phone regularly – three or four times a week. As he got older, I would help him with practical stuff. I am very close to him; he has inspired me.
Seychelles NATION: What does this award mean to your father and to your family?
Ian McAteer: My father is from a modest background and he himself has always been a very modest man. He was brought up on a council house (government provided) in Possil, one of the poorest parts of Glasgow. Therefore, this award to him is not something he expected; it was my plan and I didn’t tell him.
On hearing the news he was very pleased; his first words were: “My mother would have been proud.” We are all proud of him, my sisters, his eight grandchildren, and the rest of the family. I have also had so many emails from his friends congratulating him.
So many people helped him, many in Seychelles, and his research has meant he’s very well connected. The research and writing took 40 years and it is a legacy for all Seychellois so we can know our story. Dad naturalised as a Seychellois in 2016 and he has dedicated his last book ‘To the people of Seychelles, my adopted country.’
Seychelles NATION: Can you tell us more about your father, about his personality?
Ian McAteer: My Dad is a modest man. He’s fun and has a great sense of humour. He enjoys meeting and talking to people. He can be very stubborn. He knows his own mind; he’s very determined and focused. He likes to do a job properly; so the history research is methodical. He doesn’t play politics; he plays life with a ‘straight bat’. He’s an old-school journalist; he believes news reporting should be impartial and objective; and this is his approach in his history writing. He’s an adventurer; not frightened to try new things: climbing Kilimanjaro, horse riding, tennis and skiing. On top of this, as a journalist, he was often in dangerous places or interviewing dangerous people.
Seychelles NATION: Why did he move to Seychelles?
Ian McAteer: My Dad is in Seychelles because he married my mother. What amazes me about him is how brave and adventurous he has been. He had been in the army (called up during WW2) and spent time in Egypt and Northern Greece. He had worked in Sweden. He worked as a volunteer in France after WW2 helping the reconstruction of Rouen. In 1955 he was working on the Glasgow Herald but he was bored and wanted to travel again.
He got a job on the East African Standard in Nairobi as a sub-Editor. The Mau Mau rebellion was going on at the time and his father told him he was mad. After he arrived in Nairobi he soon had a holiday due and asked work colleagues what he could do. Someone mentioned the Seychelles so he got on a boat from Mombasa to Victoria. He only had a couple of nights in Seychelles before it was time to return.
He stayed at the Pirates Arms and went to Sharkey Clark’s club in Quincy Street. Sharkey told him to go to Beau Vallon. There he stayed at Fisherman’s Cove and met my mother. She was a good friend of Raymonde Donkin who owned the hotel and was at the hotel visiting.
My parents later married in Nairobi. After the airport opened in 1971 it meant the family could travel to Seychelles. When it was time for my Dad to retire, they came to live in Seychelles in 1994 and have stayed here since. My Mum passed away in 2011.
Seychelles NATION: Has your father spoken about why he became a journalist?
Ian McAteer: I have some pencil sketches of newspaper pages made by my Dad when he was about 12. He designed his own newspaper with front pages and illustrations. He meticulously inked in the text. This was way before computers. He clearly had an interest from a very young age. You have to remember that in the 1930s and 40s, newspapers were the prime media; he was living in a pre-TV era. Thus journalism was quite a ‘sexy’ career choice. Journalists were seen as ‘news hounds’ – searching out the truth, going to dangerous places, reporting on world events. My Dad was good at art, keen on photography, studying History at university, and good with words.
Seychelles NATION: What drove him to research about and document the history of Seychelles?
Ian McAteer: He studied History and Economics at Glasgow University. His whole life in journalism was working with words; he worked for papers in East Africa, the BBC, Reuters, Agence France Presse, The Gulf Times, and he was a Director of the School of Journalism at the University of Nairobi. So I think his passion for writing meant that he saw it as an ideal hobby for his retirement. It was my mother who inspired him to write the history of Seychelles, it was her idea.
I think he realised this had not been done so it was an opportunity. The story of Seychelles was more or less a blank canvas. He saw a mission and he set his heart on telling the story. But he was a perfectionist; he has to find all the original documents and source material. The investigative journalist in him meant he wanted to get to the truth. I think he also enjoyed the travel; his research took him to La Reunion, Mauritius, Paris, London, Scotland, Boston, and many other places.
Seychelles NATION: Does he talk to the family much about what he has learned or are there any tales he likes to share?
Ian McAteer: We talk about the history of Seychelles, its culture, traditions and place names a lot. My mother would tell tales of life on Cerf Island; how the family had no electricity or running water. Her father going to get the fish each morning from the reef. The visits to Victoria to sell the coconuts each month. So Dad and I were always delving into the past and he would love to meet other writers, historians and friends to talk about Seychelles. Maxime Ferrari, Glyn Burridge, Andre Sauzier, Roy Fonseka, Roy Marsh; there are so many people he would interview and enjoy listening to.
Seychelles NATION: Aside from his work, what else is your father passionate about?
Ian McAteer: He’s a proud Scot and always followed the Scotland football team results. In his younger days he was a keen cyclist and once cycled from Glasgow to Manchester just to see a girl he fancied! He also enjoyed playing tennis and horse riding. He had a small yacht in Dar es Salaam and learned to sail. He was always passionate about Napoleon; on holidays in France we would visit historic sites and follow Napoleon’s steps. Above all he was a reader. He was always reading. He was at his happiest reading. Sadly, he can no longer read.
Seychelles NATION: Has he ever spoken about what he hopes to achieve through his research and books? What are your family's hopes?
Ian McAteer: He’s too modest to speak of his hopes. He has no grand ideas about himself. I think our family just feel that he has provided an invaluable legacy for Seychellois. We can all know our story; where we have come from and how our nation has developed and grown, from his work. His last book, which is about to be published, covers the period 1976 - 2020. This will be especially of interest to so many here.
Below, we also share a quote from Phil Brown, the tenant of William McAteer, as well as the Deputy Head of Secondary at International School Seychelles where Mr McAteer’s family donated a set of one of his books.
"I have been good friends with Bill ever since I moved to the island in 2016 which is a rarity in itself as he is also my landlord. On first visiting his house, I was blown away by his extensive collection of Seychelles history books, most of which are long out of print and filled with the fascinating insights of past travellers. He has always been very generous in allowing me to borrow bits of reading as I attempt to bring my own knowledge of Seychelles up to speed.
In the years since, having shared many enjoyable glasses of wine with him on his balcony while he brings the details of local history to life. He has always been everything you want from a passionate, well-researched historian. This year, my relationship with Bill's writing evolved further as his family kindly donated a set of his 'Echoes of Eden' hardback collection of essays to the International School. It has been a pleasure to look at these excellent pieces of historical journalism with young readers as we allow Bill to bring Seychelles' history alive for us.
I am also thrilled to have been given a preview of his fourth instalment of the complete history of Seychelles and I eagerly anticipate its publication during this unprecedented period in world history. I am so glad that all of Bill's hard work has been recognised with this prestigious award and I'm so glad to see how happy it has made him."
Photo sources: Ian McAteer