In the 17th and 18th centuries, Ile Sainte-Marie (or St. Mary’s Island as it is known in English), a long, thin island off the eastern African coast, became a popular base for pirates.
Up to 1,000 pirates reportedly called the rocky island home, including widely-feared brigands Adam Baldridge, William Kidd, Olivier Levasseur, Henry Every, Robert Culliford, Abraham Samuel and Thomas Tew. They lived in the île aux Forbans, an island located in the bay of Sainte Marie’s main town, Ambodifotatra.
This place was not far from the maritime routes along which ships returning from the East Indies sailed in transit, their holds overflowing with wealth, it was provided with bays and inlets protected from storms and finally, it had abundant fruit and was situated in quiet waters.
The beautiful tropical island’s numerous inlets and bays made it the perfect place to hide ships. The pirates sailed mostly from England, Portugal, France and America to make this island off the coast of Madagascar a home, a hideout and a strategic place.
With so many pirates abiding on the island, some even raising families at the time, it’s no wonder Sainte-Marie claims to have what may be the world’s only legitimate pirate cemetery.
In the center of the cemetery, there is a large black tomb that locals say is the final resting place of Captain Kidd, buried there in an upright position to punish him for his sins.
The pirates were off Ile Sainte-Marie by the late 1700s, when the French seized the island. It wasn’t returned to Madagascar until 1960. The utopian pirate republic of Libertalia was also rumored to exist in this area, although the republic’s existence, let alone its location, has never been proven.
A recently discovered map from 1733 by John de Bry, an archaeologist working on shipwrecks in the area, called the land mass the “Island of Pirates” and identified the location of three pirate ship wrecks.
So many pirate legends are floating around Sainte-Marie, but, is this cemetery authentic? Everyone on the island, including government tourism officials, of course, claim it is. However, dead pirates or not, this cemetery is one of Madagascar’s most popular tourist destinations.
Almost 5% of the population of Sri Lanka work in the billion-dollar tea industry, picking leaves on the mountain slopes and processing the tea in plantation factories.
The cultivation and selling of black tea has shaped the lives of generations of Sri Lankans since 1867.
Documentary photographer Schmoo Theune visited plantations in the country to explore the world of Ceylon tea production.
Tea bushes on mountain slopes are situated above the barracks-style housing which each plantation provides for its workers.
Tea buds must be picked by hand every seven to 14 days, before the leaves grow too tough.
This means the working location can change from day to day, depending on where the buds need to be collected.
The tea leaves are gathered in tarpaulin bags, which are lighter than the traditional wicker baskets that were once used.
The leaves are weighed throughout the day and a tea-picker earns 600 Sri Lankan Rupees (LKR), which is approximately £2.70, if they reach the desired quota of 18kg a day.
If they do not meet this target then they are paid 300 LKR (approximately £1.30).
Some plantations use different wage models, such as paying staff monthly and offering temporary loans to employees.
The majority of Sri Lankan tea workers are ethnically Indian Tamils, a people who were transported by the British to work on the plantations.
They differ from Jaffna Tamils who originate from Sri Lanka’s north.
Dirt roads connect the workers’ housing to the tea plantations.
Tea bushes are grown on steep hillsides a metre apart.
Altitude affects the flavour of the tea, with higher altitudes producing a more delicately flavoured crop.
This is more highly valued than the robustly flavoured tea produced at lower elevations.
Veteran tea-pickers often have rough callouses on their hands.
The difficult physical nature of the work is causing a shortage of young tea-pickers.
Many daughters are choosing to work in garment factories, or abroad in domestic roles, rather than the fields of the plantations.
There can be four different levels of hierarchy on a small plantation, ranging from the owner down to tea-pickers.
Each layer supervises the level below it.
Some of the houses the workers live in were built by the British during a housing boom in the 1920s when about 20,000 rooms were built for tea-pickers.
The buildings have changed little since.
Families raise their children in a village setting in colourful barracks-style houses.
Many buildings only have electricity or running water for a few hours each day, or do not have them at all.
Many daily tasks such as washing or bathing are carried out in streams and rivers.
Some areas of housing are supplied with water only once every three days which must be collected in containers.
Tea-pickers and other labourers start work at 7.30am.
In plantation communities, children often have to walk several kilometres to school.
Tea-picking earns relatively low wages, so some tea plantation families have family members who work abroad in the Middle East, or in other cities around Sri Lanka, who send money back home.
Women who labour on the plantations also have household duties such as cooking, cleaning and taking care of children.
The fresh tea leaves are taken to a factory near the plantation for processing, like the one seen below near the Sri Lankan city of Kandy.
‘Withering’ is the first step, requiring the blowing of dry air to extract moisture from the leaf, which gives it a pliable texture.
A batch of 18kg of fresh leaves can yield 5kg of Ceylon tea after it has been processed in plantation factories.
A rolling machine then twists the withered leaves and begins the fermentation process, which starts to develop the distinctive flavour.
The machinery used in the tea processing is often up to 100 years old.
Finished tea is separated by leaf size, and packaged in bulk bags to be sent for auction in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.
Ceylon tea is not just an export, it is an essential part of Sri Lankan daily life, consumed by office workers, labourers, students, and everyone in-between.
Lake Chad – a source of water to millions of people in West Africa – has shrunk by nine-tenths due to climate change, population growth and irrigation. But can a scheme dating back to the 1980s save it?
“It’s a ridiculous plan and it will never happen.” That’s the reaction many people have to the idea of trying to fill up Lake Chad and restore it to its former ocean-like glory by diverting water from the Congo river system 2,400km (1,500 miles) away.
Sceptics in Nigeria, who have seen successive governments fail even to make the lights work, wonder if the region’s politicians have nodded off and have been dreaming a little too hard.
But the government ministers and engineers who were recently sipping mineral water in the capital, Abuja, at the International Conference on Lake Chad had good reason to be thinking outside the box.
Lake Chad has shrunk by 90% since the 1960s, due to climate change, an increase in the population and unplanned irrigation. Its basin covers parts of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, and has been a water source for between 20 million and 30 million people.
But with the desert encroaching further every year, it is getting increasingly difficult for families to make a living through agriculture, fishing and livestock farming. The UN says 10.7 million people in the Lake Chad basin need humanitarian relief to survive.
“We used to pass fields of maize on our way to the lake and there were vast numbers of boats bobbing up and down on the water back then, and huge fish markets,” says Bale Bura, who grew up by the lake in the 1970s and now works for the Lake Chad Fishermen’s Association.
Now far fewer farmers are able to earn a living on the mineral-rich but bone-dry shores.
This is one reason why the delegates in Abuja decided to dust off a scheme first mooted back in 1982 by the Italian engineering company Bonifica Spa.
It came up with Transaqua – a plan to construct a 2,400km (1,500 mile) canal to transfer water from the upstream tributaries of the mighty Congo River all the way to the Chari River basin, which feeds Lake Chad.
It proposed the transfer of up to 100 billion cubic metres (3.5 trillion cubic feet) of water a year and featured a series of dams along the route to generate electricity.
“I sent one of our engineers to the USA, to purchase the only reliable maps of Africa, which were made by the US Air Force and were the only maps with contour lines,” says Marcello Vichi, the Italian engineer who was asked to look into the idea during the early 1980s.
“After a couple of months of solitary study, I announced to the then chief executive that this thing could be done.”
He says 500 copies of the plans were sent out in 1985 to government representatives of every African country, as well as international financial agencies.
“The response was a deafening silence,” he adds.
But more than three decades later, minds are finally focusing on the lake’s shrinkage, prompted by its link to the deadly geopolitical crises of Islamist militancy and migration.
In 2014, I headed out of the north-east Nigerian city of Maiduguri towards Lake Chad in a new minibus. There were armoured vehicles in front as well as behind, and right next to me was a Nigerian soldier – fast asleep. Our destination was Kirenawa, the latest village that the marauding Boko Haram jihadists had terrorised.
As the road became steadily sandier, we entered a long-neglected area, passing the faded signs of abandoned government projects in ever hotter and sleepier villages.
Buildings had been torched and people had been left terrified, watching as others were killed in front of them.
In all the villages, people complained there was nothing for young people to do, nothing to dream of except getting out.
‘Ugly kinds of jobs’
It had become a perfect recruiting ground for the Islamist militants. The offer of a little cash and the promise of some training and a gun persuaded many to join.
Of course, Lake Chad’s decline is not the sole reason for the rise of violent extremism – a number of factors including poor governance have also played a role – but there is clearly a link.
“I know many young people from my own village who got into these ugly kinds of jobs,” Mr Bura says.
As if the delegates gathering in Abuja last month needed reminding of how dire the security situation had become, more than 100 schoolgirls had just been seized from Dapchi, Nigeria.
At the meeting, it was agreed that Bonifica and PowerChina, the company that helped build the Three Gorges dam spanning the Yangtze River, would complete a feasibility study. They announced that the effort to raise $50bn (£35bn) for the Lake Chad Fund should begin immediately.
Bonifica says its plan will use less than 8% of the water the Congo River discharges into the Atlantic and would not be a threat to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s continuing Grand Inga Dam project, which would create the world’s largest hydropower generator if it is completed.
Further engineering work would be needed to enable the Chari River to handle the increased flow of water. The project can be done in a staggered way, with each completed stage immediately adding to the flow of water into the Lake Chad basin.
Other options that have been considered include one which involves pumping the water uphill from Palambo, in the Central African Republic.
As well as the funding challenge for Transaqua, there will be resistance from environmental campaigners to overcome. And even carrying out the feasibility study properly requires peace.
Chinese media has reported the transfer canal would be 100m (328ft) wide and 10m (33ft) deep and would be flanked by a service road and eventually a rail line.
“It is a project which responds to the never-tackled infrastructural needs of the African continent, which maybe will give birth to a real African renaissance,” says Mr Vichi, who sees all along the route of the canal vast potential for agro-processing and transforming agricultural products for African and foreign markets.
Ministers know life is likely to get ever tougher for the people who live around Lake Chad. That’s why they are paying attention to the plans to bring it back to life.
Human beings around the world delight in fiery foods. Thai, Mexican, Chinese, Indian, Ethiopian – the cuisines that can take the roof off your mouth are numerous and flavourful.
Ranking the world’s most spicy peppers and comparing the most awe-inducing dishes is a common pastime, even if, past a certain point, the distinctions are somewhat moot. Who can say, subjectively speaking, that one Indian restaurant’s Widower Phaal, made while wearing goggles with chilis that rank about 1,000,000 on the Scoville Scale – an international measurement of pungency – is necessarily a fierier experience than the notorious Korean Suicide Burrito?
There’s plenty of burn to go around: more common dishes include vindaloo with ghost peppers and hot pot from Sichuan, where you must part a swarm of chillis bobbing in a sea of broth to fish out tender, fiery morsels of meats and vegetables.
As you savour these intense tastes, however, you may wonder, why do some cuisines compete for the title of spicy champion, while others feature barely the hint of a burn?
This is a question that has intrigued anthropologists and food historians for some time. Indeed, it’s a curious truth that places with warm climates do seem to have a heavier preponderance of hot and spicy dishes. That may have something to do with the fact that some spices have antimicrobial properties, studies have found.
In one survey of cookbooks from around the world, researchers note: “As mean annual temperatures (an indicator of relative spoilage rates of unrefrigerated foods) increased, the proportion of recipes containing spices, number of spices per recipe, total number of spices used, and use of the most potent antibacterial spices all increased.” In hot places, where before refrigeration food would have gone off very quickly, spices might have helped things keep a bit longer – or at least rendered them more palatable.
It’s also been suggested that because spicy food makes most people sweat, it might help us to cool off in hot parts of the world. The evaporative cooling effect that happens when we perspire is indeed useful in maintaining a body’s heat balance. In a very humid climate, though, it doesn’t matter how much you sweat: that evaporation won’t come to your rescue because there’s already too much moisture in the air. One study of people who drank hot water after exercise showed that they did cool down slightly more than those who drank cold water, but only in situations with low humidity. Thailand in August, that ain’t.
But spice is hardly limited to the tropics. While chilli peppers are originally from the Americas, this particular kind of heat grew widespread in the 15th and 16th Centuries, travelling with European traders. Other spices – not spicy in the same way as peppers, perhaps, but still strongly flavoured and bringing an extra oomph to a dish – had been circulating in Europe for centuries, with ginger, black pepper, and cinnamon brought in from the east.
As spice prices plummeted in Europe in the 1600s, and it became easier for just anyone to lace their food with them, tastemakers fell out of love with them
Heavily spiced dishes were the darlings of many cuisines we currently don’t think of for their zing. Numerous recipes in one 18th-Century British cookery book include potent doses of mace, cloves, and nutmeg, for instance. What happened?
Well, one possibility is that it became a bit uncouth to like quite so many flavours in one’s food, as Maanvi Singh has written over at The Salt. What we now consider classic European cuisine has a tendency to focus on pairing like flavours with like, rather than bringing in a riot of strong, contrasting ones. That may be because, as spice prices plummeted in Europe in the 1600s and it became easier for just anyone to lace their food with them, tastemakers fell out of love with them.
Shifting the goalposts for high-end food, they began to emphasise dishes where the focus was the purest essence of the basic ingredients, combined with flavours that served to bring that out. In a word – it may have been snobbery, Singh writes, that erased the thrill of spice from many European palates.
Indeed, the role of human culture in determining whether spice is hot or not cannot be underestimated. Like all animals, we use taste as a way to determine what’s safe to eat, and once we get used to certain flavors signalling the familiar, we like them all the more. It would not be surprising if some people, having acclimated to chillis, began to prefer them over the absence of chillis.
Today, we have our own reasons for eating spicy foods, and they may have more to do with adrenaline than social status or sheer flavour, per se. The physiological reaction to peppers, as we’ve discussed here before, is the result of temperature sensors in the mouth being activated. Your body responds as if you had burned it, causing you to sweat and flush, and in extreme cases vomit.
The thrill of triggering this intense experience without (usually) any long-term effects is thought to be part of the attraction – as well as, for some chilli fiends, the bragging rights.
Antimicrobial qualities and body temperature regulation are probably not on the list of possible draws today – something to ponder, and thank your lucky stars for, as you wait for your next curry.