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The ambiance of the Seychelles strikes many first-time visitors as more Caribbean Sea than Indian Ocean. That’s because when colonists first began settling there, the islands were unpopulated. Early French colonials were able to imprint their plantation culture without opposition. A hundred and fifty years of British rule did little to dispel the French influence. The Seychelles remained one of the Empire’s most remote backwaters.
With independence in the 1970s came interest in diversifying the island nation’s plantation economy. The completion of the Seychelles International Airport in 1971 opened the Seychelles to a new source of revenue, tourism. Thanks to tourism, the Seychelles today is one of the most prosperous African states with that continent’s highest Human Development Index.
Pre-colonial History of the Seychelles
The Seychelles was uninhabited throughout most of recorded history. Yet long before the early 17th century, when sailors from an English East India Company ship that had lost its course first set foot on one of its island, the Seychelles exerted a subtle influence on the mercantile world. Arab traders did brisk business in the coco de mer nuts that only grow on the Seychelles islands of Praslin and Curieuse. These curiously twinned palm nuts are hollow and float long distances. They were highly valued by Arabs and Europeans alike who would decorate their shells with precious jewels and display them in private galleries.
Historians believe that the reason the Seychelles remained unsettled and unexplored for so long was because the trade winds didn’t blow in their direction, although Malays from Borneo may have settled in the Seychelles for a brief period of time between 200 AD and 300 AD. There is also some evidence that navigators of Arab trading ships in medieval times knew of the islands’ existence. An Arab merchant writing in 851 AD made reference to islands beyond the Maldives, which he called the Tall Islands. Historians today believe this was most likely a reference to the Seychelles.
The Seychelles In the Age of Discovery
The great Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama was the first to make a definitive identification of the Seychelles during his second voyage. In 1502, crossing from India to Africa, the Admiral sighted a group of coral islands he named Les Amirantes (Admiral Islands) after himself. In 1517, the Portuguese mapped the area, keeping the name Amirantes for the coral islands and dubbing the nearby granite islands, the Seven Sisters.
Englishmen were the first to alight on the shores of the Seychelles. Early in the year 1609, an English East India Company trading vessel called the Ascension was set upon by natives near the Portuguese island of Pemba. The ship lost its course. On January 19, the Ascension’s boatswain sighted North Island, and the ship made anchorage in its natural harbor. “It is a very good refreshing place for wood, water, cooker nutts, fish and fowle,” the East India Company merchant John Jourdain wrote in his journal, “without any feare or danger except the allagartes for you cannot discerne that ever any people had bene there before us." The British, however, made no attempt to settle the islands.
The French Colonize The Seychelles
Meanwhile, various European powers were laying claim to nearby islands region. The French East India Company came into control of the island now known as Mauritius. In 1744, the colonial administrator of Mauritius dispatched a French explorer named Lazare Picault to chart the islands northeast of Madagascar. Picault was the first to map Mahé, the largest of the granite islands and today the Seychelles’ main population center. Twelve years later, during the Seven Years’ War, the French returned to claim the islands officially. Mahé was renamed Isle de Séchelles after King Louis XV’s Minister of Finance. The name was later Anglicized as Seychelles, and applied to the entire archipelago.
In 1770, the first French settlement was established on the island of Mahé. The party consisted 15 white colonists, seven slaves and five Indians. At first the colonists grew spices like nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and chili peppers; later they switched to more traditional plantation crops like cotton and sugarcane. Following the French Revolution in 1790, the colonials declared their independence from Mauritius and subsequently from France. For 20 years, an independent Seychelles provisioned French and British ships alike as well as Arab slave traders. In 1811, however, the British took control of the Seychelles.
The Seychelles Under British Rule
Although slavery remained legal in Britain until 1835, slave trading was illegal. The Seychelles colonials and the British clashed over the former’s support of the slaving vessels that pulled into Mahé’s port. Wealthy slave owners began to emigrate from the islands with their households and slaves. Between 1830 and 1840, the Seychelles lost nearly half its population. The British had a policy of raiding Arab slave ships and when these ships were apprehended south of the Equator, their human cargo were brought to the Seychelles, freed, and apprenticed to plantation owners who’d remained on the islands. Between 1861 and 1874, close to 2,500 men, women and children were rescued and resettled in the Seychelles.
Cotton and sugarcane cultivation were dependent upon access to cheap labor. In order to survive after the demise of slavery, planters began to switch to the far less labor-intensive farming of coconuts. Although fish provided an abundant source of protein, many other foods had to be imported.
In 1903, the Seychelles became an official British Crown Colony. Great Britain demonstrated very little interest in the Seychelles, however, and the language and culture of the islands remained French. Until the beginning of the Second World War, the Seychelles’ social structure was dominated by a small group of French-speaking plantation owners although the majority of the population were landless, Creole-speaking descendents of slaves.
Towards the beginning of World War II, Seychelles residents began lobbying for home rule. The Seychelles’ first political party was formed in 1939. The Taxpayers Association, as it was called, represented the interests of the wealthy landowners who numbered approximately 2,000 out of a population of 36,000. After the War ended, these landowners were granted the right to vote. The Seychelles’ first Legislative Council was elected in 1948.
The rise of political movements that benefitted Seychelles residents who were not landowners didn’t take place until the 1960s. The left-leaning Seychelles People’s United Party (SPUP) was formed in 1964, espousing a platform of socialism and independence from Britain. The Seychelles Democratic Party (SDP), formed that same year, represented the interests of landowners and lobbied for a stronger relationship with Britain. A constitutional convention was held in London in March 1970, and in November of that same year, James Mancham, the leader of the SDP, became the island nation’s chief minister.
By 1976, both parties were strongly in favor of independence. The Seychelles became an independent republic on June 29, 1976, with Mancham as its first President. His term in office was short-lived: Nearly a year to the day he assumed office, Mancham was deposed in a bloodless coup d'état and France-Albert René, the leader of the SPUP, became President. For 16 years, the Seychelles became a one-party state. The Constitution was amended in 1991 to allow for a multiparty system of government. President René was still the most popular candidate, however, and remained the President of the Seychelles until 2004 when he turned the office over to his long-time associate James Michel who is the current President of the Seychelles.