The recorded history of Seychelles dates back to the 17th century. The islands were appropriated and settled by France in the 18th century. African slaves were brought to the island, and the characteristic Seychellois Creole language developed. Britain took possession of the islands in the early 19th century. The Seychelles became an independent republic in 1976 after two hundred years of European colonial rule. A socialist one-party state ruled the country from 1977 to 1993. The subsequent democratic elections were won by the same socialist party.
The early (pre-European colonisation) history of Isle de Séchelles or Seychelles is unknown. Malays from Borneo, who eventually settled on Madagascar, perhaps lingered here circa 200 -300 AD. Arab navigators, on trading voyages across the Indian Ocean, were probably aware of the islands, although they did not settle them. A manuscript dated AD 851, written by an Arab merchant, refers to the Maldives and higher islands beyond them, possibly Seychelles.
Arabs were trading the highly valued coco de mer nuts, found only in Seychelles, long before European discovery of the islands. The rotted-out nuts can float and were found washed ashore in the Maldives and Indonesia.
Age of Discoveries
In 1503, Vasco da Gama, crossing from India to East Africa, sighted islands which became known as the Amirantes. The granitic islands began to appear on Portuguese charts as the Seven Sisters.
In March 1608, a trading fleet of the English East India Company set sail for India. Lost in a storm, the Ascension’s crew saw “high land” on 19 January 1609 and headed for it. They anchored “as in a pond”. They found an uninhabited island with plentiful fresh water, fish, coconuts, birds, turtles and giant tortoises with which to replenish their stores. The Ascension sailed, and reported what they had found, but the British took no action.
Towards the end of the 17th century, pirates arrived in the Indian Ocean from the Caribbean and made a base in Madagascar, from where they preyed upon vessels approaching and leaving the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.
The French had occupied the Isle de France (now Mauritius) since 1715. This colony was growing in importance, and in 1735 an energetic administrator, Bertrand-François Mahé de La Bourdonnais (1699–1723) was appointed. His brief was to protect the French sea route to India. La Bourdonnais, himself a sailor, turned his attention to making a speedier passage from Mauritius to India. To this end, in 1742, he sent an expedition under the command of Lazare Picault to accurately chart the islands northeast of Madagascar.
On 21 November 1742, the Elisabeth and the Charles anchored off Mahé at Anse Boileau (not Baie Lazare, later mistakenly named as Picault’s landing place). They found a land of plenty. In fact, Picault named the island Ile d’Abondance. Picault’s mapping was poor, so in 1744 he was sent back and renamed the main island Mahé (in honor of his patron Mahé de La Bourdonnais), and the group the Iles de la Bourdonnais. He had high hopes for the Iles de la Bourdonnais. However the islands were once more forgotten when La Bourdonnais was replaced in 1746.
French settlement and rule
The outbreak in 1754 of what would become the Seven Years’ War between England and France reminded the authorities on Mauritius about the islands. Two ships were sent to claim them, commanded by Corneille Nicholas Morphey. He renamed the largest island Isle de Séchelles in honour of Viscount Jean Moreau de Séchelles, Minister of Finance during the reign of Louis XV (later Anglicised as Seychelles). This name was later used for the island group, whilst Mahé was again used for the largest granitic island. Morphey took possession for the French king and the French East India Company on 1 November 1756.
The end of the Seven Years’ War, with France’s loss of Canada and its status in India, caused the decline of the French East India Company, which had formerly controlled Mauritius. This settlement, and thus Seychelles, now came under direct royal authority. The new intendant of Mauritius, Pierre Poivre (1719–1786), was determined to break the Dutch monopoly of the lucrative spice trade; he thought Mahé would be perfect for spice cultivation.
In 1768, Nicolas Dufresne arranged a commercial venture, sending ships to collect timber and tortoises from the Seychelles. During this expedition, French sovereignty was extended to cover all the islands of the granitic group on Christmas Day.
In 1769, the navigators Rochon and Grenier proved that a faster route to India could safely be taken via the Seychelles, and thus the importance of the islands’ strategic position was realised. Meanwhile, Poivre had finally obtained seedlings of nutmeg and clove, and 10,000 nutmeg seeds. His attempts to propagate them on Mauritius and Bourbon (later named Réunion) met with little success, and he thought again of Seychelles. It was considered fortuitous when Brayer du Barré (unknown-1777) arrived on Mauritius with royal permission to run a settlement on St Anne at his own expense.
On 12 August 1770, 15 white colonists, seven slaves, five Indians and one black woman settled on St Anne. Du Barré stayed in Mauritius seeking funds. After reports of initial success, he begged the government for more money. However, reports reached the authorities that ship captains could get no supplies of fresh produce from the islands. Du Barré’s appeals for help to Mauritius and Versailles fell on deaf ears. In desperation, he went to the Seychelles to try and rescue the situation, but to no avail. A ruined man, he left for India and died there shortly afterwards.
In 1771, Poivre sent Antoine Gillot to Seychelles to establish a spice garden. By August 1772, Du Barré’s people had abandoned St Anne and moved to Mahé or returned home. Gillot worked on at Anse Royale, establishing nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and pepper plants.
When British ships were seen around Seychelles, the authorities were spurred into action, despatching a garrison under Lieutenant de Romainville. They built Etablissement du Roi (Royal Settlement) on the site of modern Victoria. Gillot was nominally in charge of the civilian colonists, but had no real authority over them. Mauritius sent as replacement a man of stronger mettle, Jean Baptiste Philogene de Malavois, who assumed command of the settlement in 1788. He drew up 30 decrees which protected the timber and tortoises. In future, only sound farming techniques and careful husbanding of resources would be tolerated.
The Quincy era
In 1790, as a result of the French Revolution, the settlers formed a Colonial Assembly, and decided they would run their colony themselves, according to their own constitution. Land in Seychelles should only go to the children of existing colonists, who should dispose of the colony’s produce as they chose, not as Mauritius dictated. They deemed the abolition of slavery impossible, because they believed that without free labour, the colony could not survive.
Jean-Baptiste Queau de Quincy (1748–1827) took command of the colony in 1794. A wily man, he used skill and expediency to steer Seychelles through the years of war ahead. Seychelles acted as a haven for French corsairs (pirates carrying lettres de marque entitling them to prey legally on enemy shipping). Quincy hoped this might go unnoticed, but in 1794 a squadron of three British ships arrived. The British commodore, Henry Newcome, gave Quincy an hour in which to surrender. Through skillful negotiations, Quincy obtained a guarantee of his honour and property and surrendered.
The British made no effort to take over the Seychelles; it was considered a waste of resources. The settlers decided that unless they were sent a garrison, they could not be expected to defend the French flag. Therefore they would remain neutral, supplying all comers. The strategy worked. The colony flourished. Quincy’s favourable terms of capitulation were renewed seven times during the visits of British ships.
On 11 July 1801 the French frigate Chiffonne arrived with a cargo of French prisoners sent into exile by Napoleon. Then HMS Sybille arrived. Quincy had to try to defend the Chiffonne, but after a brief battle, the Chiffonne was taken. Captain Adam of the Sybille wanted to know why Quincy had interfered, in contravention of his capitulation terms. Quincy managed to talk his way out of the difficulty, and even persuaded Adam to agree to Seychelles’ vessels flying a flag bearing the words “Seychelles Capitulation”, allowing them to pass through the British blockade of Mauritius unmolested.
15 September 1801 was the date of a memorable sea battle just off the settlement. The British ship Victor was seriously disabled by damage to her rigging, but she was able to manoeuvre broadside to the French vessel La Flêche and rake her with incessant fire. La Flêche began to sink. Rather than surrender her, her captain ran her aground, torching her before abandoning ship. The opposing commanders met ashore afterwards, the Englishman warmly congratulating his French counterpart on his courage and skill during the battle.
The British tightened the blockade on the French Indian Ocean colonies. Réunion surrendered, followed in December 1810 by Mauritius. In April 1811, Captain Beaver arrived in Seychelles on the Nisus to announce the preferential terms of Quincy’s capitulation should stand, but Seychelles must recognise the terms of the Mauritian surrender. Beaver left behind a Royal Marine, Lieutenant Bartholomew Sullivan, to monitor the Seychelles situation.
There was little Sullivan could do alone to stop the settlers continuing to provision French frigates and slavers. Slave ownership was not then against British law, although slave trading was illegal. Sullivan, later given the title of Civil Agent, played cat and mouse with the pro-slaver colonists. Once, acting on a tip off, Sullivan was rowed over to Praslin and was able to confiscate a cargo of newly landed slaves. It was but a small triumph amidst many frustrations, and Sullivan, complaining that the Seychellois had “no sense of honour, shame or honesty”, resigned.
The first civilian administrator of the British regime was Edward Madge. He had a bitter feud with Quincy, who remained in the administration as Justice of the Peace. In the following years, the islands became a backwater ticking over quietly. Seychellois landowners had a pleasant life, though making ends meet given the fickle markets for their produce was not always easy. The British had allowed all customary French practices to remain in place. The administrator may have been British, reporting to London, but he governed according to French rules. The biggest grievance the colonists had with their new masters was the colony’s dependence on Mauritius.
The other cloud on the planters’ horizon was British anti-slavery legislation. In 1835, slavery was completely abolished. The plantations were already in decline, their soils exhausted by years of cultivation without investment in renewing fertility. Some planters took their slaves and left. The liberated slaves had no land, and most squatted on the estates they had tended in bondage, and the colony entered a period of stagnation. There were no exports, and no money to pay for new infrastructure.
The situation was only improved when planters realised they could grow coconuts with less labour and more profit than the traditional crops of cotton, sugar, rice, and maize. Soon, they also had a source of virtually free labour once again. The British took their anti-slavery stance seriously, and operated patrols along the East African coast, raiding Arab dhows transporting slaves to the Middle East. Slaves liberated south of the Equator were brought to Seychelles, and apprenticed to plantation owners. They worked the land in return for rations and wages. Over a period of thirteen years from 1861, around 2,400 men, women and children were brought to Seychelles.
The town, called Victoria since 1841, began to grow. Licences granted in 1879 give some idea of the range of businesses in the town. There was a druggist, two auctioneers, five retailers, four liquor stores, a notary, an attorney, a jeweller, and a watchmaker.
There was a disaster on 12 October 1862, when torrential rain and strong winds hit Mahé. An avalanche of mud and rocks fell on the town from the hills. It has been estimated that over 70 persons lost their lives.
Seychelles yearned to be a colony in its own right, and the authorities in the mother colony Mauritius supported them. Sir Arthur Gordon, the Mauritian governor, sent a petition on their behalf to London. Concessions were made, but Seychelles did not become a Crown Colony in its own right until 1903, when its first Governor, Sir Ernest Bickham Sweet-Escott took office. Befitting its new status, the colony acquired a botanical gardens, and a clock tower in the heart of Victoria. The French language and culture remained dominant, however.
The British, like the French before them, saw Seychelles as a useful place to exile troublesome political prisoners. Over the years, Seychelles became a home to prisoners from Zanzibar, Egypt, Cyprus and Palestine, to name but a few. The first in the line of exiles was the ex-chief of Pasir Salak at Perak who arrived in 1875 after his implication in the murder of the British Resident of Perak. Like many of the exiles who followed, he settled well into Seychelles life and became genuinely fond of the islands. He took home with him one of the popular local tunes, and incorporated it into the national anthem of his country. With new words, it later became the national anthem of Malaysia.
Perhaps the most famous of the political prisoners was Archbishop Makarios from Cyprus, who arrived in 1956. He likewise fell in love with his prison. “When our ship leaves harbour”, he wrote, “we shall take with us many good and kindly memories of the Seychelles…may God bless them all.”
World War I caused great hardship in the islands. Ships could not bring in essential goods, nor take away exports. Wages fell; prices soared by 150 percent. Many turned to crime and the prisons were bursting. Joining the Seychelles Labour Contingent, formed at the request of General Smuts, seemed to offer an escape. It was no easy option however. The force, 800 strong, was sent to East Africa. After just five months, so many had died from dysentery, malaria and beriberi that the corps was sent home. In all, 335 men died.
By the end of World War I, the population of Seychelles was 24,000 and they were feeling neglected by Great Britain. There was agitation from the newly formed Planters Association for greater representation in the governance of Seychelles affairs. After 1929 a more liberal flow of funds was ensured by the Colonial Development Act, but it was a time of economic depression; the price of copra was falling and so were wages. Workers petitioned the government about their poor working conditions and the burden of tax they had to bear. Governor Sir Arthur Grimble instigated some reforms, exempting lower income groups from taxation. He was keen to create model housing and distribute smallholdings for the landless. Many of his reforms were not approved until World War II had broken out, and everything was put on hold.
The Planters Association lobbied for the white land owners, but until 1937 those who worked for them had no voice. The League of Coloured Peoples was formed to demand a minimum wage, a wage tribunal and free health care for all. During World War II, a seaplane depot was established on St Anne to monitor regional shipping. A garrison was stationed in the islands and a battery built at Pointe Conan to protect the harbour. Some 2,000 Seychellois men served in the Pioneer Companies in Egypt, Palestine and Italy.
At home, Seychelles had turmoil of its own. The first political party, the Taxpayers Association, was formed in 1939. A British governor described it as “the embodiment of every reactionary force in Seychelles”, and it was entirely concerned with protecting the interests of the plantocracy. After the war, they also benefited by being granted the vote, which was limited to literate property owners; just 2,000 in a population of 36,000. At the first elections, in 1948, most of those elected to the Legislative Council were predictably members of the Planters and Taxpayers Association.
In 1958, the French bought back the Glorioso islands from the Seychelles.
It was not until 1964 that any new political movements were created. In that year, the Seychelles People’s United Party (SPUP, later Seychelles People’s Progressive Front, SPPF) was formed. Led by France-Albert René, they campaigned for socialism and independence from Britain. James Mancham‘s Seychelles Democratic Party (SDP), created the same year, by contrast represented businessmen and planters and wanted closer integration with Britain.
Elections were held in 1966, won by the SDP.
In March 1970, colonial and political representatives of Seychelles met in London for a constitutional convention, with the Seychelles Democratic Party (SDP) of James Mancham advocating closer integration with the UK, and the Seychelles People’s United Party (SPUP) of France-Albert René advocating independence. Further elections in November 1970 brought a new constitution into effect, with Mancham as Chief Minister. Further elections were held in April 1974, in which both major political parties campaigned for independence. Following this election, negotiations with the British resulted in an agreement under which the Seychelles became an independent republic within the Commonwealth on June 29, 1976. The newly knighted Sir James Mancham became the country’s first President, with René as Prime Minister. These negotiations also restored the islands of Aldabra, Farquhar, and Des Roches, which had been transferred from Seychelles in November 1965 to form part of the new British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), to Seychelles upon independence.
On June 5, 1977, a coup d’état saw Mancham deposed while overseas, and France-Albert René became President. The Seychelles became a one-party state, with the SPUP becoming the Seychelles People’s Progressive Front (SPPF).
In 1981, the country experienced a failed coup attempt by Mike Hoare and a team of South African backed mercenaries. The author John Perkins has alleged that this was part of a covert action to re-install the pro-American former president in the face of concerns about United States access to its military bases in Diego Garcia.
The government was threatened again by an army mutiny in August 1982, but it was quelled after 2 days when loyal troops, reinforced by Tanzanian forces, recaptured rebel-held installations.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, at an Extraordinary Congress of the Seychelles People’s Progressive Front (SPPF) on December 4, 1991, President René announced a return to the multiparty system of government after almost 16 years of one-party rule. On December 27, 1991, the Constitution of Seychelles was amended to allow for the registration of political parties. Among the exiles returning to Seychelles was James Mancham, who returned in April 1992 to revive his party, the Democratic Party (DP). By the end of that month, eight political parties had registered to contest the first stage of the transition process: election to the constitutional commission, which took place on July 23–26, 1992.
The constitutional commission was made up of 22 elected members, 14 from the SPPF and 8 from the DP. It commenced work on August 27, 1992 with both President René and Mancham calling for national reconciliation and consensus on a new democratic constitution. A consensus text was agreed upon on May 7, 1993, and a referendum to approve it was called for June 15–18. The draft was approved with 73.9% of the electorate in favor of it and 24.1% against.
July 23–26, 1993 saw the first multiparty presidential and legislative elections held under the new constitution, as well as a resounding victory for President René. Three political groups contested the elections—the SPPF, the DP, and the United Opposition (UO)–a coalition of three smaller political parties, including Parti Seselwa. Two other smaller opposition parties threw in their lot with the DP. All participating parties and international observer groups accepted the results as “free and fair.”
Three candidates contested the March 20–22, 1998 presidential election—Albert René, SPPF; James Mancham, DP; and Wavel Ramkalawan—and once again President René and his SPPF party won a landslide victory. The President’s popularity in elections jumped to 66.6% in 1998 from 59.5% in 1993, while the SPPF garnered 61.7% of the total votes cast in the 1998 National Assembly election, compared to 56.5% in 1993.
In 1999, Mancham switched to the centrist liberal Seychelles National Party (SNP) which emerged as the major opposition party, losing to the SPPF in 2002 with 42% of the vote. In 2004, René turned the presidency over to his former vice president and long-time comrade, James Michel. Michel won the 2006 presidential elections against SNP leader Wavel Ramkalawan with 53.5% of the vote.