Arab sailors who navigated the Indian Ocean in the 9th century already knew about the Seychelles archipelago. A document dating from 851 already mentioned the Maldives and “some islands further away”.
In 1502 Vasco da Gama, on his way to the indies, sighted some “exterior islands” which were called ‘the Amirantes’ in his honour, as he was the admiral of his fleet. Portuguese navigators thereafter only used the island to replenish their stocks. Their maps also mention “interior islands” which were named As Sete Irmas, The Seven Sisters. In 1609 a ship from the British East India Company was caught in a storm and anchored in front of Mahé. One of its passengers gave the first description of the Seychelles.
As from the end of the 17th century, commerce along the route to the Indies became prosperous. Commercial ships from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, or France frequently navigated across the Indian Ocean and so pirates became very interested in the area. They seized shiploads of goods, precious stones, silver and gold. The Seychelles archipelago became the ideal place for them to anchor their ships and to hide their treasures. There’s a legend about the French corsair named La Buse whicht says that he hid his treasure somewhere in Mahé Island. Another legend says that another French corsair named Jean-François Hodoul buried his treasure in Silhouette Island. It is said that immense treasures are buried in Frégate Island: pirate tombs and lots of old coins were discovered there.
The nearby Isle de France, nowadays named Mauritius, saw fast development under the management of its new governor, Mahé de La Bourdonnais. In 1742, he sent an expedition to the archipelago. Lazare Picaut, the captain of that expedition, set foot on an island, which he named île d’Abondance and is now called Mahé. A second expedition is organised in 1744 and Lazare Picault landed on the opposite coast, near the place where the town of Victoria is located. He renamed the archipelago the La Bourdonnais Islands and île d’Abondance was renamed Mahé. The next expedition was led by Corneille Nicolas Morphey in 1756. He erected a rock engraved with the coats of arms of the king of France on the coast near the town of Victoria. Morphey renamed the archipelago as the Seychelles, in honour of France’s minister of finance, Moreau de Séchelles.
The start of a colony
In 1768, Mahé and the islands “that can be seen and beyond” are declared French Colonies. An engineer, Brayer du Barré, gets the authorisation to start a colony on the island of Saint-Anne. 12 settlers, 8 african slaves and 5 Indians set foot on the island in 1770. Two years later, they go back to Mauritius, almost starving. Pierre Poivre, the new governor of Mauritius sets up a royal garden in Anse Royale in Mahé to acclimatize spice trees.
France and the United Kingdom are now at war. To prevent British invasions, a garrison is sent to Mahé in 1777. It sets up camp near the current Victoria. Jean-Baptiste de Malavois takes leadership of the colony. Worried about the preservation of the environment, he puts an end to the tortoise hunt. Tortoises were then hunted for their scales and almost on the verge of extinction. He also starts regulating the exploitation of the forests.
Following the French revolution, Jean-Baptiste Quéau de Quinssy is designated as the governor of the colony. Repeated attacks from French corsairs on British fleets along the East Indies route contribute to the tension between the two empires. Surcouf seized almost 40 British vessels. In retaliation, 4 British warships were sent to conquer Mahé. Quéau de Quinssy only has a handful of men and 8 cannons to defend the island. He chose to surrender without a fight. This first surrender was followed by ten more, up to the 21st of April 1811; when the British took possession of the island. For 15 years, the island was either French or British: whenever a British ship was sighted, Quéau de Quinssy hoisted the Union Jack; as soon as it sailed away, the French flag was hoisted in its place. Under the governorship of de Quinssy, the Seychelles prospered. For that reason, the latter is often named as the father of the Seychelles.
The Bonaparte Exiles
On the 24th of December 1800, the future French Emperor was the target of an attack in Paris on Saint-Nicaise Street. His minister of the Interior, Fouché, comes up with a list of suspects. They are deported to the faraway Seychelles. 130 Jacobins were thus forcefully embarked on La Flèche and La Chiffonne. Six months later, 32 more exiled arrived in Mahé, followed by about 30 more on the 3rd of September. Most of them would start a new life in the Seychelles. In 1803, a census would enumerate 215 white people, 1820 African slaves and 86 freed men.
The old Ilse de france became a British colony and was named Mauritius. Its new governor, Robert Farquhar, soon sent a representative to the archipelago. Under pressure, the inhabitants of the Seychelles pledge allegiance to the British crown. In 1814, the Paris treaty made this situation official. Simultaneously, the fall in the price of cotton puts a dent in the local economy. The abolition of slavery which was voted in London in 1814, accentuates the Seychelles’ economic difficulties. Big landowners start cultivating coconut trees, which is less labour-intensive. They start producing coconut oil. Freed slaves, coming mainly from the British colonies of Africa, start arriving in the archipelago to be recruited in coconut plantations. The Seychelles prospers again, despite natural calamities like excessive rainfall and storms which caused a lot of damage. The Seychelles starts seeking its emancipation from Mauritian authorities. She will have to wait until 1903 to gain its status as an autonomous colony.
A British Colony
Sir Ernest Bickhame Sweet-Escott, the first British governor of the Seychelles decided to install a replica of the Big Ben tower in the centre of the capital of the Seychelles, Victoria. The First World War took a toll on the archipelago. By the end of the conflict, Mahé is equipped with electricity and the telephone. The 1929 financial crisis strikes the Seychelles just when it was beginning to recover. The economy of the Seychelles continues to stagnate during the Second World War. The archipelago becomes a backup supply base for the allies. Starting from 1944, London implements a series of reforms in education and public health. The people of the Seychelles are increasingly dissatisfied with the government and start talking about independence. Political parties are formed. In 1967, universal suffrage is introduced.
Independence of the Seychelles
On June 29th at midnight, the Seychelles gained their independence. The two political leaders of the old British colony share power. France Albert René is nominated as prime minister and James Mancham becomes President of the Republic although he fought against independence. In the night of the 4th to the 5th of June 1977, supporters of Albert René seize the airport and national radio station. Albert René’s coup is a success.
France Albert René implements a one-party socialist regime, just like Moscow, Beijing, or Havana. People are expropriated routinely and several land owners choose exile. During the height of the cold war, France Albert René would take advantage of the strategic location of the Seychelles to profit from both the United States of America and the USSR. The country is in debt and its economy is slowing down, even though the level of education and the health sector has improved. Being the sole candidate to the elections, France Albert René is re-elected every five years.
The end of Socialism in the Seychelles
After 1990 and the dissolution of the USSR, the President allows the formation of multiple political parties. James Mancham comes back from his exile in London. The liberalisation of the economy is started. France Albert René is elected president for a last time in 2001. Although his term was supposed to expire in 2006, he leaves his post to his vice-president, James Alix Michel, on the 13th of April 2004, saying that he was becoming old. In 2006, James Alix Michel was re-elected to the presidency.
Timeline of the history of the Seychelles
- 1502 :
- Vasco da Gama finds some islands on the route to the Indies. They are called Amirantes (Islands of the admiral) in his honour.
- The Portugese describe seven islands which they call As Sete Irmas (The Seven Sisters).
- 1650 – 1750:
- The islands are used as a base by the pirates of the Indian Ocean.
- 1742 :
- Lazare Picault, sent by the governor of Isle de France, Mahé de La Bourdonnais, visits the island which will be called Mahé. The next year he lands at Praslin, which he names Ile de Palmes (Palm Island).
- France takes possession of the islands, which they call the Seychelles in honour of the then-minister of Finance of Louis XV, Moreau de Séchelles.
- Ile de Palmes is renamed Praslin, in honour of the minister of the navy, Gabriel de Choiseul, duke of Praslin.
- A garrison of 15 men settles at l’Etablissement du Roi, which will be later called Victoria.
- The governor of the island, Quéau de Quinssy, surrenders to the British
- A British administrator arrives, but Quéau de Quinssy keeps his influence.
- The Seychelles become a British colony under the authority of Mauritius when the treaty of Paris is ratified.
- Slavery is abolished in the Seychelles.
- L’Etablissement du Roi is renamed Victoria.
- The first groups of freed slaves from Africa arrive in Seychelles.
- The archipelago becomes an autonomous British colony, independent of Mauritian influence.
- Allied ships use the Seychelles as a supply base.
- two political parties are created: France Albert René’s SPUP, which is in favour of independence, and James Mancham’s SDP which is against independence.
- The British Indian Ocean Territory, which comprises several islands of the Seychelles is created.
- The international airport is opened.
- The Seychelles gain their independence. A coalition government is formed, with James Mancham as president and France Albert René as prime minister.
- A coup deposes Mancham. France Albert René becomes the leader of a socialist government.
- A new constitution is established with a single-party policy under the SPPF (Seychelles People’s Progressive Front).
- 1982 and 1984:
- France Albert René is re-elected as president.
- James Mancham comes back from exile.
- A new constitution is established.
- The economy is liberalized and the Investment Promotion Act is promulgated.
- France Albert René is re-elected as president.
- James Alix Michel becomes president of the Seychelles.
- 30 July 2006:
- James Alix Michel is re-elected.
Famous people of the Seychelles
Bertand François Mahé de La Bourdonnais (1699 – 1753)
Hailing from the town of Saint-Malo, he is named governor of the Mascareignes (Isle de France and Bourbon) in 1734). In 1742 he sends Lazare Picault to explore the Indian Ocean. The latter explores the main island of the Seychelles and two years later names it Mahé in honour of his sponsor.
Pierre Poivre (1719-1786)
Intendant of Isle de France (the future Mauritius) he is also a botanist in his spare time. To break the Dutch stronghold on the spice trade, he introduces their cultivation in the French colonies of the Indian Ocean. Clove, nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper trees are planted as per his instructions in 1771 at the Jardin du Roi (King’s Garden) of Anse Royale, in Mahé.
Corneille Nicolas Morphey
Hailing from Saint-Servan, this captain officially took possession of the Seychelles archipelago in the name of the king Louis XV on board of the frigate Le Cerf. On November 1st of 1756, he put the coat of arms of France on a rock in the bay of Victoria. Today, the capital of the Seychelles can be found in the same area. Morphey, acting on the instructions of Magon de Villebague who was then the governor of Isle de France, named the archipelago Séchelles in honor of Moreau de Séchelles, minister of finance of the French Kingdom.
Jean-Baptiste Quéau de Quinssy (1748-1827)
Nominated as the civil agent and commander of the Seychelles in 1793, he remains at his post until 1810.He surrenders five times to the British. He then makes a habit of hoisting the Union Jack in place of the French flag each time a British ship is sighted. The French flag is then hoisted back once the ship is gone. He is surnamed the Talleyrand of the Indian Ocean due to this strategy. After 1814 and the treaty of Vienna, he changes his name to Quincy and becomes a Justice of the Peace in the archipelago.
Jean-François Hodoul (1766-1835)
Born in La Ciotat, this corsair who was a contemporary of Surcouf, lies today in the cemetery of Bel Air, in Mahé. According to legend, his treasure is buried on the heights of Silhouette. Another rumour says that the corsair could have hidden his riches in a tunnel dug near Baie Sainte-Anne because he retired in Mahé.
Nicolas Thomas Marion Dufresne
He was the captain who led the second expedition to the Seychelles on board of the frigates La Digue and Curieuse. It was sponsored by the minister of the navy, Gabriel de Choiseul, duke of Praslin. Marion dufresne took possession of Ile de Palmes, which he soon renamed Praslin in honour of his sponsor. He erected a plaque engraved with the coat of arms of France at Anse Possession. The British later removed it.
Olivier Le Vasseur, also known as La Buse
A famous corsair turned pirate, he scoured the Indian Ocean in the early 18th century. He is credited with one of the biggest exploits of the history of piracy, the capture of the Portuguese vessel Virgin of the Cape which had on board the Flaming Cross of Goa, a crucifix decorated with precious stones and since lost. La Buse was hung in 1730 in Bourbon (Reunion island). Legend says he hid his treasure in Mahé. Even today people are still searching for his treasure on the shores of Bel Ombre.
Marianne North (1830 – 1890)
A British artist inspired by botany and tropical landscapes who stayed in the Seychelles in 1883. In the Victorian era, she was also a pioneer of tourism. She was the first person to have painted the landscapes of the archipelago. A hall on the first floor of the Natural History Museum of Mahé is devoted to her paintings.
Guy Lionnet (born in 1922)
This Mauritian scholar studied the history of the Seychelles. He has also published a book on the French history of the Seychelles. Also a linguist, he published in 1983a Creole to French dictionary with more than 6000 Seychellois expressions.
He is one of the most popular singers of the Seychelles. His sega and moutia songs are even known abroad. He has given many concerts in Paris. The first video clip of the Seychelles was for one of his songs.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons