Although short, Seychelles’ history is as colourful as its beauty. For many centuries the archipelago remained a well-kept secret. Even if Arab manuscripts from the 12th century talk of ‘high islands’ beyond the Maldives, it wasn’t before 1544 that the Seychelles first appeared on Portuguese maps under the name of ‘The Seven Sisters’ and ‘The Brothers’. It is possible that the islands were frequented by even earlier explorers who came to its shores in search of food and water.
However, one thing is for sure: once the mysterious coco de mer was discovered, Arab merchants kept its location a secret for so rare and mystical was the giant nut that it was worth the price of gold. Other frequent visitors included fearsome pirates who, chased out of the Caribbean by the British Navy, sailed to the Indian Ocean to terrorise the valuable Spice Route. Traces of their passage have been left on many of Seychelles’ islands…
It was Frenchman Captain Morphey who, after a series of expeditions in the 18th Century, first took possession of Mahé and several nearby islands on behalf of the King of France. To mark the occasion, the monumental ‘Possession Stone’ was erected on the first of November 1756 and the islands were named Seychelles, in honour of Vicompte Moreau de Sechelle who was controller-general of France at the time. 14 years later, the French established a settlement on St. Anne Island made up of “fifteen whites, five Malabar Indians and eight Africans”. Towards the end of 1771, another party was sent to the bigger island of Mahe to set up the “Jardin du Roy” – a spice plantation on the southeastern coast of the island. This was done with the aim of allowing the French to compete with the Dutch in the valuable spice trade.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the islands passed from French to English rule then back again several times over, before the British finally took over as colonial masters in 1811. Besides being strategic points in the route between India and the Cape, the Seychelles were being used by French corsairs, who were making their own profits by plundering British East India Company ships.
However, for several years life under the British was no different from during the wars. The French administrator, Quéau de Quinssy was even allowed to stay even after the hand over. With this liberal attitude, it is not surprising that the colony maintained much of its French character. This was reinforced by the arrival of the Catholic Church in 1851. A British woman writing in 1893 sums up the state of affairs: ‘the islands are but English in name – indeed they are as much French as they were a hundred years ago. The language, manner and customs are emphatically French; French is spoken in the law courts, where French law is also preeminent, and in the Government-aided schools English is taught only as a subject.’
During the 19th century, many ships arrived with hundreds of liberated Africans, rescued from Arab slave traders operating out of Zanzibar. Seychelles was a favoured place of emancipation and the new arrivals were quickly hired as labourers on the many coconut plantations. In 1903, the islands acquired the status of a separate British crown colony. A clock tower, a replica of London’s Vauxhall Bridge Tower in Victoria, was erected in the centre of the capital to commemorate the event.
Seychelles gained its independence from Britain in 1976 and since then has been an independent Republic within the British Commonwealth. Today, the islands’ thriving population is made up of a colourful blend of 80 000 people of which 90% live on the main Island of Mahé with the rest scattered on Praslin, La Digue and some other smaller Islands.