We travel to various places for our vacations but unless it's a historical place, do we ever ponder upon the fascinating history that might exist behind the place? Well, not in most cases. The same happens with the islands of Seychelles, a group of granitic and coral islands in the Indian Ocean, and a part of the African continent.
This blog post will take you on a journey through the history of the largest island of the archipelago - Mahe. When we think of Mahe in Seychelles, usually what comes to our mind are the picture-perfect beaches, the tropical forests, the hustle and bustle of the capital city - Victoria and the varieties of endemic underwater and terrestrial creatures. However, there's a lot more to the island. Read on to find out!
Etymology of Mahe
The island of Mahe got its name from a French governor of Mauritius (which was Isle de France back then, throughout the 18th to early 19th century) - Bertrand-Francois Mahe de La Bourdonnais. Ten years after his replacement, in 1756, Corneille Nicholas Morphey, a French naval commander, rechristened the island after the French finance minister under King Louis XV - Jean Moreau de Sechelles. So, now Mahe came to be known as Isle de Sechelles; but later again, Mahe got its original name back, and the entire archipelago of 115 islands was given the name - Isle de Sechelles which evolved to Seychelles with the advent of the British on the island.
Discovery of Mahe
Despite being the largest island of the group, Mahe was not the first one to be spotted by explorers. Mahe was only discovered in the year 1742 and by then, the Farquhar islands, Amirantes and North island had already been discovered. A French explorer named Lazare Picault was the first to discover Mahe, being sent on a mission by La Bourdonnais to explore and map all the islands on the Indian Ocean, north-east of Madagascar. He reached the western coast of Mahe at Anse Boileau on 21 November 1742 and being impressed by the availability of food, water, fish, turtle meat and trees for timber on the island, initially named it Ile d'Abondance meaning the Island of Abundance. In 1744, he was sent back to this newly discovered land and it was then when he christened it as Mahe. So, now you can guess why Baie Lazare is so called.
French Rule on Mahe
In 1772, Pierre Poivre, a French intendant of the erstwhile Isle de France and Ile Bourbon (Reunion island), was the first to introduce the cultivation of spices such as cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg and clove at Anse Royale in Mahe. This, later on, evolved into the famous Le Jardin Du Roi Spice Garden. The French authorities of Mahe and the adjoining islands realised that the coast on the north-eastern side of the island was perfect for foreign ships to anchor and also for domestic residents to come and buy and sell the respective products produced by them. Thus, trade flourished in Mahe and an administrative settlement named 'Etablissement du Roi' meaning Royal Establishment, was set up at the site of present-day Victoria.
British Rule on Mahe
Meanwhile, the British had already started to come to Mahe and conflicts between them (the roots of which can be traced back to the Seven Years War) continued for at least another thirty years until finally in 1811, the islands came under the authority of the British. During these years, a Frenchman named Jean Baptiste Queau de Quincy governed the islands. Edward Madge became the first British civilian administrator of Seychelles, but he governed according to French rules.
1835 is a memorable year when the inhuman practice of slavery was finally abolished by the British and a large number of wealthy masters emigrated from the island along with their slaves. However, after a short while, Mahe became the home of a vast number (around 2500) of newly liberated slaves. These former slaves were actually being transported to various distant places by Arab and other slave traders, and the British authorities attacked the ships passing by Mahe and freed the slaves. These people started working for plantation owners who had by now realised the importance of coconut cultivation. Apart from farming, some other occupations also developed like jewellery-making, liquor-making, law, drug-production, etc. Victoria was so called from 1841.
12 October 1862 is a tragic day in the history of Victoria due to the occurrence of a landslide that killed around seventy people. Over the years, despite being ruled by the British, Mahe and the other islands of the archipelago was not directly a British Crown colony. It became so only in 1903. The Clock Tower that you can now find in the heart of Victoria, was installed in the same year in memory of Queen Victoria who passed away in 1901. The Botanical Gardens which now attracts many tourists due to the presence of various indigenous species of flora and fauna including the world-famous Coco de Mer was also established in 1901. If you go to Mahe, however, you can hardly miss the inherent French culture. This is because the British made no efforts to wipe away the French influence and so it became dominant over the English culture.
Formation of Political Parties and Independence
Everything was going on good until the onset of the First World War which created a stagflationary situation on the island. Imports and exports along with domestic production and employment fell, but at the same time, there was steep inflation. The British rulers hardly did anything to improve the situation. By this time the population on the island consisted mainly of wealthy plantation owners and poor landless workers. Agitated by the step-motherly treatment of the British, they started to make demands for representation in the government and also for better working conditions and wage floors. 1939 was the year when the first political party - the Taxpayers Association, constituting the richer section of the population was formed and they were also given the right to vote. These people also became members of the Legislative Council post the elections in 1948.
As everywhere, the voice of the poorer masses of the population remained unheard of and so they formed the Seychelles People's United Party or SPUP under the leadership of France-Albert Rene. Another political party - Seychelles Democratic Party or SDP led by James Mancham was also formed that year. While the formerly wanted independence from British rule, the latter wanted to strengthen their relationship with the British primarily for protecting the interests of the wealthy planters. Conflicts continued between them until finally in 1974, they joined hands and demanded complete independence. On 29th June 1976, independent Seychelles flags waved at various parts of Mahe and other islands with James Mancham becoming the President and Albert Rene Prime Minister. He was soon overthrown and Rene became the President and one-party system prevailed on the islands with multi-party democratic system introduced in 1991.
Apart from the spice garden, botanical gardens and the clock tower, Mahe is dotted with numerous other landmarks of historical significance. These include the Mission Lodge (initially known as Venn's Town), at the site of which stood a school where children of liberated slaves studied. Near the clock tower itself lies the Old Courthouse, also known as Victoria House and built in 1890, it displays traditional Creole architecture. Later on, it acted as the Supreme Court of Seychelles. One can see Pierre Poivre's statue in the building premises. Another important colonial building is the State House, which served as the residence of British governors and after independence, became the President's home and workspace. Quincy's grave lies outside the building.
Two churches in Victoria - St. Paul's Cathedral and Cathedral of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, one Anglican and the other Catholic, dates back to the nineteenth century. Kenwyn House, built in 1850, is a perfect example of French colonial architecture. Initially it was the home of chief medical officer of the islands - Dr Henry Brooks, but now it houses an art gallery and a jewellery shop. The Bicentennial Monument, also in Victoria, is a relatively newer structure built only in 1978. It symbolizes the coexistence of Europeans, Asians and Africans on the Seychelles islands and also birds, who had lived on the islands for centuries, even before the arrival of humans. Towards the southern side of Mahe, the area of Anse Forbans and Anse Marie-Louise is known as Pirate's Bay as it is believed that pirates came here even earlier than the French.
You will most likely go to Sir Selwyn Clarke Market on you trip to buy souvenirs, and that is yet another historical landmark built in 1840. If you go to the Bel Air Cemetery which is the oldest cemetery of Mahe, you will find tombs of many important persons who had lived on the island hundreds of years ago. If all these details of Seychellois history excites you, you can go to the the Gran Kaz museum (not the casino) inside Domaine de Val des Pres in Au Cap district of Mahe, the Seychelles National Archives inside the National Library building and the National Museum of History in Victoria to know more about the life on the islands during colonial rule. The last one even contains the original 'Stone of Possession' erected by Morphey in 1756 and the oldest map drawn probably by Vasco da Gama in 1517. People interested to know more about the SPUP party can pay a visit to the People's United Party Museum.
Advent of Tourism
The tourism industry of Seychelles dates back to 1935 when the earliest hotels such as Raffles Hotel, Hotel des Palmes and Grand Anse Hotel were built on Mahe. However, as we all know, travelling by ships was time-consuming so only a few tourists visited the island at that time. It was only after the inauguration of the Seychelles International Airport at Mahe in 1972, that tourists started to flock the islands to witness its pristine natural beauty. And soon, just after a few years, the tourism industry witnessed a boom with the number of tourists even exceeding the local population.
The government took certain initiatives like setting up of the Seychelles Tourist Board, along with initiatives taken by private investors such as developing casinos, advertising campaigns, competitive pricing to attract more tourists. Air Seychelles introduced international flights in 1983 and since then there was no looking back. In 2011, the number of visitors to the islands doubled its total population! And now, it has become the favourite holiday destination for many of us.
Now you know why so many historical buildings adorn the island of Mahe. The French and the British colonial rulers had for 200 years made it their administrative place. So, what remains for you is to go and explore these places yourself!