Being familiar with the history of the place you're visiting makes your journey even more exciting and meaningful. So, get ready and let me take you through the centuries of Seychelles' fascinating history which involves explorers, pirates, colonisation, war, rivalry and what not! So here we go:
The history of Seychelles before the 16th century is unrecorded, though we know that settlers from Borneo called Malays who eventually populated Madagascar may have known these islands in the third and the fourth centuries BCE. Arabs too are believed to have visited the islands and are likely to have traded the abundant fruit of Seychelles - coco de mer long before the first English vessels arrived on the coast.
Portuguese explorers started spotting the islands of Seychelles in the early years of the 16th century. It was Vasco da Gama who first made a definite identification of Seychelles in 1502. The coral reefs he discovered were named Amirantes (Admiral Islands), after his title 'Admiral' in 1517, while the surrounding granite islands came to be known as 'The seven sisters'. However, the islands remained mostly uninhabited until the 17th century.
British Discovery and the advent of Pirates
In 1609, a lost trading fleet of British East India Company landed on North Island and discovered the uninhabited island which was flourished with "wood, water, cooker nuts, fish and Fowle," as noted by a British merchant. However, the British made no efforts to settle the islands, and over the next century and a half, the islands became a refuge for pirates who attacked the travelling rich merchant vessels and seized shiploads of goods, precious stones, silver and gold. Seychelles was ideal for anchoring and hiding treasure. Sagas of pirates and the wealth they buried in these Islands have travelled from generation to generation.
French Colonization and Settlement
France took control of Mauritius and renamed it Isle de France in 1715. Ambitious to strengthen its trade routes and consolidate power, the colonial administrator of France sent Lazare Picault to map the islands northeast of Madagascar. Picault then discovered Mahé, the largest of the granite islands in 1742. A couple more voyages followed this expedition to Seychelles and eventually in 1756, France officially declared the Seychelles Islands their colonies. By 1770, French settlers, with their African slaves, began arriving on the island of Mahé. They gradually developed agriculture and started growing cotton, sugarcane etc.; and hunted the giant tortoises which are a speciality of Seychelles today.
Of course, these Islands weren't going to stay untouched by the France-Britain conflict which had long been going on since the Seven Years' War broke out in 1754. Now the British wanted control over the islands, but Governor Queau de Quinssy, through his Pacific strategies, consistently succeeded in deceiving them by surrendering and then raising the French Flags as soon as the British departed!
The Napoleonic Wars, however, ended with France's loss and under the Treaty of Paris (1814), old Isle de France, now renamed Mauritius fell in Britain's hands, and so did Seychelles. From then until 1903, Seychelles was administered from Mauritius.
British Rule in Seychelles
Britain abolished the slave trade at the beginning of the 19th century and later, slavery itself in 1835. They had a policy of attacking the Spanish, Arab and other slave vessels, and the rescued African slaves were sent to the plantations to work as labourers. To cope with the new slave-less economy, planters started growing less labour-intensive crops like - coconut.
Even though Seychelles became an official British crown colony in 1903 and got separated from Mauritius, the French influence on the language and culture of Seychelles people did not perish. The social structure of Seychelles was dominated by a small group of French-speaking plantation owners while the major chunk of the population consisted of landless descendants of slaves who conversed in their local tongue - Creole.
Sir Ernest Bickhame Sweet-Escott, the first British governor of Seychelles, installed a replica of the Big Ben tower in the centre of the capital of Seychelles, Victoria.
World War 1 had disastrous consequences on Seychelles. Poverty continued to grow and the economy was in shambles. Soon workers formed Unions to fight for better conditions. Towards the beginning of World War 2, the residents of Seychelles began demanding Home rule. The archipelago became a backup supply base during the world war. Dissatisfaction among people continued to grow and it was in the wake of such circumstances that the first political party was formed in 1939. However, this party only represented the large landowners who constituted a minority and could now vote.
Coming of Political Parties and Democracy
The left inclined Seychelles People's United Party (SPUP), led by France Albert Rene was formed in 1964 and the Seychelles Democratic Party (SDP), led by James Manchan, which represented the landowners was also formed the same year. Universal suffrage was introduced in 1967 and the elections of 1970 resulted in the introduction of a new constitution. In 1976, the leaders of the two parties put aside their differences and declared Seychelles independent from the UK, moving away from the Islands? history of betrayal and military takeover. Mancham became the first President of Seychelles, with Rene as his Prime Minister. Ironically enough, Mancham's presidency was short-lived as Rene launched a military takeover soon and ended up becoming the President of Seychelles for the next 16 years!
How did Seychelles become a Popular Tourist Destination?
Today tourism contributes more than 50% to Seychelles GDP (Total contribution). It all started with the completion of the airport of Mahé which was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1972. It kick-started the tourism process, though it took some time to gain pace. Introduction of casinos, water-sport activities, and vigorous advertising campaigns gained travellers' attention from all over the world. Gradually people became aware of the Islands' tranquil atmosphere, pristine beaches, lush greenery and everything else, and then it wasn't long before Seychelles became one of the most popular travel destinations in the world.
Legends of Coco de Mer
Shaped like female-pelvis, the nut of Coco de Mer, a large fruit which is native to Seychelles, has aroused interest among men since ancient times. The fascinating fruit, washed up on shores far away, was viewed as an object with mythological and magical properties, and consequently became a part of popular legends and lore.
Malay seamen are said to have seen the seeds "falling upwards" from the depths of the ocean, fueling the belief that the seeds were borne from the underwater palm trees. They also believed that the trees were home to a huge bird-like creature called Garuda.
The discovery of the real Coco de Mer trees in 1743 gave rise to new legends. The local folklore tells the story of the seed of Coco de Mer, which is borne by the female plant and the phallic-shaped catkin which grows on male trees, who make passionate love on stormy nights, and anyone who witnesses their mating dies or go blind. Rings a bell, right?!
Seychelles is immensely rich with a fascinating history and charming beauty. Now that you've delved into its centuries-long history, travelling these beautiful islands will be way more exciting and fun. So gear up, as Roosevelt has rightly said - "The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for future."