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Seychelles - HISTORY

Seychelles - HISTORY


Although known and visited by traders from the Persian Gulf area and East Africa in earlier times, the Seychelles Archipelago first appeared on European maps at the beginning of the sixteenth century after Portuguese explorers sighted the islands during voyages to India. Recorded landings did not occur until 1609, however, when members of the British East India Company spent several days on Mahé and other nearby islands. A French expedition from Mauritius reached the islands in 1742, and during a second expedition in 1756 the French made a formal claim to them. The name "Seychelles" honors the French minister of finance under King Louis XV. Settlement began in 1778 under a French military administration but barely survived its first decade. Although the settlers were supposed to plant crops only to provision the garrison and passing French ships, they also found it lucrative to exploit the islands' natural resources. Between 1784 and 1789, an estimated 13,000 giant tortoises were shipped from Mahé. The settlers also quickly devastated the hardwood forests--selling them to passing ships for repairs or to shipyards on Mauritius. In spite of reforms to control the rapid elimination of trees, exploitation of the forest continued for shipbuilding and house building and later for firing cinnamon kilns, ultimately destroying much of the original ecology.

Possession of the islands alternated between France and Britain several times during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. France ceded Seychelles--which at that time included the granitic group and three coral islands--to Britain in 1814 in the Treaty of Paris after rejecting a British offer to take French holdings in India in place of Seychelles. Because Britain's interest in the islands had centered mainly on halting their use as a base for French privateering, its main concern was to keep the islands from becoming burdens. Britain administered Seychelles as a dependency of Mauritius, from which they received little attention and few services.

The first European settlers were French who had been living on Mauritius, Reunion, or in French settlements in India. Many lived in conditions of poverty quite similar to those of their African slaves, who from early on greatly outnumbered the remainder of the population. After the abolition of slavery in the islands in 1834, many settlers left, taking their slaves with them. Later, large numbers of Africans liberated by the British navy from slaving ships on the East African coast were released on Seychelles. Small numbers of Chinese, Malaysians, and Indians moved to the islands, usually becoming small traders and shopkeepers. Intermarriage among all groups except the Indians was common, however, and left so few families of pure descent that by 1911 the practice of categorizing residents according to race was abandoned.

Before 1838 most Seychellois worked on white-owned estates as slaves, producing cotton, coconut oil, spices, coffee, and sugarcane, as well as sufficient food crops to support the population. After the abolition of slavery, they became agricultural wage laborers, sharecroppers, fishers, or artisans, settling as squatters where they liked. Labor-intensive field crops rapidly gave way to crops that required relatively little labor, including copra, cinnamon, and vanilla. Only those industries related to processing the cash crops or exploiting natural resources developed. As a result, the increasing population quickly came to depend on imports for most basic necessities, including food and manufactured goods.

<>Crown Colony Status, 1903
<>Steps Toward Independence, 1967-76
<>Coup by René Supporters, 1977


Seychelles - Crown Colony Status, 1903


Political development proceeded very slowly. From 1814 until 1903, when the islands became a crown colony, they were granted increasing administrative autonomy from Mauritius. In 1888 separate nominated administrative and executive councils were established for Mauritius and Seychelles. Thus, for the first time, some landed white Seychellois were allowed to serve in official advisory positions. In 1897 the administrator of Seychelles was given the powers of a colonial governor, although it was not until 1903 that the islands were separated from Mauritius. When Seychelles became a separate colony, the other islands of the archipelago, except for Coetivy and the Farquhar Islands, were added to the original group acquired by Britain in 1814. Coetivy was transferred from Mauritius in 1908 and the Farquhars in 1922 after World War I.

Widespread involvement of Seychellois in their own political affairs began in 1948 after World War II, when Britain granted suffrage to approximately 2,000 adult male property owners, who then elected four members to the Legislative Council that advised the governor. The winning candidates were drawn from a group known as the Seychelles Taxpayers' and Producers' Association (STPA), which represented the landed strata of society--known colloquially as the grands blancs (great whites). The STPA defended its members' interest in matters of crop marketing and other issues and was the principal political force in the nation until the early 1960s, when representatives of the small new urban professional and middle class began to win seats.

Two parties emerged to represent this new constituency: the DP, led by James Mancham, and the SPUP, led by France Albert René. Both men were London-educated lawyers who had returned to Seychelles determined to improve local conditions and to develop popularly based local politics.

Although community rivalries and the differing styles of the two leaders were important in attracting followers, the two parties also differed in substantive ways. The SPUP called itself socialist, favored worker-oriented policies, and pressed for complete independence from Britain and a nonaligned foreign policy. The pressure for independence was intensified after Britain in 1965 removed Île Desroches, the Aldabra Islands, and the Farquhar Islands from Seychelles and made them part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. The DP took a more laissez-faire capitalist approach and wanted to continue the association with Britain and to allow British and United States bases on the islands.


Seychelles - Steps Toward Independence, 1967-76


Continuous and mounting demands for an increased share in running the colony's affairs prompted Britain to enact a series of constitutions for Seychelles, each of which granted important new concessions. In 1967 Britain extended universal suffrage to the colony and established a governing council to run it, the majority of whose members for the first time were elected. That year almost 18,000 Seychellois voted, and the DP emerged in control of the council. In 1970 Britain set up a ministerial form of government and gave Seychellois the responsibility to administer all but external affairs, internal security, the civil service, and the government's broadcasting service and newspaper. The DP won ten seats, and the SPUP won five in the Legislative Assembly. Mancham became the islands' chief minister and René, the leader of the opposition.

The opening of an international airport on the east coast of Mahé in 1971 improved contact with the outside world. Before this most journeys to and from Seychelles had involved long voyages on bimonthly steamers running between East Africa and India and often required inconvenient transits in Mombasa and Bombay. Air service had been available only on a restricted basis at an airstrip used by the United States in building a satellite station on Mahé. The end of the islands' relative isolation triggered tourism and concomitant booms in foreign capital investment and the domestic construction industry. The construction of the international airport changed the economy from a traditional agricultural and fishing one within a few years into one where services accounted for the major portion of employment and gross domestic product (GDP). The two parties differed on the ways to manage the new tourist industry and to apportion its benefits. The SPUP favored controlling the growth of tourism and at the same time developing the entire economy, whereas the SDP wanted to stimulate the rapid growth of tourism and to establish the islands as an international financial center.

Independence from Britain was the dominant issue between the two parties in the early 1970s, however. The SPUP insisted on cutting the colony's ties with Britain, whereas Mancham argued for even closer association. But when it became plain that the independence issue was popular and Britain showed no interest in retaining close relations, the SDP also shifted to a proindependence policy. Moreover, the disfavor with which African and Asian nations viewed colonialism had put the SDP into disrepute in the region. The SDP won the election campaign in 1974 but the election provoked angry controversy. The SPUP charged that the results had been rigged; because of the way constituencies had been demarcated, the SDP won thirteen of the fifteen seats with only 52.4 percent of the vote, lending credibility to the charges. Thereafter, relations between the two parties, already personalized and bitter, worsened steadily.

Despite their differences, the two parties formed a coalition under Mancham to lead Seychelles to independence. Five members from each party were added to the Legislative Assembly in an attempt to equalize political representation. One year later, Britain granted the colony complete independence, and on June 29, 1976, the Republic of Seychelles became a sovereign nation, with Mancham as president and René as vice president. As a gesture of goodwill, Britain returned Île Desroches, the Aldabra Islands, and the Farquhar Islands. In addition, Britain made a series of grants to the new nation to smooth the transition to an independent economy. Both parties agreed to support the coalition government until elections were held in 1979.


Seychelles - Coup by René Supporters, 1977


On June 4-5, 1977, sixty supporters of the SPUP who had been training in Tanzania staged a coup and overthrew Mancham while he was in London. René, who denied knowing of the plan, was then sworn in as president and formed a new government.

A year later, the SPUP combined with several smaller parties and redesignated itself the Seychelles People's Progressive Front (SPPF), or simply the Front. A new constitution adopted in 1979 stipulated that the SPPF be the sole recognized party. The constitution provided for a strong executive headed by the president and a legislature of twenty-three elected and two appointed members.

In the first election, held in June 1979, René was the single candidate for president. He won with 98 percent of the vote. The results were viewed as a popular endorsement of the socialist policies pursued by the government in the two years following the coup. The SPPF proceeded with its program to set minimum wage levels, raise government salaries, improve housing and health facilities, broaden educational opportunities, increase social security coverage, and generate employment in agriculture and fisheries. The lives of most Seychellois were enhanced, and most citizens appeared to favor the government's policies.

The decision to turn the nation into a one-party state based on socialist ideology, as well as certain initiatives of the government, caused some bitterness, especially among the upper and middle classes. Censorship of the media and control over public expression were unpopular. A number of groups attempted to oust the René government between 1978 and 1987. The most notable was a group of mercenaries who tried to enter the country in 1981 disguised as tourists from South Africa. The mercenaries were exposed as they came through customs at the international airport but most of them, including their leader, Colonel Michael "Mad Mike" Hoare, escaped after commandeering an Air India passenger plane to South Africa. Although the South African government prosecuted and jailed some of the mercenaries for air hijacking, Hoare testified that South African military and intelligence officials were involved in the coup attempt. During this period, the Seychelles government received support from Tanzania, which deployed troops to the islands to strengthen the government's hand.

Mancham and other exiled opposition figures based principally in London formed several groups that sought to turn international opinion against the René government, stigmatizing it as antidemocratic, procommunist, and pro-Soviet. As part of its efforts to stifle opposition, the government embarked on a campaign in 1987 to acquire parcels of land owned by dissident Seychellois living abroad. The takeovers were not subject to legal challenge, but the amount of compensation--in the form of bonds payable over twenty years--could be appealed in court. The government's authoritarianism finally brought it under growing pressure from its chief patrons--Britain and France. Finally, in 1991 René and the SPPF consented to liberalize the political system, inviting opposition leaders to return to Seychelles and help rewrite the constitution to permit multiparty politics.


CITATION: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

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