Just because human beings grow up in a particular town, state, or country does not mean they are fully versed in the history of the place they call home. Many people familiar with the island nation of Seychelles may believe that its name was butchered in the title of this piece; yet spelling the nation’s name Sechelles instead of Seychelles is perhaps more appropriate to some as it was the first spelling used when the nation was written into recorded history.
The chain of 115 islands that comprise the Seychelles has a history that dates back as far as 200-300 AD. It is believed the first peoples to see the Seychelles were Malays seafarers from Borneo who eventually settled on Madagascar. Arab traders recorded the existence of the islands in 851 AD, but never made attempts to settle the islands. It was not until the mid-18th century that French explorers detached from the Isle de France (now known as Mauritius) began to colonize the islands that would become known as the Seychelles.
Numerous ethnic groups had come across the islands prior to the mid-18th century when the French began efforts to colonize the chain of islands. In addition to Malays travelers and Arab traders, Vasco de Gama is believed to have encountered the islands in 1502, English traders with the English East India Company came ashore to escape harsh seas in 1609, and pirates fleeing the Caribbean even used the region as a new base in the late-17th century.
Beginning in 1715, the French colonized modern day Mauritius a s a possession of the crown and administered by the French East India Company. With the appointment of Bertrand-François Mahé de La Bourdonnais as administrator in 1735, the discovery of the Seychelles was about to begin. Mahé de La Bourdonnais was a sailor by trade and understood the need for the French to have security in the region.
In 1742 he sent an expedition to chart all islands northeast of Madagascar and appointed Lazare Picault as commander. Picault landed on the modern day island of Mahé, named for La Bourdonnais, on 21 November 1742. However, it was not until 1754 and the outbreak of the Seven Years War between England and France that the Seychelles would see colonization.
Upon outbreak of the war, French expeditions were sent to the islands to lay claim to the chain and establish a French base of operations. Under the command of Corneille Nicholas Morphey, the largest island was named Isle de Sechelles after the French Minister of Finance, Viscount Jean Moreau de Sechelles.
Morphey claimed the chain of islands for France on 1 November 1756 and the name of the island chain was later changed to Sechelles, while the largest island was renamed Mahé in honor of the energetic administrator that had initiated French efforts 14 years earlier.
The result of the Seven Years War saw France lose possession of Canada and its status in India plummet, hastening the demise of the French East India Company. As a result, the French crown took over direct control and management of Mauritius and the Sechelles. With Pierre Poivre now serving as administrator in Mauritius, colonization began in earnest on Sechelles in 1770.
Poivre believed the islands had a future as a home for spice gardens, providing a source of income for France and breaking the Dutch monopoly over the spice trade in the process. On 12 August 1770, 15 white colonists arrived on the island of St. Anne, just out from the harbor of modern day Victoria on the island of Mahé, with seven slaves, five Indians, and one free black woman.
These colonists were there to begin French attempts at establishing spice gardens on the island. Previously under French rule, the natural resources of the Sechelles had merely been harvested by the French and taken away to foreign markets. The arrival of this group on St. Anne marked the first true European settlement.
During the next 44 years of French rule, the original settlement at St. Anne would be abandoned in favor of the new Royal Settlement established at the site of modern day Victoria (the modern site of the national capital), and the tumultuous years of the French Revolution and British encroachment in the region left the Sechelles in limbo.
End of French Rule
As the British Royal Navy began to assert the nation’s strength in the Indian Ocean, and the French Revolution all but destroyed the crown, the Sechelles became an afterthought. In the wake of the French Revolution, the colonists took independent control over the island and no longer recognized commands from Mauritius.
British and French warships routinely clashed off the coast of the Sechelles throughout the final decade of the 18th century and the first decade of the 19th century. Jean-Baptiste Queau de Quincy, who took control of the colony in 1794, deftly guided the Sechelles through the tumultuous years of British and French clashes in the region.
After originally serving as a supply base for French ships, after British successes the island was forced into a position of neutrality; a position that Quincy negotiated for the islands that prevented its destruction at the hands of the British.
Early on the British saw the Sechelles as a waste of resources and not worth colonizing, but upon the signing of Treaty of Paris in 1814 at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars the islands passed into the possession of the British. It was not until this time that the islands name was Anglicized to its modern day spelling of Seychelles.
Although the period of French rule over and colonization of the Seychelles was comparatively brief, it left a lasting imprint on the culture of the Seychelles. As the French were the first Europeans to settle, they brought with them their own set of customs. Slavery was a major institution on the island for years because it was not illegal under French rule.
Even though it was eventually outlawed by the British, who allowed slavery but had regulations against slave trading upon their possession of the islands, that caste system developed under French rule persisted for decades with white settlers having more than the descendants of African slaves.
The very culture of the Seychelles itself, the creole culture that makes the nation what it is today, is a result of French rule. The mixing of African and Indian backgrounds created the uniquely Seychellois creole culture that so many locals and tourists enjoy every year on this Indian Ocean outpost of the Seychelles.