Seychelles State House Celebrates 100 Birthday

The world is full of iconic landmarks that are known to citizens in every country around the world. It may come as a surprise that some of the most famous pieces of architecture in the world actually serve as residences. Many people are familiar with 10 Downing Street or the Kremlin, the place of residence for the British Prime Minister and Russian President respectively. The most iconic home may be the White House which serves as the office and home of the President of the United States of America.

This year, the tiny island nation of Seychelles celebrates the 100th birthday of the State House. The State House, located in the capital city of Victoria on the island of Mahé, serves as the official  office for the President of the Republic of Seychelles. The building was designed in 1910 and construction began the same year.

Initially known as the “Government House,” the State House was designed to reflect the colonial influence of the controlling British Empire.

The two-story building features a colonial aesthetic and includes a portico with ornamental white pillars. The building retained the name “Government House” throughout British colonial control, and later took on the name State House after the nation gained independence on 29 June 1976. The second Governor of the Seychelles, Sir Walter Davidson, is credited with the push to build the State House and even worked on the design of the building himself.

Davidson put the wheels in motion for the State House on 5 May 1910 when he wrote to Lewis Vernon Harcourt, Secretary of the State Colonies, to inform him of his decision to proceed with construction. During the previous year, Davidson had informed the Secretary of his wishes to build what would become the State House, and had been given a budget of Rs. (rupees) 60,000 to complete the project.

In his communication with Secretary Harcourt, Davidson provided plans and drawings for the building along with a description of the edifice from the Superintendent of Public Works, William Marshall Vaudin. Davidson’s own words to describe the building in his communication were extremely optimistic. He told the Secretary that the building would contain “Granite for the walls, coral for the pillars, and excellent wood for the floors, doors and roof timbers are obtainable locally.”

During the course of construction, a number of design changes were undertaken as work proceeded and changes became necessary. Among the changes made as the project progressed were several small alterations that improved the look and feel of the State House. The pillars of the upper verandah were constructed of reinforced concrete instead of timber. The floors of the lower verandah were tiled instead of being left as simple poured concrete. The main reception halls were panelled with locally obtained wood and parquet floors were installed in the central hall. The changes were all made with improvement in mind as the project progressed. Davidson was determined to design and complete a building that possessed an air of dignity that matched the post of Governor of the Seychelles.

Construction on the State House continued through 1911 and 1912, but despite the relatively mild weather during 1911 it soon became clear that the building would not be completed before Davidson’s time as governor came to an end.

Although the State House was not entirely complete at the time, Davidson and his wife Margaret Agnes moved into the State House in October 1912. Just two short months later, on 7 December 1912, the State House played host to its first official gathering as a farewell reception was held for Davidson in the hall of the incomplete State House.

In the end, the State House cost the Seychelles Rs. 76,411 to construct. An additional sum of Rs. 7,103.40 was spent to furnish the new State House, and smaller sums around Rs. 223 were spent to add minor touches to the building such as raffia blinds on the verandahs. The total cost to build the State House exceeded the four year salary of Governor Davidson. His successor, Charles Richard Mackey O’Brien, received an annual salary of Rs. 18,000 when he came to Seychelles in late 1912.

Although the construction of the State House came in over initial budget limits, the costs were still less than the initial estimates from 1910. The island’s only engineering group, Messrs Pare, New Sam, E Pare, had previously submitted an estimate of Rs. 80,000 for the construction of the State House.

Over the decades the State House has undergone various transformations, both physically and in terms of its purpose.

The State House is more than just a building. The property encompasses a garden and cemetery as well that make up the entire aura of the State House. The cemetery in the grounds of the State House holds the remains of several notable Seychellois people who have played a vital role in the history of the nation. The State House also includes an expansive garden filled with native plants, flowers and rolling green lawns.

In 1975 the first major renovation programme was undertaken at the State House, much of it done in anticipation of the colony’s upcoming independence. Many of the hardwood timbers that made up the ceilings inside the State House were replaced and other structural repairs were made to strengthen the building.

The total cost of the renovations came to roughly Rs. 300,000, nearly four times the cost of the building’s construction 62 years earlier. In fact, by this time the Governor of the Seychelles, Colin Hamilton Allan, was earning an annual salary of Rs. 78,667. That sum was greater than the total cost of the construction of the State House in 1913.

In 2006, the State House underwent further remodelling to modernise the facility to meet 21st century needs. The outer design of the structure was kept intact to preserve the heritage of the site and pay respect to its original look and feel.

Today the State House is listed as a national monument in the Seychelles, forever preserving its status in the hearts and minds of the nation’s citizens.

Ernest Bickham Sweet-Escott, later Sir Ernest Bickham Sweet-Escott, was the first Governor of the Seychelles. Initially installed as the Administrator of the Seychelles in June 1899, Sweet-Escott was later named Governor of the Seychelles in 1903 when the post was created. Governor Sweet-Escott is well known for his drive to increase the momentum of development on the island, to the benefit of its roughly 20,000 inhabitants.

Construction of the State House is credited to his successor, the aforementioned Sir Walter Davidson.
Davidson would oversee various aspects of the construction of the State House while serving as the second Governor of the Seychelles.

The Seychelles was declared a separate colony of the British Empire, after previously being included with Mauritius as one colony, in November 1903. In mid-1904 Davidson was appointed as the second Governor of the Seychelles.

Davidson played a pivotal role in the growth of the Seychelles as a separate colony. The Governor is well-known for his push to continue the development of the island nation started by his predecessor. The design and construction of the State House might be Davidson’s most visible achievement, but it was not necessarily his greatest. Davidson’s focus on improving social infrastructures and enacting economic reforms led the island nation on a track to economic health.

In fact, as he left the post of Governor of the Seychelles in late 1912 he left behind a vibrant economy. Exports for the nation in 1913 hit a record high of Rs. 2,484,202. The nation’s diverse economy at the time included newer offerings such as whale oils, cinnamon bark, essential oils, and coconuts on top of already strong agricultural offerings. He not only had a hand in the design of what would later be named the State House, but was also the first governor to reside in the building during the final months of his term as governor. Davidson served as the Governor of the Seychelles until late 1912 when he was appointed the new Governor of the Dominion of Newfoundland.

The State House would go on to serve as the official residence and office of the Governor of the Seychelles until the nation was granted independence in 1976. Colin Hamilton Allan was the final Governor of the Seychelles as the nation transitioned from colonial control, to autonomy, to self-rule. In total, 16 governors called the State House home during their tenure in control of the British colony. After independence was granted to Seychelles, the role of the State House would change as it became home to the President of the Seychelles.

After the Seychelles was granted independence from the British crown, the nation’s first president would call the State House home. That man was James Mancham and he formed the Democratic Party in the Seychelles; a political force which was countered by the Seychelles People’s United Party led by France-Albert René. Knowing that it would take a combined effort to gain independence and assert sovereign control over the nation upon the departure of the British, Mancham and René formed a coalition government in June 1975 to help solidify support ahead of independence. Mancham assumed the office of President of Seychelles after independence in June 1976, while René was named Prime Minister.

Mancham would serve as president for just under a year. While in London in June 1977 attending a Commonwealth Heads of Government conference, Mancham was deposed as president in a coup d’état led by his Prime Minister, France-Albert René.

René took over as President of Seychelles in 1977, thanks to his coup d’état, and ruled as a socialist president until 16 April 2004. René controlled a one party system in the Seychelles until 1993, winning four presidential elections in a row as a result. After opening the political system up to multiple parties in 1993, René went on to win re-election in 1998 and 2001 despite opposition in the election.

Under the socialist political structure of René’s government, the Seychelles grew to become one of the most developed nations in Africa. The island nation also boasted one of the highest gross domestic products per capita among African nations. While René was president the nation avoided much of the political turmoil that rocked other nations in the region. His government’s extensive funding of education, healthcare, and the environment led to better infant mortality rates, higher literacy rates, and better economic well-being for citizens.

René’s time in office marked a turning point for the State House. René did not reside in the State House building, but continued to use it for a time as his presidential office. Over time the State House would provide many roles to René as president. In addition to being René’s office, the State House also served as an official location to host state-sponsored functions and to greet visiting dignitaries.

President René stepped down on 14 April 2004, handing control of Seychelles over to Vice-President James Michel. Michel served out the remainder of René’s term and won re-election for himself in the July 2006 presidential voting with 53.7% of the popular vote. President Michel went on to win re-election in May 2011.

President Michel has a deep and long political pedigree in the Seychelles. He held numerous government positions under his predecessor President René, and was a member of Parti Le Pep, his political party, from its early formation in the mid-1970s. President Michel’s biggest impact prior to becoming Head of the State was the economic development of Seychelles. He was placed in charge of overseeing the national economy under President René, leading to a boom in the tourism and fishing industries over the course of three decades.

Over the years the State House has played host to a variety of different functions. Early governors, along with their wives, hosted “at-homes” at the State House. Traditional activities during “at-homes” included banquets, tea, socialising, and lawn tennis matches. The nation’s first ever dog show was held in the grounds of the State House on 12 March 1961, and featured 49 entrants and 400 guests. Perhaps the most famous visitors to the State House were Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Phillip, who in March 1972 conversed with Governor Sir Bruce Greatbatch and then-Chief Minister Mancham in the elegant drawing room where portraits of her parents adorned the walls.

It was within the historic State House on 24 May 2011 that the freely-elected James Michel was sworn in for a second term as President of Seychelles. Hundreds of guests were invited to the swearing-in, along with dozens of visiting dignitaries. It was on that day, with national flags flying from the State House pillars, that the pride of the Seychelles’ colonial era was brought together with the modern nation.

2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the State House in Victoria, and while President Michel does not reside in the State House the building still plays a vital role in the culture and politics of the Seychelles.

President Michel continues to use the State House as the home of his government offices. The Secretary of State for Cabinet Affairs, Secretary of State for the President’s Office, and the Vice President’s office are all housed in the State House. On 14 August 2012 the State House hosted the swearing in of January Msoffe as Justice of the Court of Appeal, an event attended by President Michel.

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