Seychelles: Settlement and the development of the plantation economy (1770-1944)

Updated March 2011

The Seychelles was referred to in Arab manuscripts from 810CE and 916CE, but the islands were not settled since they were bypassed by the monsoon trading routes (Singer & Langdon 2008, 36; Franda 1982, 6). Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sighted the Amirantes coral group in 1502, shortly after rounding the Cape of Good Hope (Scarr 1999, 3; Franda 1982, 7). The Portuguese mapped the main group of granite islands as the Seven Sisters and the Amirantes coral islands in 1517 (Scarr 1999, 2, 3; Gardiner 1907, 150). It was not until the 1740s that the islands were systematically explored and charted. The governor of Mauritius and Réunion Mahé La Bourdonnais sent Lazare Picault to scout the islands in 1742 and in 1744 in search of an alternative sea route to India that could be used should war with Britain breakout (Franda 1982, 9). In 1756 the islands were annexed by the French Crown and they were named after the Finance Controller Vicomte Séchelles (Singer & Langdon 2008, 36; Franda 1982, 9, 10).

No attempts were made to settle the islands until 1770 when 15 Frenchmen, seven slaves, five south Indians and an African woman from Réunion were sent there to attempt to grow spices over which the Dutch had established a trade monopoly (Singer & Langdon 2008, 36; Franda 1982, 10). These settlers were augmented by refugees from France's Indian possessions that had fallen to the British (Singer & Langdon 2008, 36; Scarr 1999, 7). The spice growing experiment was unsuccessful and the islanders on Mahé focused rather on the supply of passing slave ships with the meat and shells of tortoises and turtles and later timber (Scarr 1999, 9; Campling et al 2009, 17). In 1786 Jean-Baptiste-Philogène de Malavois arrived to govern the small colony that consisted of eight White and four Free Black families and their slaves (Scarr 1999, 11). Malavois attempted to regulate land tenure and set aside much of the land for allocation to future married male settlers, he encouraged the development of agriculture rather than the plunder of natural resources and encouraged immigration from Réunion and Mauritius (Scarr 1999, 11; Franda 1982, 10, 11). Crops grown by the settlers included maize, rice and manioc as well as mangos and breadfruit (Scarr 1999, 12, 13).

When news of the eruption of the French Revolution in 1789 reached Mahé in 1790 the heads of the twelve White families constituted themselves as the Assembly of the Seychelles, which welcomed the revolution, repudiated the colony's subordination to Mauritius and placed it directly under the authority of the French National Assembly (Scarr 1999, 14). By 1791 the colony consisted of 65 Whites, twenty Free Blacks and 487 slaves (Scarr 1999, 16). In the 1790s the colony was strengthened by the arrival of refugees fleeing the turmoil in France (Singer & Langdon 2008, 36).

Chevalier Jean Baptiste de Quinssy managed to impose the authority of the French government on the settlers as its representative, continued the work begun by Malavois in encouraging the development of plantation agriculture and he used the islands timber resources to develop a ship building industry based on slave labour sourced in Madagascar and on the African mainland (Franda 1982, 11; Singer & Langdon 2008, 36). By 1807 the colony had grown to 231 Whites, 114 Free Blacks and 2414 slaves (Benedict & Benedict 1982, 120). In the course of the revolutionary wars between France and Britain, in May 1794, a small squadron of British ships landed marines on Mahé occupied it briefly and imposed neutrality on it during the course of the military struggles that followed, until the Peace of Amiens in 1801 (Scarr 1999, 18). After the brief Peace of Amiens the British blockaded the islands and then reoccupied them in 1810 (Singer & Langdon 2008, 36). Through all this de Quinssy remained governor and the islands continued to prosper, despite episodic "capitulations" every time that a British ship hove into sight, for under the flag "Séchelles Capitulate" vessels from the islands were permitted through the blockade (Franda 1982, 13; Gardiner 1907, 154). Cotton, which had first been exported in 1796, was the islands primary, but extremely lucrative, export from 1802 onwards; by this time nearly half of Mahé's cultivatable land was under it (Franda 1982, 16).

In terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1814 the Seychelles were ceded to Britain who undertook to respect the French language, French culture and the Catholic faith of the islanders and the Napoleonic Civil Code remained in force (Singer & Langdon 2008, 36; Benedict & Benedict 1982, 120). At this point the spelling of the name of the archipelago was changed to Seychelles (Franda 1982, 10). From 1814 until 1903 the Seychelles were administered as a dependency of the Crown Colony of Mauritius (Houbert 1992, 468). De Quinssy (who changed his name to Quincy) was retained to head the administration and mediate between the economically powerful Francophone White landowners and the government of Mauritius (Scarr 1999, 18; Campling et al 2009, 17). Britain had little interest in Mauritius and less in the Seychelles, the islands had been seized purely to halt raiding on British shipping by the French, and "as a 'colony of a colony' it was almost forgotten by London" (Campling et al 2009, 17). Concerned that the islands should not become a financial burden they were neglected by the colonial authorities and until the middle of the 20th century they received no schools or welfare programmes and few services (Franda 1982, 35; Campling et al 2009, 17).

By the late 1820s the expansion of cotton production in the United States had made cotton farming on the islands economically unviable and, anticipating the abolition of slavery by the British, the wealthiest of the landowners began to emigrate, taking their slaves with them, so that between 1830 and 1840 the population of the Seychelles fell from 8500 to 4360 people (Benedict & Benedict 1982, 120; Franda 1982, 16). Those planters that remained switched to sugarcane production and by 1831 sugar was the islands main export, but many planters had been ruined and could not afford to maintain their slaves so that slaves were allowed to farm as sharecroppers instead (Franda 1982, 16; Benedict & Benedict 1982, 120). The abolition of slavery in the Seychelles was conducted in February 1835 by a judge sent out by the governor of Mauritius, but the former slaves were required to work as "apprentices" for the next six years, though this was curtailed in March 1838 (Benedict & Benedict 1982, 129). In exchange the former masters received compensation from the British government; the extreme limitedness of slaveholding at this point is indicated by the fact that a return for compensation of 1835 has 11 slave holders, only one with more than 11 slaves (Benedict & Benedict 1982, 129). Planters on the islands petitioned the colonial government for permission to import indentured labour, and loans from the government to execute the project, but these were refused (Benedict & Benedict 1982, 131).

Without slaves the labour intensive sugar industry could not be sustained, for the former slaves were not prepared to continue heavy labour for low wages, and plantations switched to the less labour intensive farming of coconuts; these became the islands dominant crop and source of export earnings from the 1840s onwards and by the 1860s coconut oil was virtually the only export (Franda 1982, 16; Campling et al 2009, 18). Sharecropping became pervasive and food production plummeted so that from then on the islands became dependent on food importation (Franda 1982, 16, 17). The social structure remained essentially untouched with a small relatively wealthy landowning Francophone elite at the top, a large class of landless Kreol speaking poor at the bottom and little else in between (Campling et al 2009, 17, 18). The extraordinarily temperate and healthy climate of the islands, their isolation from the ravages of war, the absence of endemic killer diseases such as malaria and cholera as well as an abundance of ready high quality protein at hand in the ocean, fresh clean water, fruit and vegetables in abundance meant that ex-slaves, freed from being worked to death on plantations, would necessarily have lower mortality rates and higher fertility rates than other place without modern sanitation and medicine (Franda 1982, 25, 26; see also Benedict & Benedict 1982, 125, 127). Nevertheless, working condition remained hard: "I found only two estates on which Africans did not perform more than nine hours of labour daily... they perform from ten to twelve hours daily" (1876, cited in Benedict & Benedict 1982, 137).

A small number of south Indians migrated to the Seychelles from Mauritius in the 1850s who engaged in retail trade, but since they generally did not bring wives with them they usually took Creole wives and their children were for the most part assimilated into Creole society (Franda 1982, 18; Benedict & Benedict 1982, 131). From the 1860s onwards the British patrolled the south western Indian Ocean in an effort to suppress the slave trade and an estimated 2000 to 3000 people liberated from captured slavers between 1861 and 1890 were dumped on the islands, adding to population growth through natural increase and increasing the supply of labour (Benedict & Benedict 1982, 131, 133; Campling et al 2009, 17). They were indentured for five years to landowners and the missionaries helped them to establish themselves while converting them to Christianity (Benedict & Benedict 1982, 131, 133; Franda 1982, 18). By 1871 the population had recovered to 8000 people and reached 14,191 in 1881 before growth was checked by smallpox epidemics in 1887 and 1897 (Campling et al 2009, 17; Franda 1982, 16, 17). In the 1880s and 1890s Gujarati traders began arriving who sourced their wives in India and maintained a distinct Indian identity (Franda 1982, 18). They achieved a high degree of economic success and dominated the export of copra that displaced coconut oil as the main source of export revenue at the turn of the century, some eventually becoming landowners on a large scale while others established lucrative retail and wholesale firms (Benedict & Benedict 1982, 131; Franda 1982, 16).

Until 1903 all commerce passed through Mauritius, which retarded the economic development of the Seychelles because of the prohibitively expensive shipping rates that were charged and only in 1874 was the first savings bank established on the islands (Franda 1982, 15, 16). Though coconuts continued to dominate the economy, earnings from coconut product exports, whether oil or copra, were supplemented by the planting of vanilla vines in the late 19th century and it became an important source of income for small farmers until competition from elsewhere and the development of synthetic vanilla undercut the industry's viability in the early 20th century (Gardiner 1907, 166; Campling et al 2009, 20).

Despite the brevity of French occupation and extended British rule the islands maintained their French character into the twentieth century. Though from 1814 to 1853 there were no Catholic priests the Church of England failed to seize seize the opportunity 7to make significant inroads and only 14% of the population were Anglicans in 1901 (Franda 1982, 29, 30). There was also a strong and prevalent belief in the efficacy of witchcraft and a widespread resort to sorcery that endured through to the late twentieth century (Franda 1982, 31-33; Benedict & Benedict 1982, 1444). The upper classes clung tenaciously to their French language and culture and to the Catholic faith and provided a model for the lower classes, "speaking French, practicing Catholicism and having a light-colored skin strengthened one's association with the first free settlers and, therefore, all three came to be identifying signs of good pedigree" (Franda 1982, 30). Catholic priests established the first schools in the Seychelles and used French as the medium of instruction, a policy which the Anglicans followed when they established schools (Moumou 2005, 47; Purvis 2006, 2). The government limited its educational activities to small grants to church schools and to providing an inspectorate (Franda 1982, 35). In 1880 English became an official language alongside French and English was introduced as a subject, but French remained the medium of instruction (Franda 1982, 34).

During the course of the nineteenth century, under pressure from the land owning classes, the Seychelles' colonial status was gradually upgraded by the British to allow for greater autonomy from Mauritius so as to provide room for manoeuvre by the colonial authorities in securing the interests of the local elite (Campling et al 2009, 18). In 1839 the colonial agent was replaced by a Civil Commissioner, in 1870 a Board of Civil Commissioners was established and in 1889 separate Executive and Legislative Councils were created whose members were nominated by the colonial authorities and included representatives from the Francophone landed classes (Franda 1982, 14; Campling et al 2009, 18). In 1897 a governor was appointed to prepare the government of the island for separation from Mauritius and in 1903 most of what was to become the Seychelles was detached from Mauritius and became a separate Crown Colony (Houbert 1992, 468; Franda 1982, 14).

The primary purpose of the removal of the Seychelles from Mauritian control was to attempt to put the islands on a sounder financial footing, so as to ensure that they did not become a drain on the British treasury (Campling et al 2009, 18). The economy of the island was dependent on the export of copra, dried coconut kernels, which provided around 70% of export revenue, and this situation did not change until the 1970s (Campling et al 2009, 18). The social structure changed little until after the Second World War. The economy remained dominated by a small number of French speaking large, mainly White, landowners while the vast majority of the population were Kreol speaking people of mixed race, were landless and were mired in poverty. There was a small middle class of Indian traders which was supplemented in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but especially in the 1920s, by a small influx of Chinese retailers (Franda 1982, 18; Benedict & Benedict 1982, 131). Unlike the Indians who had easier access to brides from India, they took wives from the locals and were quickly assimilated into Creole culture (Franda 1982, 18; Benedict & Benedict 1982, 131). The population remained overwhelmingly Christian and Catholic primarily. Political life remained dominated by the Colonial government which co-opted members of the landowning elite and it was not until 1939 that the first political grouping, the Seychelles Taxpayers and Landowners Association was formed to represent the elite and press for further power for them (Campling et al 2009, 18).


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