The British Crown Colony of Seychelles existed as a colony in its own right between 1903 until it became an independent republit within the British Commonwealth in 1976. It is an archipelago of 115 islands located in the Indian Ocean, northeast of Madagascar and about 994 miles (1,600 kilometers) east of Kenya. Other nearby island countries and territories include Comoros, Mayotte, Madagascar, Réunion, and Mauritius to the south. The capitol is Victoria. With a current population of roughly 92,000, it has the smallest population of any sovereign African country; however, it does have a larger population than the British overseas territory Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. The majority of the islands of Seychelles are uninhabited, with many dedicated as nature reserves.
The Seychelles were uninhabited throughout most of recorded history. Some scholars assume that Austronesian seafarers and later Maldivian and Arab traders were the first to visit the uninhabited Seychelles. This assumption is based on the discovery of tombs, visible until 1910. Malays from Borneo, who eventually settled on Madagascar, perhaps lingered here circa 200-300 AD. Arab navigators, on trading voyages across the Indian Ocean, were probably aware of the islands, although they did not settle them.
Arabs were trading the highly valued coco de mer nuts, found only in Seychelles, long before European discovery of the islands. The rotted-out nuts can float and were found washed ashore in the Maldives and Indonesia.
The earliest recorded sighting by Europeans took place in 1502 by the Portuguese Admiral Vasco da Gama, who passed through the Amirantes and named them after himself (islands of the Admiral). The granitic islands began to appear on Portuguese charts as the Seven Sisters.
The earliest recorded landing was in January 1609, by the crew of the Ascension under Captain Alexander Sharpeigh during the fourth voyage of the British East India Company. In March 1608, a trading fleet of the English East India Company had set sail for India. Lost in a storm, the Ascension‘s crew saw “high land” on January 19, 1609, and headed for it. They anchored “as in a pond”. They found an uninhabited island with plentiful fresh water, fish, coconuts, birds, turtles and giant tortoises with which to replenish their stores. The Ascension sailed, and reported what they had found, but the British took no action.
Towards the end of the 17th century, pirates arrived in the Indian Ocean from the Caribbean and made a base in Madagascar, from where they preyed upon vessels approaching and leaving the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.
The French had occupied the Isle de France (now Mauritius) since 1715. This colony was growing in importance, and in 1735 an energetic administrator, Bertrand-François Mahé de La Bourdonnais was appointed. His brief was to protect the French sea route to India. La Bourdonnais, himself a sailor, turned his attention to making a speedier passage from Mauritius to India.
In 1742, La Bourdonnais sent an expedition under the command of Lazare Picault to accurately chart the islands northeast of Madagascar. On November 21, 1742, the Elisabeth and the Charles anchored off Mahé at Anse Boileau (not Baie Lazare, later mistakenly named as Picault’s landing place). They found a land of plenty. In fact, Picault named the island Ile d’Abondance. Picault’s mapping was poor, so in 1744 he was sent back and renamed the main island Mahé (in honor of his patron Mahé de La Bourdonnais), and the group the Iles de la Bourdonnais. He had high hopes for the Iles de la Bourdonnais. However the islands were once more forgotten when La Bourdonnais was replaced in 1746.
The outbreak in 1754 of what would become the Seven Years’ War between England and France reminded the authorities on Mauritius about the islands. Two ships were sent to claim them, commanded by Corneille Nicholas Morphey. He renamed the largest island Isle de Séchelles in honor of Viscount Jean Moreau de Séchelles, Minister of Finance during the reign of Louis XV (later Anglicized as Seychelles). This name was later used for the island group, whilst Mahé was again used for the largest granitic island. Morphey took possession for the French king and the French East India Company on November 1, 1756.
The end of the Seven Years’ War, with France’s loss of Canada and its status in India, caused the decline of the French East India Company, which had formerly controlled Mauritius. This settlement, and thus Seychelles, now came under direct royal authority. The new intendant of Mauritius, Pierre Poivre, was determined to break the Dutch monopoly of the lucrative spice trade; he thought Mahé would be perfect for spice cultivation.
In 1768, Nicolas Dufresne arranged a commercial venture, sending ships to collect timber and tortoises from the Seychelles. During this expedition, French sovereignty was extended to cover all the islands of the granitic group on Christmas Day.
In 1769, the navigators Rochon and Grenier proved that a faster route to India could safely be taken via the Seychelles, and thus the importance of the islands’ strategic position was realized. Meanwhile, Poivre had finally obtained seedlings of nutmeg and clove, and 10,000 nutmeg seeds. His attempts to propagate them on Mauritius and Bourbon (later named Réunion) met with little success, and he thought again of Seychelles. It was considered fortuitous when Brayer du Barré arrived on Mauritius with royal permission to run a settlement on St. Anne at his own expense.
On August 12, 1770, 15 white colonists, seven slaves, five Indians and one black woman settled on St. Anne. Du Barré stayed in Mauritius seeking funds. After reports of initial success, he begged the government for more money. However, reports reached the authorities that ship captains could get no supplies of fresh produce from the islands. Du Barré’s appeals for help to Mauritius and Versailles fell on deaf ears. In desperation, he went to the Seychelles to try and rescue the situation, but to no avail. A ruined man, he left for India and died there shortly afterwards.
In 1771, Poivre sent Antoine Gillot to Seychelles to establish a spice garden. By August 1772, Du Barré’s people had abandoned St. Anne and moved to Mahé or returned home. Gillot worked on at Anse Royale, establishing nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and pepper plants.
When British ships were seen around Seychelles, the authorities were spurred into action, dispatching a garrison under Lieutenant de Romainville. They built Etablissement du Roi (Royal Settlement) on the site of modern Victoria. Gillot was nominally in charge of the civilian colonists, but had no real authority over them. Mauritius sent as replacement a man of stronger mettle, Jean Baptiste Philogene de Malavois, who assumed command of the settlement in 1788. He drew up 30 decrees which protected the timber and tortoises. In future, only sound farming techniques and careful husbanding of resources would be tolerated.
In 1790, as a result of the French Revolution, the settlers formed a Colonial Assembly, and decided they would run their colony themselves, according to their own constitution. Land in Seychelles should only go to the children of existing colonists, who should dispose of the colony’s produce as they chose, not as Mauritius dictated. They deemed the abolition of slavery impossible, because they believed that without free labor, the colony could not survive.
Jean-Baptiste Queau de Quincy took command of the colony in 1794. A wily man, he used skill and expediency to steer Seychelles through the years of war ahead. Seychelles acted as a haven for French corsairs (pirates carrying lettres de marque entitling them to prey legally on enemy shipping). Quincy hoped this might go unnoticed, but in 1794 a squadron of three British ships arrived. The British commodore, Henry Newcome, gave Quincy an hour in which to surrender. Through skillful negotiations, Quincy obtained a guarantee of his honor and property and surrendered.
The British made no effort to take over the Seychelles; it was considered a waste of resources. The settlers decided that unless they were sent a garrison, they could not be expected to defend the French flag. Therefore, they would remain neutral, supplying all comers. The strategy worked. The colony flourished. Quincy’s favorable terms of capitulation were renewed seven times during the visits of British ships.
On July 11, 1801, the French frigate Chiffonne arrived with a cargo of French prisoners sent into exile by Napoleon. Then HMS Sybille arrived. Quincy had to try to defend the Chiffonne, but after a brief battle, the Chiffonne was taken. Captain Adam of the Sybille wanted to know why Quincy had interfered, in contravention of his capitulation terms. Quincy managed to talk his way out of the difficulty, and even persuaded Adam to agree to Seychelles’ vessels flying a flag bearing the words “Seychelles Capitulation”, allowing them to pass through the British blockade of Mauritius unmolested.
September 15, 1801, was the date of a memorable sea battle just off the settlement. The British ship Victor was seriously disabled by damage to her rigging, but she was able to maneuver broadside to the French vessel La Flêche and rake her with incessant fire. La Flêche began to sink. Rather than surrender her, her captain ran her aground, torching her before abandoning ship. The opposing commanders met ashore afterwards, the Englishman warmly congratulating his French counterpart on his courage and skill during the battle.
The British tightened the blockade on the French Indian Ocean colonies. Réunion surrendered, followed in December 1810 by Mauritius. In April 1811, Captain Beaver arrived in Seychelles on the Nisus to announce the preferential terms of Quincy’s capitulation should stand, but Seychelles must recognize the terms of the Mauritian surrender. Beaver left behind a Royal Marine, Lieutenant Bartholomew Sullivan, to monitor the Seychelles situation.
There was little Sullivan could do alone to stop the settlers continuing to provision French frigates and slavers. Slave ownership was not then against British law, although slave trading was illegal. Sullivan, later given the title of Civil Agent, played cat and mouse with the pro-slaver colonists. Once, acting on a tip off, Sullivan was rowed over to Praslin and was able to confiscate a cargo of newly landed slaves. It was but a small triumph amidst many frustrations, and Sullivan, complaining that the Seychellois had “no sense of honor, shame or honesty”, resigned.
The first civilian administrator of the British regime was Edward Madge. He had a bitter feud with Quincy, who remained in the administration as Justice of the Peace. In the following years, the islands became a backwater ticking over quietly. Seychellois landowners had a pleasant life, though making ends meet given the fickle markets for their produce was not always easy. The British had allowed all customary French practices to remain in place. The administrator may have been British, reporting to London, but he governed according to French rules. The biggest grievance the colonists had with their new masters was the colony’s dependence on Mauritius.
The other cloud on the planters’ horizon was British anti-slavery legislation. In 1835, slavery was completely abolished. The plantations were already in decline, their soils exhausted by years of cultivation without investment in renewing fertility. Some planters took their slaves and left. The liberated slaves had no land, and most squatted on the estates they had tended in bondage, and the colony entered a period of stagnation. There were no exports, and no money to pay for new infrastructure.
The situation was only improved when planters realized they could grow coconuts with less labor and more profit than the traditional crops of cotton, sugar, rice, and maize. Soon, they also had a source of virtually free labor once again. The British took their anti-slavery stance seriously, and operated patrols along the East African coast, raiding Arab dhows transporting slaves to the Middle East. Slaves liberated south of the Equator were brought to Seychelles, and apprenticed to plantation owners. They worked the land in return for rations and wages. Over a period of thirteen years from 1861, around 2,400 men, women and children were brought to Seychelles.
The town, called Victoria since 1841, began to grow. Licences granted in 1879 give some idea of the range of businesses in the town. There was a druggist, two auctioneers, five retailers, four liquor stores, a notary, an attorney, a jeweler, and a watchmaker.
From 1848, stamps of Mauritius were used on mail from Seychelles and are found with the cancel B64 from that year. Mail before 1861 was forwarded by a mail agent and most bore no postal markings. The first post office in the Seychelles was opened at Victoria on December 11, 1861, and stamps of Mauritius were used there until 1890. These can be recognized by obliterator B64 or a Seychelles datestamp. The next post office in Seychelles was not opened until 1901.
There was a disaster on October 12, 1862, when torrential rain and strong winds hit Mahé. An avalanche of mud and rocks fell on the town from the hills. It has been estimated that over 70 persons lost their lives.
Seychelles was served by Ligne T packet-boats of Messageries Maritimes between 1864 and 1895. Eight sub-post offices were opened in 1901: on Mahe, Anse Royale, Cascade (closed after 1916), Takamaka (closed circa 1907), Anse-Boileau (closed circa 1907), and Bel-Ombre (canceller supplied but not known in use); also Praslin Bay St Anne, Praslin Grand Anse, and La Digue. Later offices included La Misere (1968); Silhouette Island (1902-1904 and 1961); and Coetivy Island (1963).
The first stamps inscribed Seychelles were a Queen Victoria key-plate issued on April 5, 1890. A number of different issues followed, all of the same design, including surcharges in 1893 and 1901.
Seychelles yearned to be a colony in its own right, and the authorities in the mother colony, Mauritius, supported them. Sir Arthur Gordon, the Mauritian governor, sent a petition on their behalf to London. Concessions were made, but Seychelles did not become a Crown Colony in its own right until 1903, when its first Governor, Sir Ernest Bickham Sweet-Escott took office. Befitting its new status, the colony acquired a botanical gardens, and a clock tower in the heart of Victoria. The French language and culture remained dominant, however.
The British, like the French before them, saw Seychelles as a useful place to exile troublesome political prisoners. Over the years, Seychelles became a home to prisoners from Zanzibar, Egypt, Cyprus and Palestine, to name but a few. The first in the line of exiles was Lela Pandak Lam, the ex-chief of Pasir Salak in Perak who arrived in 1875 after his implication in the murder of the British Resident of Perak. Like many of the exiles who followed, he settled well into Seychelles life and became genuinely fond of the islands. He took home with him one of the popular local tunes, and incorporated it into the national anthem of his country. With new words, it later became “Negaraku”, the national anthem of Malaysia.
Perhaps the most famous of the political prisoners was Archbishop Makarios from Cyprus, who arrived in 1956. He likewise fell in love with his prison. “When our ship leaves harbour”, he wrote, “we shall take with us many good and kindly memories of the Seychelles…may God bless them all.”
World War I caused great hardship in the islands. Ships could not bring in essential goods, nor take away exports. Wages fell; prices soared by 150 percent. Many turned to crime and the prisons were bursting. Joining the Seychelles Labour Contingent, formed at the request of General Smuts, seemed to offer an escape. It was no easy option however. The force, 800 strong, was sent to East Africa. After just five months, so many had died from dysentery, malaria and beriberi that the corps was sent home. In all, 335 men died.
By the end of World War I, the population of Seychelles was 24,000 and they were feeling neglected by Great Britain. There was agitation from the newly formed Planters Association for greater representation in the governance of Seychelles affairs. After 1929, a more liberal flow of funds was ensured by the Colonial Development Act, but it was a time of economic depression; the price of copra was falling and so were wages. Workers petitioned the government about their poor working conditions and the burden of tax they had to bear. Governor Sir Arthur Grimble instigated some reforms, exempting lower income groups from taxation. He was keen to create model housing and distribute smallholdings for the landless. Many of his reforms were not approved until World War II had broken out, and everything was put on hold.
The Planters Association lobbied for the white land owners, but until 1937 those who worked for them had no voice. The League of Coloured Peoples was formed to demand a minimum wage, a wage tribunal and free health care for all.
In 1938, a distinctive series of definitive stamps were issued, printed in photogravure by Harrison & Sons which marked a departure in the design of British colonial stamps. The stamps were reissued in 1952 with a new portrait of the King with a crown over it.
During World War II, a seaplane depot was established on St. Anne to monitor regional shipping. A garrison was stationed in the islands and a battery built at Pointe Conan to protect the harbor. Some 2,000 Seychellois men served in the Pioneer Companies in Egypt, Palestine and Italy.
At home, Seychelles had turmoil of its own. The first political party, the Taxpayers Association, was formed in 1939. A British governor described it as “the embodiment of every reactionary force in Seychelles”, and it was entirely concerned with protecting the interests of the plantocracy. After the war, they also benefited by being granted the vote, which was limited to literate property owners; just 2,000 in a population of 36,000. At the first elections, in 1948, most of those elected to the Legislative Council were predictably members of the Planters and Taxpayers Association.
In 1953, Seychelles participated in the omnibus stamp issue for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and one stamp was issued. In 1954, the definitive stamps of 1938 were revised to include the head of Queen Elizabeth II. Regular commemorative and definitive stamp issues have followed. The head of Queen Elizabeth II, or the initials E II R, were dropped from Seychelles stamps on independence in 1976.
In 1958, the French bought back the Glorioso islands from the Seychelles.
It was not until 1964 that any new political movements were created. In that year, the Seychelles People’s United Party (SPUP, later Seychelles People’s Progressive Front, SPPF) was formed. Led by France-Albert René, they campaigned for socialism and independence from Britain. The late James Mancham’s Seychelles Democratic Party (SDP), created the same year, by contrast represented businessmen and planters and wanted closer integration with Britain.
Elections were held in 1966, won by the SDP.
In March 1970, colonial and political representatives of Seychelles met in London for a constitutional convention, with the Seychelles Democratic Party (SDP) of James Mancham advocating closer integration with the UK, and the Seychelles People’s United Party (SPUP) of France — Albert René advocating independence. Further elections in November 1970 brought a new constitution into effect, with Mancham as Chief Minister.
Further elections were held in April 1974, in which both major political parties campaigned for independence. Following this election, negotiations with the British resulted in an agreement under which the Seychelles became an independent republic within the Commonwealth on June 29, 1976. The newly knighted Sir James Mancham became the country’s first President, with René as Prime Minister. These negotiations also restored the islands of Aldabra, Farquhar, and Des Roches, which had been transferred from Seychelles in November 1965 to form part of the new British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), to Seychelles upon independence.
Scott #125 was released on February 10, 1938, part of the 1938 definitive series printed in photogravure by Harrison & Sons Ltd. (Scott #125-148). These were perforated either 13½x14½ or 14½x13½ on ordinary or chalky watermarked paper. The 2-cent violet brown stamp features Lodoicea, commonly known as the sea coconut, coco de mer, or double coconut, a monotypic genus in the palm family. The sole species, Lodoicea maldivica, is endemic to the islands of Praslin and Curieuse in the Seychelles. It formerly also was found on the small islets of St Pierre, Chauve-Souris and Ile Ronde (Round Island), all located near Praslin, but had become extinct there for a time until recently reintroduced. The name of the genus, Lodoicea, is derived from Lodoicus, the Latinized form of Louis, in honor of King Louis XV of France.
Formerly Lodoicea was known as Maldive coconut. Its scientific name, Lodoicea maldivica, originated before the 18th century when the Seychelles were uninhabited. In centuries past the coconuts that fell from the trees and ended up in the sea would be carried away eastwards by the prevailing sea currents. The nuts can only float after the germination process, when they are hollow. In this way, many drifted to the Maldives where they were gathered from the beaches and valued as an important trade and medicinal item.
Until the true source of the nut was discovered in 1768 by Dufresne, it was believed by many to grow on a mythical tree at the bottom of the sea. European nobles in the sixteenth century would often have the shells of these nuts polished and decorated with valuable jewels as collectibles for their private galleries. The coco de mer tree is now a rare and protected species.
The Seychelles is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a third of the area is protected. The main populations of Lodoicea are found within the Praslin and Curieuse National Parks, and the trade in nuts is controlled by the Coco-de-mer (Management) Decree of 1995. Firebreaks also exist at key sites in an effort to prevent devastating fires from sweeping through populations. Cultivated palms are grown on a number of other islands and are widely present in botanic gardens; although the collection of seeds in order to recruit these populations may be a further threat to the remaining natural stands. Conservation priorities are the continued protection of populations, enforcement of regulations and effective fire control.