Aldabra Atoll from above

A Brief History of the Seychelles

Stephen Fisher|November 1, 2019|Blog Post

I can’t wait for February and Zegrahm’s Ultimate Seychelles with Aldabra Atoll! The nature alone will make for an incredible trip, but the history of a region that grew along such an important trade route is fascinating in its own right. With so many empires staking their claim in the region, the history is as diverse as any other destination and a huge amount will be covered in my talks—although I may have to fight for people’s attention with all the natural wonders we’ll be seeing!

The picture-perfect islands that make up the Seychelles provoke thoughts of uninhabited coral reefs, small oases of wildlife and nature strung across the western Indian Ocean north of Madagascar. Their clear blue waters and dense vegetation seem far removed from the influence of mankind, and it’s easy to imagine that some of the islands are still waiting to be explored for the first time. In fact, small land masses such as these are beacons to travelers, so it’s no surprise that the history of the Seychelles is rich with the story of the Age of Exploration.

Arab sailors almost certainly knew of the Seychelles—indeed the name of the westernmost island Aldabra is derived from the Arabic language—but they weren’t recorded until the first Europeans saw them. After the explorer Vasco da Gama successfully rounded the Cape of Good Hope and sailed to India from the Atlantic, King Manuel I of Portugal dispatched a series of expeditions to explore and exploit this new trade route. It was the crews of these vessels who spotted the islands at the eastern end of the archipelago in 1503.

Although these early explorers didn’t land on the remote islands, they did find a larger island on the African coast ripe for settlement—Zanzibar. The island was quickly added to the growing Portuguese Empire, although it was never really occupied by Europeans, and two hundred years later it fell under the control of the Sultan of Oman.

By now other nations were fully exploiting the sea route to India and, after claiming Mauritius, the French sought to more fully explore the island chain to the north. In 1756 a ‘Stone of Possession’ was laid on the largest island—initially called Isle de Séchelles in honor of the French Minister of Finance. The name was later applied to the entire group of islands and the largest island took the name Mahé, after the French governor of Mauritius. It’s no surprise that many of the Seychelles’ islands also take their names from Frenchmen.

By now the archipelago had become a passage for ships sailing from the African coast to India and France was determined to keep possession of this strategic asset. Colonists settled on many of the islands, bringing African slaves to exploit the islands for timber and spices. But their remote location left them vulnerable to foreign powers and, when a British squadron of ships arrived at Mahé in 1794, the French colony capitulated immediately.

At first the British had little interest in the Seychelles and the French colony was allowed to remain as a neutral territory, but as the Napoleonic Wars expanded, the British tightened their grip of French possessions in the Indian Ocean. At the same time, they laid the foundations for British rule on Zanzibar which, for the last hundred years, had become rich through its trade in spices and slaves.

Soon British rule was more stringently enforced, particularly hitting the colonists in the Seychelles when slavery was abolished by the British Empire in 1835. Planting turned to more profitable crops such as coconuts—particularly on the island of Desroches—which today remains a major export alongside spices and fish. At Zanzibar the slave trade was harder to break, and Royal Navy ships were needed to intercept slaver ships. Only when a complete blockade of the island was imminent did the Sultan reluctantly abolish slavery.

By the dawn of the 20th century, British rule of both Zanzibar and the Seychelles had become formalized, a situation that inevitably brought both locations into the wars that followed. The German East African Empire included Tanganyika and in 1914 a German cruiser made a surprise attack on Zanzibar harbor, sinking a British cruiser. The war in East Africa drew in British colonial troops—including a force raised in the Seychelles, nearly half of whom would not return.

The break-up of the British Empire following the Second World War bought independence to both Zanzibar and the Seychelles. In 1964 the newly independent Zanzibar merged with mainland Tanganyika as one nation—merging their names to create Tanzania at the same time. Initially running as a single party state after gaining independence from Britain, the Seychelles become a democracy in 1991.

A trip like Zegrahm’s Ultimate Seychelles with Aldabra Atoll offers a chance to travel back in time. At the western end of the Seychelles it’s possible to see islands and reefs almost exactly as they were when the first European travelers found them more than 500 years ago. At the eastern end, around Mahé and the capital Victoria, the local population, the languages and the architecture reflect the diverse and multiracial origins Seychelles people. As well as being an oasis of nature and wildlife, the Seychelles represent a little oasis of history.