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Brief History of the Seychelles

With independence in 1976 came interest in diversifying the island nation’s plantation economy

The ambiance of the Seychelles strikes many first-time visitors as more Caribbean Sea than Indian Ocean. That is because when the colonists first began settling there, the islands were unpopulated. The early French colonists were able to imprint their plantation culture without opposition. A hundred and sixty years of British rule did little to dispel the French influence. The Seychelles remained one of the Empire’s most remote backwaters.

With independence in 1976 came interest in diversifying the island nation’s plantation economy. The completion of the Seychelles International airport in 1971 opened the Seychelles to a new source of revenue, tourism. Thanks to tourism, the Seychelles today is one of the most prosperous African states with that continent’s highest Human Development Index.

The Seychelles was uninhabited throughout most of its recorded history. Yet long before the early 17th century, when sailors from an English East India Company ship that had lost its course first set foot on one of its island, the Seychelles exerted a subtle influence on the mercantile world. Arab traders did brisk business in the coco de mer nuts that only grow on the Seychelles islands of Praslin and Curieuse. These curiously twinned palm nuts can float long distances. They were highly valued by Arabs and Europeans alike who would decorate their shells with precious jewels and display them in private galleries.

Historians believe that the reason the Seychelles remained unsettled and unexplored for so long was because the trade winds did not blow in their direction. There is some evidence that navigators of Arab trading ships in medieval times knew of the island existence. An Arab merchant writing in 851 AD made reference to islands beyond the Maldives, which he called Tall islands. Historians today believe this was most likely a reference to the Seychelles.

Meanwhile, various powers were laying claim to nearby islands region. The French East India Company came into control of the island of Mauritius. In 1744, the colonial administrator of Mauritius dispatched explorer named Lazarre Picault to chart the islands northeast of Madagascar. Picault was the first to map Mahe, the largest of the granite islands and today the Seychelles’ main population centre. Twelve years later, during the Seven Years’ War, the French returned to claim the island officially. The archipelago was named Isle de Sechelles after Louis XV’s Minister of Finance. The name was later Anglicised as Seychelles after it was ceded to the British, in 1814, under the Treaty of Paris.

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