History of Seychelles

Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > Seychelles > Map Economy History

Less than one-quarter the size of Comoros, Seychelles consists of an archipelago of 115 islands, most coralline and the rest granitic. The relatively homogeneous population of mixed European and African descent uses three official languages: Creole, English, and French, with a claimed literacy of 85 percent.

Seychelles has a comparatively high per capita GDP of US$5,900 and in the early 1990s was moving away from socialism toward a more liberal economy with greater privatization. Tourism is the major economic activity because the small area of cultivable land limits agriculture, and the small market limits industry. Fishing has considerable potential for diversifying the Seychellois economy. The government is encouraging the fisheries sector, and in August 1994 the Western Indian Ocean Tuna Organization held its meeting on Mahé, with representatives of Comoros, Mauritius, and Seychelles present as well as an observer from Madagascar. Among topics of discussion was the standardization of terms for granting fishing permits because French, Spanish, and Japanese ships conduct extensive fishing in the area. Seychelles alone had fifty-two licensing agreements in effect in early 1995, of which thirty-three were with European Union countries. Furthermore, the African Development Bank in December 1994 was engaged in restructuring the Seychelles state- owned tuna processing firm, Conserveries de l'Océan Indien, to make it eligible for privatization. In addition to tuna fishing, for which Victoria is one of the world's largest ports, Seychelles seeks to develop its shrimp industry and began commercial shrimp operations in 1993.

Furthermore, boasting of its good quality telecommunications system, its privatization of Victoria port in 1994, and new regulations to encourage the private sector, specifically the legal environment for investment, Seychelles is promoting itself as an international business center. A partial basis for such promotion lies in the country's good relations with Britain, France, and such littoral states as South Africa, India, and Australia. Measures contemplated to further the private sector include the establishment of an EPZ and tax measures to reduce employer social security contributions for employees.

It is difficult to reconcile some of these proposed steps with the World Bank's 1993 report entitled Poverty in Paradise (Mark Twain had also referred to Seychelles as "paradise"). According to the report, "In 1993, almost 20 percent of the population were estimated to be living below the poverty line" of 900 Seychelles rupees, or about US$195 per household per month. The World Bank criticized Seychelles's relatively low expenditure on education, especially secondary education, and the resultant lack of qualified workers in the education, health, finance, and construction fields. In spite of this criticism, the 1995 budget announced by the Ministry of Finance in late 1994 proposed a further 21 percent cut in the education budget, thereby exacerbating the situation with regard to qualified workers.

The relationship of the economy to the country's political system has been very close because Seychelles has followed a socialist form of government. Having gained its independence from Britain in 1976, Seychelles became a one-party socialist state under President France Albert René in 1977. After adopting a new constitution by referendum in 1992, Seychelles held its first multiparty elections in 1993. René was reelected, and his Seychelles People's Progressive Front (SPPF) won twenty-seven of the thirty-three seats in the People's Assembly (some election irregularities are considered to have taken place). As a result of political patronage, control of jobs, government contracts, and resources, the Department of State indicated that the SPPF dominated the country. Moreover, the president completely controlled the security apparatus, including the national guard, the army, the police, and an armed paramilitary unit.

In 1994 progress was made with regard to human rights under this controlled structure. However, the government has a "near monopoly on the media," and freedom of speech and press are limited by the ease with which law suits can be brought against journalists. In addition, because the leadership of both the SPPF and most opposition parties is white, despite the Creole popular majority, there is a perception that nonwhites lack a significant voice.

Although known and visited by traders from the Persian Gulf area and East Africa in earlier times, the Seychelles Archipelago first appeared on European maps at the beginning of the sixteenth century after Portuguese explorers sighted the islands during voyages to India. Recorded landings did not occur until 1609, however, when members of the British East India Company spent several days on Mahé and other nearby islands. A French expedition from Mauritius reached the islands in 1742, and during a second expedition in 1756 the French made a formal claim to them. The name "Seychelles" honors the French minister of finance under King Louis XV. Settlement began in 1778 under a French military administration but barely survived its first decade. Although the settlers were supposed to plant crops only to provision the garrison and passing French ships, they also found it lucrative to exploit the islands' natural resources. Between 1784 and 1789, an estimated 13,000 giant tortoises were shipped from Mahé. The settlers also quickly devastated the hardwood forests--selling them to passing ships for repairs or to shipyards on Mauritius. In spite of reforms to control the rapid elimination of trees, exploitation of the forest continued for shipbuilding and house building and later for firing cinnamon kilns, ultimately destroying much of the original ecology.

Possession of the islands alternated between France and Britain several times during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. France ceded Seychelles--which at that time included the granitic group and three coral islands--to Britain in 1814 in the Treaty of Paris after rejecting a British offer to take French holdings in India in place of Seychelles. Because Britain's interest in the islands had centered mainly on halting their use as a base for French privateering, its main concern was to keep the islands from becoming burdens. Britain administered Seychelles as a dependency of Mauritius, from which they received little attention and few services.

The first European settlers were French who had been living on Mauritius, Reunion, or in French settlements in India. Many lived in conditions of poverty quite similar to those of their African slaves, who from early on greatly outnumbered the remainder of the population. After the abolition of slavery in the islands in 1834, many settlers left, taking their slaves with them. Later, large numbers of Africans liberated by the British navy from slaving ships on the East African coast were released on Seychelles. Small numbers of Chinese, Malaysians, and Indians moved to the islands, usually becoming small traders and shopkeepers. Intermarriage among all groups except the Indians was common, however, and left so few families of pure descent that by 1911 the practice of categorizing residents according to race was abandoned.

Before 1838 most Seychellois worked on white-owned estates as slaves, producing cotton, coconut oil, spices, coffee, and sugarcane, as well as sufficient food crops to support the population. After the abolition of slavery, they became agricultural wage laborers, sharecroppers, fishers, or artisans, settling as squatters where they liked. Labor-intensive field crops rapidly gave way to crops that required relatively little labor, including copra, cinnamon, and vanilla. Only those industries related to processing the cash crops or exploiting natural resources developed. As a result, the increasing population quickly came to depend on imports for most basic necessities, including food and manufactured goods.

SOURCE: Country Studies/Area Handbook by the US Library of Congress

Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > Seychelles > Map Economy History