Although visited by Phoenicians, Malays and Arabs, and used in the 16th century by the Portuguese as a stopover point, the Seychelles remained largely uninhabited until the 17th century.
Pirates and privateers set up bases on the islands and in 1741 the Governor of Mauritius (then called Île de France) sent Lazare Picault to explore them. The French claimed possession of the islands in 1756 and French settlers from Mauritius, with their African slaves, began to arrive from 1770.
British attempts to take possession in the late 18th century were confounded by the pacifying tactics of Governor Queau de Quinssy, who several times surrendered to British aggressors, then after their departure, raised the French flag again. After the Napoleonic Wars, by the Treaty of Paris (1814), the Seychelles was ceded to Britain, together with Mauritius. From then until 1903, it was administered from Mauritius.
The Seychelles had long provided a transit point for slaves from Africa. Britain abolished trade in slaves at the beginning of the 19th century (abolishing slavery itself in 1834) and British vessels were active in attacking Spanish, Arab and other slaving vessels. About 3,000 Africans rescued from Arab slave traders on the East African coast between 1861 and 1874 were removed to Seychelles, to become labourers on the plantations. The British also exiled some West African chiefs, who were continuing to resist British control, to Seychelles. There was also some Chinese and Indian settlement in the 19th century, most commonly by traders.
Poverty was widespread by 1918, due partly to a fall in vanilla prices (an artificial substitute having been discovered). New cash crops such as cinnamon and copra were then introduced. In the 1940s, the Association of Seychelles Taxpayers protested against the UK’s management of the islands. In 1964 the Seychelles Democratic Party (SDP), led by James Mancham, and the Seychelles People’s United Party (SPUP), led by France Albert René, were founded. The SDP favoured retaining close ties with the UK; the SPUP campaigned for autonomy.
Universal adult suffrage was introduced in 1967, for elections of members of the legislative council. The council became a 15-member legislative assembly in 1970 (later National Assembly) and general elections were held in which the SDP won six seats and the SPUP five. Mancham became chief minister. At the next elections in 1974, the SDP won 52% of the votes, the SPUP 47%; Seychelles achieved internal self-government in the following year.
Parliament then voted for independence, a new constitution was finalised in 1976, and Seychelles became an independent republic within the Commonwealth. Mancham became president and René prime minister.
At independence Mancham and the SDP’s policies favoured development based on tourism and offshore financial services and alignment with the West, whereas René and the SPUP wanted a non-aligned policy and the development of a selfreliant economy centred on nationalised industry. The SPUP staged an armed coup in June 1977, while Mancham was in the UK attending a Commonwealth summit and Seychelles became a socialist state, with René as its president and the SPUP, renamed the Seychelles People’s Progressive Front (SPPF), the sole political party. There was extensive nationalisation of enterprises, including hotels and industries.
There were a number of threatened coup plots against the René government, the most serious in 1981, when about 50 mercenaries, recruited in South Africa, attempted a landing in Mahé. When their weapons were discovered at the airport, the mercenaries escaped by hijacking an Air India jet, leaving five of their number behind.
However, opposition from exiled political supporters of the SDP and Mancham continued throughout the 1980s, and was reinforced by the turning of the international tide against centralised economic control and one-party rule towards the end of the decade. By 1990, opposition within the country also became vocal, and the government began to consider the need for change.
In December 1991, the government passed legislation to provide for multiparty democracy. Eight parties were registered by July 1992, and a constitutional commission elected to prepare a new constitution which paved the way for presidential and legislative elections in July 1993. René took 59% of votes in the presidential election and Sir James Mancham 36%; and the SPPF gained a large majority – 27 of the 33 seats – in the National Assembly.
In the March 1998 elections, President René (with 67% of the votes) was returned and his SPPF won 24 of the 25 Assembly seats (30 of 34 when seats allocated on a proportional basis were included). Mancham (14%) was overtaken by Wavel Ramkalawan of the United Opposition party (19%) as opposition leader.