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.
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