1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Seychelles

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SEYCHELLES, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, consisting of forty-five islands—besides a number of rocks or islets—situated between 3° 38′ and 5° 45′ S., and 52° 55′ and 53° 50′ E. Together with the Amirantes, Cosmoledo, Aldabra and other islands they form the British colony of Seychelles. The outlying islands lie south-west of the Seychelles group and between that archipelago and Madagascar. In all ninety islands with a total area of over 156 sq. m. are under the Seychelles government. There are in addition 40,000 to 50,000 sq. m. of coral banks within the bounds of the colony.

The Seychelles lie, with two exceptions, towards the centre of a large submarine bank and are all within the 50 fathoms line. Mahé, the largest and most central island, is 934 m. N.N.W. of Mauritius, 970 m. E. by N. of Zanzibar and 600 m. N.E. of the northernmost point of Madagascar. The other chief islands form two principal groups: (i.) Praslin, 26 m. N.N.E. of Mahé, and the adjacent smaller islands of La Digue, Félicité, East Silver, West Silver, Curieuse and Aride; (ii.) Silhouette, 14 m. W. by N. of Mahé, and North Island. The most easterly island is Frigate, the most southerly Platte; on the northern edge of the reef are Bird and Denis islands. The general aspect of the islands is one of great beauty and fertility, and in the opinion of General C. G. Gordon they formed the Garden of Eden.

Mahé is 17 m. long, and from 4 to 7 broad and of highly irregular shape, with an area of about 55 sq. m. There are small areas of lowlands, chiefly at the mouths of the river valleys, but most of the island is mountainous, and in general the hills rise abruptly from the sea. There are ten heights between 1000 and 2000 ft., and seven over 2000 ft. The highest point is Morne Seychellois, 2993 ft.; next comes Trois Frères, 2390 ft. Both these mountains are in the northern half of the island. The main ridge runs north and south along the line of the greatest diameter, and from the heights descend many torrents, the whole island being well watered. The principal harbour, Port Victoria., is on the north-east coast in 4° 37′ S., 55° 27′ E. It is approached by a deep channel through the coral reef which fringes the entire eastern side of the island. Of the small islands close to Mahé the chief are St Anne and Cerf, off the east, and Conception and Thérèse off the west coast.

Praslin Island is 8 m. long and from 1 to 3 m. broad, has an area of about 27 sq. m. and its highest point is 1260 ft.; La Digue covers 4 sq. m. and its greatest height is 1175 ft.: Silhouette is roughly circular in shape, covers 8 sq. m. and culminates in Mon Plaisir, 2473 ft. None of the other islands exceeds 11/2 sq. m.

Geology.—Except Bird and Denis islands, which are of coralline limestone, the Seychelles are of granite, with in places 'fringing reefs of coral based on granite foundations. The granite is of the same formation or closely related to that of Madagascar and throughout the islands is closely uniform in its composition, but exhibits dikes of finer grain. The rocks are deeply furrowed and cut into, ridges, evidence of the long period over which they have been subjected to atmospheric influences. There is no sign of marine action over four-fifths of the islands, which nowhere exhibit any trace of volcanic action, recent or remote. The islands are regarded as a remnant of the continental land which in remote geological ages united South Africa and India. J. Stanley Gardiner supposes that when first cut off the Seychelles were the size of the present bank—about 12,000 sq. m. This cutting off was caused largely by subsidence, though partly by marine action. The subsequent dwindling of the 12,000 sq. m. to 156 divided into many small islands is attributed to marine action which had its chief force in the Eocene and Miocene periods. (Cf. “The Indian Ocean,” Geo. Journ. vol. xxviii., 1906).

Climate.—The climate is healthy and equable, and for a tropical country the temperature is moderate. It varies on the coast from about 68° to 88° F., falling at night in the higher regions to 60° or 55° F. The mean coast temperature slightly exceeds 79° F. The south-east monsoon blows from May to October, which is the dry season, and the west-north-west monsoon from December to March. During April and November the winds are variable. The average annual rainfall on the coast is 100.8 in.; it increases to about 120 in. at a height of 600 ft. and at heights exceeding 2000 ft. is about 150 in. The Seychelles lie outside the track of the hurricanes which occasionally devastate Réunion and Mauritius and are also immune from earthquakes. The public health is good, and fevers and plague are unknown.

Flora and Fauna.—Both flora and fauna include species and genera peculiar to the Seychelles. Of these the best known is the Lodoicea sechellarum, a palm tree indigenous only in Praslin Island—but since introduced into Curieuse—noted for its fruit, the so-called Maldive double coco-nut or coco de mer. The nut was long known only from sea-borne specimens cast up on the Maldive and other coasts, was thought to grow on a submarine palm, and, being esteemed a sovereign antidote to poisons (Lusiad, x. 136), commanded exorbitant prices in the East. This palm will grow to a height of 100 ft., an shows enormous fern-like leaves. Another tree found only in the islands is the capucin (Northea sechellarum), Whose massive dead trunks are a striking feature in the landscape. This tree has almost completely fallen a victim to the ravages of a green beetle, probably introduced from Mauritius. The islands were formerly densely wooded, but only patches of forest remain. The central mountain zone of Mahé was in 1909 acquired by the government for reafforestation purposes. This zone also included one of the last remaining portions of indigenous forest. The forests of the coast belt resembled those of the coral islands of the neighbouring parts of the Indian Ocean. Characteristic of this region are the mangrove and Pandanus, and, a little inland, the banyan (Ficus), Pisonia and Hernandia. The coco-nut, now a conspicuous feature of the coast flora, is probably not indigenous. The forests of the granitic land, of which typical patches remain, had the characteristics of a tropical moist region, palms, shrubs, climbing and tree ferns growing luxuriantly, the trees on the mountain sides, such as the Pandanus sechellarum sending down roots over the rocks and boulders from 70 to 100 ft. Of timber trees the bois gayac has disappeared, but bois de fer (Stadtmannia sideroxylon) and bois de natte (Maba sechellarum) still flourish on Silhouette Island. Besides the cutting down for building purposes of the timber trees the jungle was largely cleared for the plantation of vanilla; while a multitude of other tropical plants have been introduced tending to the extermination of the indigenous flora. The most important of the trees introduced since 1900 are various kinds of rubber, including Para (Hevea Brasiliensis), which grows well. For other introduced plants see below, Industries.

The indigenous fauna, so far as its limited range affords comparison, resembles that of Madagascar. It is deficient in mammals, of which the only varieties are the rat and bat. The dugong, which formerly frequented the waters of the islands, does so no longer. The reptiles include certain lizards and snakes; the crocodile, once common, has been exterminated. Land tortoises have also disappeared[1] but one freshwater species (Sternothaerus sinuatus) is still found; and the adjacent seas contain many turtles. Three coecilians, three batrachians (including a mountain-frequenting frog) and three fresh-water crustaceans are also indigenous, and about twenty-six species of land shells. The islands are the home of a large number of birds, including tems, gannets and white egrets, though most of the indigenous species are extinct. The neighbouring seas abound in fish. Among the domestic animals introduced are the ass and pig.

Inhabitants.—Like Mauritius, Réunion and Rodriguez the Seychelles were uninhabited when first visited by Europeans; though fragments of ruins found on Praslin and Frigate islands may indicate the presence of man in earlier centuries. The islands were colonized by Mauritian and Bourbon creoles; the white element, still prevailingly French, has been strengthened by the settlement of several British families. The first planters introduced slaves from Mauritius, and the negro element has been increased by the introduction of freed slaves from East Africa. There has been also an immigration of Chinese and, in larger numbers, of Indians (mainly from the Malabar coast). An official report issued in 1910 stated that the greater part of the valuable town property had passed into the hands of Indians, and that Indians and Chinese had the bulk of the retail trade. Of the coloured population those born in the Seychelles of negro, or negro-Indian blood are known as “enfants des îles.” They speak a rude creole patois, based on French but with a large admixture of Indian, Bantu and English Words. The Seychellois are of fine physique, and are excellent and fearless sailors.

At the census of 1881 the inhabitants numbered 14,081, in 1891 the figure was 16,603 and in 1901 the population numbered 19,237, of whom 9805 were males and 9432 females. The population on December 31st, 1909, was officially estimated at 22,409, or 149·59 persons per sq. m. The pure white population is about 600. About two-thirds of the inhabitants are Roman Catholics.

Agriculture and Industries.—Apart from fisheries the Wealth of the islands depends upon agriculture, and the industries connected there with. These are fostered by the government, which in 1901 created an agricultural board and established a botanic station at Victoria. Spices (cloves, cinnamon, nutmegs) were the chief articles of trade in the 18th century, and these with cotton, coffee, tobacco, sugar, maize and rice were the main crops grown until about 1850. Bananas, yams, &c., were also largely cultivated, and there was considerable trade in coco-nut oil, timber, fish and fish oil and tortoise-shell, whaling being carried on, chiefly by Americans and French, in the neighbouring seas. Subsequently cocoa was cultivated extensively, and from about 1890 vanilla largely superseded the other crops; in 1899 the vanilla exported was valued at over £100,000 out of a total export of £140,000, and from 1896 to 1903 the crop represented more than half the total value of the exports. Owing to increased competition, and in some degree to careless harvesting, there was a great fall in prices after 1900, and the Seychellois, though still producing vanilla in large quantities, paid greater attention to the products of the coconut palm—copra, soap, coco-nut oil and coco-nuts—to the development of the mangrove bark industry, the collection of guano, the cultivation of rubber trees, the preparation of banana flour, the growing of sugar canes, and the distillation of rum and essential oils. The tortoise-shell and calipee fisheries and the export of salt fish are important industries. Minor exports are cocoa, coco-de-mer and bêche-de-mer. From the leaves of the coco-de-mer are made baskets and hats.

The imports consist chiefly of cotton goods and hardware from Great Britain; rice, flour and cotton from India, sugar and rum from Mauritius, coffee from Aden, wines and spirits and clothing from France. The value of the imports and exports (exclusive of specie) for the six years 1901–1906 was: imports, £360, 520; exports, £377,615 The increase of trade is indicated by the figures for 1907 (a record year) to 1909. In the three years the value of imports was £233,863, that of exports £355,306 Over 75% of the total trade is with Great Britain or British possessions. The medium of exchange is the Indian rupee (=16d.), with the subsidiary coinage of Mauritius.

Towns and Communications.—The only town of an size is the capital, Port Victoria (or Mahé), picturesquely situated, at the head of an excellent harbour. Many of the houses are built of massive coral, Porites gaimardi, hewn into square building blocks which at a distance glisten like white marble. The port is a coaling station of the British navy and is connected by telegraphic cables with Zanzibar and Mauritius. There is no inland telegraph system. All the islands are well provided with metalled roads. Regular monthly communication with Marseilles is maintained by the Messageries Maritimes steamers. German and British lines serve the South African and Indian ports. The government employ steam vessels for passenger and mail services between the islands, and there are large numbers of sailing craft belonging to the islanders.

Government, Revenue, &c.—Seychelles is a crown colony administered by a governor, assisted by nominated executive and legislative councils. Revenue is derived chiefly from customs, licences, court fees and the post office, while among the principal heads of expenditure figure telegraph and steamer subsidies and the education, medical, legal and police departments. For the ten years 1899–1908 the average yearly revenue was £28,726; the average yearly expenditure £27,304. A public debt of £20,000, repayable in thirty annual instalments, was contracted in 1899. The law in force is based on the Code Napoléon, considerably modified, however, by local ordinances. The simplification and codification of the laws was carried out during 1899–1904 (see the Colonial Office annual reports, especially that for 1903, § 37). Education is under the control, of a government board and, besides primary schools, the1e are institutions for higher education and a Carnegie Library. Grants are made to schools of all denominations. The creole patois is unsuited to be a medium of instruction, and English is used as far as possible, though its acquisition by the peasantry is that of a foreign language. The same difficulty, to an almost equal degree, would apply to the use of French as a medium.

History.—The Seychelles are marked on Portuguese charts dated 1502. The first recorded visit to the islands was made in 1609 by an English ship; then for 133 years there is no documentary evidence of any further visit. The second recorded visit, in 1742, was made by Captain Lazare Picault, who, returning two years later, formally annexed the islands to France. Though then uninhabited there is a strong tradition, probably Well founded, that the Seychelles had been from Arab times a rendezvous of the pirates and corsairs who infested the high seas between South Africa and India. Picault, who acted as agent of the celebrated Mahé de la Bourdonnais, governor of the Ile de France (Mauritius), named the principal island Mahé and the group Îles de la Bourdonnais, a style changed in 1756, when the islands were renamed after Moreau de Séchelles, at that time contrôleur des finances under Louis XV. The first permanent settlement was made about 1768, when the town of Mahé was founded. Soon afterwards Pierre Poivre, intendant of Île de France, seeing the freedom of the Seychelles archipelago from hurricanes, caused spice plantations to be made there, with the object of wresting from the Dutch the monopoly they then enjoyed of the spice trade. The existence of these plantations was kept secret, and it was with that object that they were destroyed by fire by the French on the appearance in the harbour in 1778 of a vessel flying the British flag. The ship, however, proved to be a French slaver who had hoisted the Union Jack fearing to find the British in possession. Mahé proved very useful to French ships during the wars of the Revolution, and this led to its capture by the British in 1794, but no troops were left to garrison the place, and the administration went on as before. In 1806 the island capitulated to the captain of another British ship, but again no garrison was left, and it was not until after the capture of Mauritius in 1810 that the Seychelles were occupied by the British, to whom they were ceded by the treaty of Paris in 1814. Throughout this period Mons. J. B. Quéau de Quincy (1748–1827) administered the islands. This remarkable man, a Parisian by birth, became governor of the Seychelles in 1789 under the monarchy, continued to serve under the First Republic, and Napoleon I.,—acknowledging the British authority when ships of that nationality entered the harbour,—and when the Seychelles were made a dependency of Mauritius was appointed by the British agent-civil. In all he governed the islands thirty-eight years, dying in 1827. His tomb is in Government House garden. Under de Quincy’s administration the islands prospered; the cultivation of cotton and coffee was then begun, much of the land being deforested for this purpose—a deforestation practically completed when vanilla was introduced. In 1834 the abolition of slavery led to a decline in the prosperity of the islands, but as many of the slaves captured by British cruisers off the east coast of Africa. were landed at Seychelles economic conditions were gradually ameliorated. There was also a slight immigration of coolies from India. From 1810 until 1872 the administration was dependent upon Mauritius; from that date onward greater powers were given to the local authorities, until in 1903 Seychelles was erected into a separate colony with its own governor. The over-dependence placed on one product caused waves of depression to alternate with waves of prosperity, and the depression following the fall in the price of vanilla was aggravated by periods of drought, “agricultural sloth and careless extravagance.”[2] But during 1905–1910 successful efforts were made to broaden the economic resources of the colony. A natural field for the energies of the surplus population was also found in colonization work in British East Africa. The islands were chosen in 1897 as the place of deportation of Prempeh, ex-king of Ashanti, and in 1901 Mwanga, ex-king of Uganda, and Kabarega, ex-king of Unyoro were also deported thither. Mwanga died at the Seychelles in May 1903.

Dependencies.—The outlying islands forming part of the colony of Seychelles consist of several widely scattered groups and have a total population of about 900. The Amirante archipelago is situated on a submarine bank west and south-west of the Seychelles, the nearest island being about 120 m. from Mahé. The archipelago consists of a number of coral islets and atolls comprising the African Islands (4), the St Joseph group (8), the Poivre Islands (9) and the Alphonso group (3). Farther south and within 170 m. of Madagascar is the Providence group (3) formed by the piling up of sand on a surface reef of crescent shape. The Cosmoledo Islands, 12 in number, lie some 210 m. west of Providence Island, while 70 m. further west are the Aldabra Islands (q.v.). The chief island in the Cosmoledo group is 9 m. long by 6 broad. Coetivy (transferred from Mauritius to the Seychelles in 1908) lies about 100 m. S.S.E. of Platte. The majority of the outlying islands are extremely fertile, coco-nut trees and maize growing luxuriantly. Several of the islands contain valuable deposits of guano and phosphate of lime, and their waters are frequented by edible and shell turtle. Like the Amirantes all the other islands named are of coral formation.

See Unpublished Documents on the History of the Seychelles Islands Anterior to 1810, with a cartography and a bibliography compiled by A. A. Fauvel (Mahé, 1909); Ancient Maps of Seychelles Archipelago, a portfolio containing 28 maps (Mahé, 1909); J. Stanley Gardiner, “The Seychelles Archipelago” (with bibliographical notes), in Geo. Jnl. vol. 29 (1907) and “The Indian Ocean,” Geo. Jnl. vol. 28 (1906). See also the annual reports on the Seychelles issued by the Colonial Office; those from 1901 onward contain valuable botanical reports. For the dependencies see R. Dupont, Report on a Visit of Investigation to St Pierre, Astove, Cosmoledo, Assumption and the Aldabra Group of the Seychelles Islands (Seychelles, 1907).

  1. The gigantic land tortoise (Testudo elephantine) is found only in the Aldabra Islands.
  2. Colonial Reports . . . Seychelles (1907).