Like Mauritius and Réunion, the Seychelles had no indigenous population predating the European colonisers, and until the 18th century it was uninhabited. The islands were first spotted by Portuguese explorers, but the first recorded landing was by a British East India Company ship in 1609. Pirates and privateers used the Seychelles as a temporary base during lulls in their marauding.
The Colonial Period
In 1742 Mahé de Labourdonnais, the governor of what is now Mauritius, sent Captain Lazare Picault to investigate the islands. Picault named the main island after his employer (and the bay where he landed after himself) and laid the way for the French to claim possession of the islands 12 years later.
It took a while for the French to do anything with their possession. It wasn't until 1770 that the first batch of 21 settlers and seven slaves arrived on Ste-Anne Island. After a few false starts, the settlers began growing spices, cassava, sugar cane and maize.
In the early 19th century, the British began taking an interest in the Seychelles. Not willing to die for their colony, the French didn't resist British attacks and the Seychelles became a British dependency in 1814. The British did little to develop the islands except increase the number of slaves. After abolition in 1835, freed slaves from around the region were also brought here. Over the decades that followed, the islands were used as a holding pen for numerous political prisoners and exiles. However, because few British settled here, the French language and culture remained dominant.
In 1903 the Seychelles became a crown colony administered from London. It promptly went into the political and economic doldrums until 1964, when two political parties were formed. France Albert René, a young lawyer, founded the Seychelles People's United Party (SPUP). A fellow lawyer, James Mancham, led the new Seychelles Democratic Party (SDP).
Mancham's SDP, made up of business people and planters, won the elections in 1966 and 1970. René's SPUP fought on a socialist and independence ticket. In June 1975 a coalition of the two parties gave the appearance of unity in the lead-up to independence, which was granted a year later. Mancham became the first president of the Republic of Seychelles and René the prime minister.
The flamboyant Sir Jim – as poet and playboy James Mancham was known – placed all his eggs in one basket: tourism. He became a jet-setter, flying around the world with a beautiful socialite on each arm, and he put the Seychelles on the map.
The rich and famous poured in for holidays and to party, party, party. Adnan Khashoggi and other Arab millionaires bought large tracts of land, while film stars and celebrities came to enhance their romantic, glamorous images.
According to René and the SPUP, however, the wealth was not being spread evenly and the country was no more than a rich person's playground. René stated that poor Creoles were little better off than slaves.
The René Era
In June 1977, barely a year after independence, René and a team of Tanzanian-trained rebels carried out an almost bloodless coup while Mancham was in London attending a Commonwealth Conference. In the following years, René consolidated his position by deporting many supporters of the outlawed SDP. Opposed to René's one-party socialist state, these grands blancs (white landowners) set up 'resistance movements' in Britain, South Africa and Australia.
The country fell into disarray as the tourist trade dried to a trickle. The 1980s saw a campaign of civil disruption by supporters of the SDP, two army mutinies and more foiled coup attempts.
Finally, facing growing international criticism and the threatened withdrawal of foreign aid, René pulled a political about-face in the early 1990s; he abandoned one-party rule and announced the return to a multiparty democracy.
Elections were held in 1992 under the watchful eye of Commonwealth observers. René and his renamed Seychelles People's Progressive Front (SPPF) won 58.4% of the votes; Mancham, who had returned to the Seychelles, fielded 33.7% for his SDP and claimed the results were rigged.
René maintained his grip on power, while the SDP's star continued to wane. Even Mancham himself abandoned the SDP in favour of the centrist Seychelles National Party (SNP) in 1999. In the 2002 elections, the SNP, led by Anglican priest Wavel Ramkalawan, confirmed its stand as the main opposition party by winning more than 42% of the vote.
The Long Road to Democracy
In April 2004 René finally relinquished the presidency to the former vice president, James Michel, who had stood by René through thick and thin. After a close race with opposition leader Wavel Ramkalawan, Michel won the 2006 presidential election, gaining 53.5% of the vote.
Michel has not seemed willing to cede his power to any of his opponents; he prematurely dissolved the National Assembly in March 2007, following the boycott of assembly proceedings by the opposition party. The ensuing general elections in May 2007 returned 18 SPPF members against seven members of Ramkalawan's SNP opposition party (exactly the same numbers as before the dissolution). Though these elections were held democratically, the opposition claimed that the government bought votes.
On the economic front, in 2008 the highly indebted country was forced to turn to the IMF for assistance. A package of reforms was passed, including the free floating of the rupee, the abolition of all exchange restrictions and massive cuts in public spending. Debt was frozen and the economy quickly rebounded.
Elections in 2015 saw the government retain power but with a greatly reduced majority, leading many to wonder whether the ruling party's four decades at the helm might be under threat.