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Seychelles - Background information
For centuries, the islands of the Seychelles lay hidden in the glossy, blue-black waters of Bahr el Zanj, the ancient Arab name for the tropical ocean extending eastwards from the shores of Africa. Terrifying legends of deep, dark waters, treacherous currents and monstrous waves were born in this mysterious sea. There were stories of strange lands and many islands filled with wondrous plants and peculiar animals, but the exact whereabouts of these mythical places will forever remain a mystery, lost in the cobwebs of time.
From as early as the 7th century, Arabs in their stately dhows plied the trade routes between Arabia, India and Africa. Forts and settlements were created on the east coast of Africa from Mogadishu (Somalia) southwards to Sofala in Mozambique for trading in slaves, ivory, gold and other precious metals. With the seasonal southeasterly trades and northwesterly monsoons, the Arab sailors visited the Comoros and Madagascar, so it is quite conceivable that the Seychelles islands were encountered by Arab dhows. In fact, a series of islands in roughly the same position as the Seychelles appeared on Arab documents dated ad851. A cluster of mouldering graves, believed to be those of Arab sailors, has also been found on the island of Silhouette. However, hundreds of years slipped by before the uninhabited, wooded island gems of the Seychelles were revealed to the Western world.
The islands of the Seychelles, as a result of their fascinating, continental past and equatorial, oceanic location, support a wide diversity of terrestrial and marine fauna and flora. In general, the terrestrial plants and animals have links with Africa, Madagascar and Asia while the marine life is largely characterised by species that are widespread in the tropical Indo-Pacific region. There are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Vallée de Mai on Praslin, and Aldabra Atoll.
The magpie robin can be found on almost of all the Seychelles islands © Seychelles Tourism Board
When the earliest explorers discovered the Seychelles, there were no people living on the islands. The first group of 18th-century pioneers comprised French settlers, African slaves and Indian workers. More people from France and Mauritius, as well as many slaves from Africa and Madagascar, came to the islands, and before the abolition of slavery, 90% of the population was slaves. After the abolition of slavery in 1835, shiploads of slaves, previously destined for the world markets, were set free in the Seychelles. Political prisoners from France were dumped on the oceanic islands during, and after, the French Revolution. Although the Seychelles was a British colony from 1815, there was never a great influx of English settlers, and the dominant French influence remained. Indian and Chinese traders arrived at the beginning of the 20th century to take advantage of the developing economy. There was, and still is, an easy-going attitude to love and romance, and relationships between the races are commonplace, giving rise to the cosmopolitan, dusky-skinned Seychellois people. Today’s inhabitants are a cheerful mix of every race imaginable, and they are proud to count how many nationalities can belong to one family.
The cosmopolitan Seychellois have a charming Creole culture which stems from the African, European and Asian roots of the people. From the slave background, a camaraderie developed and there was a great sense of sharing which is still noticeable today. In fact, sharing is the essence of the Creole culture – sharing of mixed traditions and languages to build up one culture that is unique to the Seychelles. The slaves brought traditional African and Malagasy cultures encompassing witchcraft and superstition. Some islanders still believe in the power of magic (gris-gris) and will spend a lot of money consulting the bonnomm dibwa (medicine man) when needing to resolve issues such as a lovers’ dispute. The bonnomm is also believed to have healing powers and will sometimes be consulted in cases of illness.
Families are generally large and everyone seems to be related to, or at least know, everyone else. Children grow up in a most uncomplicated way playing in the gentle waves, going fishing and messing about in little boats. Grandmothers and aunts are always around to take care of the children when parents are at work. There is a free and easy approach to marriage: many couples never marry and partner changes are quite acceptable. Children tend to stay with their mothers, regardless of her partner, and the woman is generally the head of the household as fathers sometimes shirk the responsibilities of child rearing.