Located off the eastern coast of Africa, in the warm, crystal-clear waters of the Indian Ocean, the 115 islands of the Seychelles archipelago are scattered across 1,300,000 sqkm (500 000 square miles) of sparkling ocean. Seychelles, which were uninhabited when the first Europeans made landfall there, had the great good fortune to be discovered relatively late in the colonial era.
Seychelles lies between six and ten degrees South of the Equator, some 1 500km (930 miles) from mainland Africa, and to the west of Zanzibar. They sit at the northern end of the submarine Mascarene plateau, where seas are relatively shallow – at the edge of the plateau – the “drop-off”- ocean depths plunge to some 4 000m (13 000ft).
Seychelles are caressed by warm ocean currents, resulting in prolific marine life, with a greater biomass but lesser variety of species than in cold current areas of the world’s oceans.
In 1502, crossing from India to Africa, Vasco da Gama was the first to sight the group of coral islands which he named Les Amirantes (Admiral Islands) after himself.
Over time, various Empires vied for control of the valuable trade across the Indian Ocean: Arabs, Venetians, Dutch, French, and British. Valuable cargoes included not just spices but also ivory, gems and slaves. Strategically located, Seychelles became a popular stopping-off point for ships on long ocean voyages, where they would take on fresh water and food (including tortoises which were kept alive on board to provide fresh meat).
Subsequently a number of trading vessels were wrecked on the reefs of Seychelles, and the presence of richly-laden cargo ships attracted the attention of pirates, some of whom based themselves in Seychelles.
Indian Ocean trade led to the first recorded landing in Seychelles – on North Island. In 1609, the East India Company vessel Ascension lost its course. Ultimately they sighted North Island, and the ship made anchorage in its natural harbour.
“It is a very good refreshing place for wood, water, cooker nutts, fish and fowle,” the merchant John Jourdain wrote in his journal, “without any feare or danger except the allagartes for you cannot discerne that ever any people had bene there before us.”
We like to think that he would find North Island not too much changed today, four centuries later.
Over the following centuries, control of Seychelles passed back and forwards between Britain and France, before independence was achieved peacefully in 1976. During the 1970s the Seychelles was apparently “the place to be seen, a playground for film stars and the international jet set”.
Seychelles today is a peaceful, democratic nation that enjoys good relations with its neighbours and is emerging as a leading voice among small island nations on the vital subjects of climate change and the “blue economy” (sustainable use of ocean resources to improve people’s quality of life, without compromising the integrity of marine ecosystems).
Seychelles have been described as the “Galapagos of the Indian Ocean” and as such, eco-tourism has become an important contributor to the country’s economy.
The isolated, pristine, and verdant Seychelles islands have a population of just 90 000 – the lowest of any African nation – and boast two UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Vallée de Mai on Praslin Island, once thought to be the original Garden of Eden and home to the remarkable and iconic coco de mer tree.
The coat of arms of Seychelles features an Aldabra giant tortoise and a white-tailed tropicbird, two species that are regularly seen on North Island. The Latin motto means “The End Crowns the Work” and could equally be applied to the island rehabilitation work on North Island, now well into its second decade. The national flag represents the principal colours that make up the vibrant palette of Seychelles, and is strongly suggestive of a sunrise – best watched overlooking North Island’s East Beach from Spa Hill…