IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 20 | Regions | Insular Southwest Asia

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Seychellois of Asian Origin

The Seychelles has one of the most racially mixed societies in the world. Besides African and European settlers, the Republic has also attracted immigrants from Asia, notably India and China.

By JEAN-CLAUDE PASCAL MAHOUNE

The Republic of the Seychelles consists of some 115 islands scattered in the South-West Indian Ocean. It has a total land area of 455 sq. km and an Economic Exclusive Zone over 1.3 million sq. km. The Seychelles, with a maximum average temperature of 30° C and an average annual rainfall of 2300 mm, has the good fortune to lie outside the cyclone belt. The economy of the Seychelles is based mainly on tourism and fishing. The Seychelles re-introduced multi-party democracy in 1993 with the promulgation of a new constitution under a Third Republic.

The country has been privatizing its economy, which was more centrally planned since independence quite fast and a number of parastatal companies had been created. Seychelles has one of the highest per capita incomes in Africa. The Seychelles is often described as a welfare state with free education, free health services, and social security protection from cradle to grave. It has a low infant mortality, and its small 80,000+ population has a life expectancy of over 70 years.

What fascinates most visitors landing in the Seychelles, is the perfect racial harmony they find. The Seychelles in fact has one of the most racially mixed societies in the world ­ a true melting pot.

The Seychelles was first settled by the French and their African and South Indian Slaves in 1770. Records state that there were then 15 whites, and 13 Africans and Asians. From the beginning the Seychelles was set to be a society of immigrants where the Europeans would own the plantations and ran the government; the Africans were to constitute the labour force; and the small numbers of Indians and Chinese would be traders. Of course, this set-up was to be 'perfected' almost one century later with the arrival of more Africans (liberated slaves), Indian 'coolies', and Chinese.

In 1814, under the Treaty of Paris, the Seychelles became a British Colony until 1976 when it gained its independence.

Seychellois of Indian origin

After the abolition of slavery in 1835, the French landowners were clamouring for Indian ('coolies') labour to work on their plantations though they had many 'liberated Africans' in the 1860s. When the 'coolies' did come, they were to mostly set to work on road construction. Unlike Mauritius most of them left.

Though the Indians were among the first settlers in the Seychelles, unlike Mauritius there was never any considerable Indian immigration comparable to that of indentured labourers to Mauritius or other British colonies (Benedict 1982). A report, dated 2nd March 1904, noted that the British India Steamer 'Itria' arrived in the Seychelles on 12th February 1905 with the following 'immigrants' from Madras: 106 male adults, 42 female adults, 4 boys, 2 girls, 1 male infant; total 135.

Unfortunately, there is little information about the exact numbers of Indian 'coolies' and their place of origin let alone those who remained in the Seychelles. Civil Status records, however, do indicate that many of these were fully integrated into Seychelles society. Two of them, for example, were: Gopal Tangalam Selly and Naiken Roonoosamy Reddy both born in India, but no information about their place of birth is still extant. Justin Reddy, well-known art teacher in Seychelles, has travelled as far as Britain to try to obtain information about his relatives. He would welcome any additional information on the early Indians who came to the Seychelles. His address is Justin Reddy C/o La Digue School, Republic of Seychelles (Phone 562048) or C/o Ms. Maria Reddy, Anse aux Pins, Mahé, the Seychelles, (phone number 375472).

The members of the Tangalam family worked as indentured labourers on the property of the Roman Catholic Mission (La Gogue) and as might have been expected were converted. Mr. Roonasamy Reddy was a shopkeeper. These early Indians integrated fully into Seychelles society, which marked them off from the traders who came later from Northern and Southern India. The Creole word for an Indian up to recently was a 'malbar', associated with the Malabar coast.

The 1931 census which was the last to classify people according to their race indicated a total of 503 'Indians' out of a population of 27,444. Some 343 were born in Asia, 128 in the Seychelles, 31 in Mauritius, and one in France. A 1947 estimate lists 285 Indians and the 1960 census, which listed the population by their mother tongue, includes 91 Gujarati-speakers, and 66 Tamil-speakers. The Gujarati Indians arrived late in the nineteenth and early twentieth century as traders. They came from Parsee, Hindu, Jain, and Muslim trading communities. They have been very successful in business and to this day own the largest and most successful wholesale and retail shops in the Seychelles. Many have preserved their original religion.

Seychellois of Chinese origin

Ly-Tio Fane (1981) affirms that it was around 1886, most probably, that the Chinese immigrants came to the Seychelles via Mauritius. There was a group of 23. It is pointed out that in the 1871 census whereas some 100 Indian immigrants were recorded, no Chinese is mentioned. The first Chinese were probably attracted by the flourishing vanilla industry but later turned to commerce at which they excelled. In fact between 1890 and 1903 the Seychelles was competing with Bourbon (La Réunion) in the export of vanilla, but in 1904 the plantations were afflicted by a disease.

Among one of the oldest documents, a Civil Status record preserved at the National Archives of the Seychelles, was a wedding between a 'Cantonese' and a 'Creole' woman. According to Gerard the Chinese immigrants came from Guangdong Province where there was antagonism between the Hakkas and the Cantonese and so both groups established relations more freely with the Creoles. Most of the Cantonese were concentrated in the town area around the market (bazaar) where a 'pagoda' was later built. The Hakkas were in the suburbs of town, at Mont Fleuri.

In 1948 a Census Commissioner wrote of the 1931 census 'Intermarriage between the Chinese and Seychellois is fairly common and it was decided not to classify the children as Chinese since they are born and bred in the colony and unlikely ever to go to China'.

At first most of the Chinese in the Seychelles were engaged in agriculture, transport, business, and even fishing. They grew fast in importance. As one informant (Lai-Lam) once stated ­ they owned most of the shops in town. They are reputed to have introduced the credit system (keeping of 'carnet' (note-books).

In 1945, Mr Richard Man-Cham the father of the man who was to become the first Chief Minister, the first Prime Minister, and the first President of the Seychelles wrote to the then Director of Education asking for permission to open a Chinese School.

The Director did not welcome the idea. A Chinese Association still exists today and the Chinese New Year is celebrated with gusto at the 'pagoda' each year.

Many writers have written about the almost complete assimilation of the Chinese into Seychelles Society ­ abandoning their religion (usually Confucianism), converting to Christianity, and marrying Seychellois women. The younger generation of Chinese Seychellois probably do not speak the language of their forebears though they understand it. What has been better preserved is the cooking which has influenced many other Seychellois.

Today Seychellois of Chinese origin or 'Creole Chinese' hold very important positions in the country. They attach huge importance to the education of their children. The Anglican Archishop, French Chang-Him, has a Chinese father and certainly both European and African blood. Most of the Seychellois of Indian origin still dominate the wholesale and import export trade, whereas the Seychellois of Chinese origin are prominent in retailing (Franda 1982).

The success of the Seychellois of Indian and Chinese-origin businesses compared to that of Creoles, is attributed by the anthropologist Benedict to the patrifocal nature of their household as compared to the matrifocal Creole society in which the male he says is a carefree big earner and big spender! *


Jean-Claude Pascal Mahoune, Principal Research Officer, Ministry of Youth and Culture, can be contacted through e-mail: Pierre@Seychelles.net

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 20 | Regions | Insular Southwest Asia