World Cultures | Seychelles

Culture Name

Seychellois

Orientation

Identification. The name "Seychelles" derives from the 1756 French expedition that led to the annexation of the islands. The commander of the expedition named the islands Séchelles after the controller of finance, Vicomte Moreau des Séchelles.

Location and Geography. Located in the Indian Ocean south of the equator, with a land area of 118 square miles (455 square kilometers), the Seychelles is technically the smallest continent. The central islands have a continental shelf and are granitic, while the outlying ones are flat coral islands. The granitic islands are mountainous. The capital, Victoria, is on the main island, Mahé, at a spot where the island of Saint Anne creates natural harbor. The country has a large number of native species, especially birds and plants.

Demography. The population was 79,164 in 1999 and is growing slowly as a result of out-migration.

Linguistic Affiliation. The official languages are Seychelles Creole, French, and English. Seychelles Creole has a strong resemblance to the Creoles of Mauritius and Reunion and those of the Caribbean. There has been disagreement about the use of French versus English and the extent to which Creole should be used. Most people speak Creole at home. The English-French divide occurs in debates about how new words should be integrated into Creole.

Symbolism. The flag consists of wedges or rays emanating from the lower left corner. The colors are yellow, red, white, and green, with a blue wedge at the upper left. The flag symbolizes the ocean, the link to Africa, and the multicolored nature of the population. The government that gained power through a coup in 1977 had Marxist leanings and used rhetoric appropriate to that ideology. The country has used a national rhetoric of development and the pioneering spirit, especially in regard to the development of the outer islands.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. The country was not inhabited when Europeans discovered and settled the islands. While the French originally settled in 1770, the British took control during the Napoleonic Wars, but without throwing out the French upper class. The settlers brought slaves, and the society featured white domination and black slavery. After the British prohibited slavery in 1835, the influx of African workers did not end because British warships captured Arab slavers and forced the liberated slaves to work on plantations as "apprentices" without pay. The Gran'bla ("big whites") of French origin dominated the economy and political life, with a British colonial administration that at times was supportive but was often hostile to them. The administration did not permit the importation of Indian indentured laborers. Therefore, the Indian component of the population is small and, like a similar minority of Chinese, is confined to a merchant class.

The country became independent from Britain in 1976, with the exception of the islands retained as the British Indian Ocean Territory. This included Diego Garcia, which was developed as U.S. military base.

National Identity. Independence brought public debate about issues of national identity and allegiance. The winner of the first election for the presidency, James Mancham, favored integration or close ties with Britain; his main opponent, France Albert René, saw this as a danger to the national identity, which he considered African. He also had

Seychelles

Seychelles

strong socialist leanings. The Gran'bla wanted to reestablish ties with France. René toppled the first elected government in a coup in 1977 and established a one-party state that lasted until 1992. However, his party, the Seychelles People's Progressive Front (SPPF), remained in power after the election of 1992, and René won the presidential election of 1993 and has been president since.

 

Ethnic Relations. The Indian and Chinese merchants form two distinct ethnic communities, as do the gran'bla . Those that were evicted from Diego Garcia when the U.S. military base was established are called Illois. They are also found in Mauritius and regard themselves as distinct from Seychellois although they historically and culturally belong to the mobile plantation worker class in Seychelles. Ethnic relations are mainly relations of class in Seychelles.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Traditional architecture had two distinct forms: plantations and town houses. The plantation was focused on a lakou (courtyard with an owner's or manager's house), the kalorife (drying oven for copra), and storage houses. Separate from the courtyard were the workers' houses with thatched roofs, and on some plantations also with walls made from coconut leaves. The workers' houses often were divided into two parts: a sleeping room and a living room. The living room often was filled with furniture and seldom was used, as most social life took place outdoors. The kitchen was usually in a separate house. The typical town house had a general Victorian form, but both the roof and the walls might be made of corrugated iron sheets. With the decline of the plantation sector and agriculture in general the traditional lay out of the courtyards are disappearing. New houses are often constructed in an architecture common to many former British colonies, such that there is often a flat roof with a slight slope and windows with many horizontally arranged panes that can be tilted in order to allow easy circulation of air.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. The staple is curry and rice, which may be eaten two or three times a day. The curry may be based on fish or meat. Coconut milk often is used in the curry. Upper-class Creoles eat meals that consist of both fish and meat. Alcoholism has been prevalent, partly because the plantations used drinks as payments and incentives. Among the working classes drinking tended to be solitary. A typical drink is palm wine, fermented sap tapped from coconut palm fronds.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. There are no specific foods for ceremonial occasions, but meat is preferred.

Basic Economy. In a land-based plantation economy, copra and in some periods cinnamon and vanilla were the main exports. In 1960, about a third of the economically active population worked on plantations, and about 20 percent in the public sector. After the opening of the international airport in 1971, tourism became important. Segmentation of the economy into the tourism and plantation sectors developed. Wages were much higher in the tourism sector. There was little scope for expansion of the plantation economy or for increases in wages, since the wage-paying potential was fixed by international prices of plantation crops. The plantation sector declined, and agriculture now accounts for about 4 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) and less than 10 percent of the workforce. Although Seychelles copra is of very high quality, it is likely that the plantation sector will disappear completely. Tourism now employs 30 percent of the labor force and accounts for 13 percent of GDP and 60 percent of foreign exchange earnings. Although the country is now classified as an upper-middle-income economy by the World Bank, it has retained an unequal income distribution, and in 1992, about 7 percent of the population was considered poor. The Seychelles Rupee (SRS) is the national currency. There is approximately 5 SRS to the USD.

Land Tenure and Property. While historically the gran'bla owned nearly the all land, the postindependence period saw the sale of land being to outsiders. In 1960, fifty-six landowners held two-thirds of the agricultural land. In 1976, 56 percent was held by foreigners.

Major Industries. Tourism is focused on the upper part of the market. Tuna fishing and canning are becoming increasingly important, as is aquaculture. A small manufacturing sector is linked to the establishment of an international trade zone. The country also offers registration facilities for foreign companies.

Trade. Apart from the export oriented manufacturing, tuna and plantation crops, trade is limited to locally produced fish and vegetables and imported manufactured goods. Souvenirs are produced and sold to tourists.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. Social stratification is symbolized largely by skin color and ethnic origin. There is hierarchy of color terms, from ble ("blue") to bla-rose ("white-pink") that coincides with the historical continuum of status from plantation worker to landowner. Seychellois use the color terms to identify the people they are talking about. The degree to which color and class determine the social order is a contested issue.

Symbols of Social Stratification. There are no particular symbols of social stratification apart from skin color and complexion.

 

Fish hang from the handlebars of a fisherman's bicycle. Seychelles is located in the Indian Ocean.

 

Political Life

Government. Since 1992, the Republic of Seychelles has been a multiparty state. The present constitution was adopted in 1993 and stipulates that the head of government is also the chief of state and appoints the council of ministers. A direct election of the president is held every five years, as are elections for the unicameral thirty-five-seat National Assembly. The president appoints the members of the supreme court and appeals court. Civil law and commercial law derive from the French, while the penal code is influenced by the British model.

Leadership and Political Officials. The SPPF is the dominant party. Other parties include the Democratic Party, United Opposition Party, Seychelles Party, Seychelles Liberal Party, and Seychelles Democratic Movement.

Social Problems and Control. The main social problems recognized by the government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are domestic violence, sexual abuse of children and alcoholism.

Military Activity. The country has never fought in a war. There is little emphasis on fighting prowess or martial arts. Seychellois participated in World War II in the British Army. The coup in 1977 and a subsequent attempted countercoup led to the establishment of military forces; there is also a coast guard.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

Several Seychelles-based nongovernmental organizations exist. Among these are several organizations that address social problems such as CAREDA (Committee on Awareness, Resilience and Education against Drugs and Alcohol) and the Association for the Promotion of Solid Humane Families. The important National Council for Children is a semigovernmental organization. There are two human rights NGOs that both were established in 1998: the Center for Rights and Development, and the Friends for a Democratic Society. There are also a number of NGOs focusing on natural preservation or the study of nature.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. There are no strict norms for the division of labor by gender, but several statistical tendencies. In particular, women rarely fish. In the plantation economy, both men and women worked as wage laborers. The tourism industry also employs women, although the labor force participation of women relative to men has been reduced by the decline of the plantation economy. Female employment is about 40 percent of that of males in administration and 14 percent in clerical and professional jobs.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. Women generally have a high status in the working class, but not in other social strata. Women control economic resources within the family and often pursue economic careers. Traditionally, violence between spouses has been a problem, usually with women as the victims.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Consensual unions are common but less so among the gran'bla and the Indian and Chinese communities. Polygamy is not practiced, but unions are unstable and divorce or breakup is common. Fifty to 60 percent of births are to women who are not married and often are not acknowledged by the child's father. The partners generally arrange the marriage. There is a strong contractual aspect to marriage, with a clear division of responsibilities between men and women. Among working-class

Market Street, the crowded shopping street in Victoria. Tourism employs 30 percent of the workforce.

people, the man gives his spouse his wages, which are used for daily expenditures for food, clothes, and the children. Women use their own income for durables, which they keep if the union dissolves. To a large extent, marriages occur within the same social and color strata.

 

Domestic Unit. The form of the domestic unit varies with class. The ideal gran'bla family is nuclear. Among plantation workers, serial monogamy is prevalent, with the woman as the stable center of a domestic unit that consists of herself, her husband (married or in a consensual union), her children regardless of their father, and fostered children. Plantation workers developed a highly regulated system of fosterage in which firstborn children were given to the maternal grandmother or an aunt. A young women who gave away a child early would receive children later from her daughters or younger sisters. This fostering occurred in all classes. The nature of the system differed with the relative social class of the child giver and the child recipient: with large asymmetry in favor of the recipient, this became a system of domestic child work. With the sharp reduction in fertility rates in recent years, the system has been impossible to maintain. Each member of a household is assigned his or her own tasks.

 

Women process copra, or coconuts, in the Seychelles. The plantation sector of the economy is expected to decline.

 

Inheritance. Inheritance is bilateral, with men and women having equal rights.

Kin Groups. Descent is generally bilateral and no descent groups are formed. However, descent has a strong matrilateral bias, especially in the working class. That and the practice of fostering children create networks of women that resemble kin groups. Gran'bla families were formed in the same manner as European families, with an emphasis on patrilineal succession to a name and attempts to keep property within the family.

Socialization

Infant Care. Infants sleep with their parents, especially the mother. Toddlers have freedom to roam but often are watched by older siblings. They are given small tasks from an early age in accordance with the precise assignment of tasks within the household.

Child Rearing and Education. Early initiation to an active sexual life has been considered a problem by health authorities. The number of children born to women below age twenty is high. Enrollment in primary education is universal but drops off at the secondary stage. Girls enroll as often as boys. The post-1997 revolutionary regime established a National Youth Service (NYS) along socialist lines. The NYS was replaced in 1999 with the fifth grade of secondary school.

Higher Education. Those who want higher education attend schools and universities overseas. No higher education is available domestically except for polytechnic training, including teacher training, nursing, tourism, and arts.

Etiquette

Seychellois are usually described as laid-back and easygoing. Dress codes are relaxed, and formal clothing is seldom worn. Interpersonal distance is somewhat greater than it is in Europe. Complimentary statements to or about other persons, especially children, are avoided because they may bring misfortune. Greetings are simple.

Religion

Religious Beliefs. Most of the people are Roman Catholic (90 percent) or Anglican (8 percent). What the priests teach is somewhat different from the beliefs and practices of the layperson. Seychellois traditionally had a strong belief in spirits ( nam ) and sorcery ( gri-gri ). Some sorcerers were very influential.

Religious Practitioners. Religious practitioners are priests of the various churches as well as the healers/sorcerers.

Rituals and Holy Places. There are no religious rituals specific to the Seychellois, and the Christian religious feasts are celebrated.

Death and the Afterlife. In general, people follow Christian conceptions of death and the afterlife. Linked to ideas about sorcery was the belief that the spirit of a person prematurely killed by sorcery could be made to serve the sorcerer for the duration of that person's natural life span.

Medicine and Health Care

Major tropical diseases such as malaria have never established in the islands. The primary health care system is well established. Advanced care is not available, but there is a hospital in the capital. The nature of current beliefs and practices involving traditional medicine is not documented. Sorcerers traditionally were involved in healing through the use of medicinal plants.

Secular Celebrations

The national day is celebrated on 18 June to commemorate the adoption of the constitution in 1993. On 5 June Liberation Day is celebrated in remembrance of the 1977 coup, and on 29 June Independence Day is observed. Labor Day is on 1 May. New Year is celebrated on 1 and 2 January. Christian holidays that are also public holidays include All Saints Day (1 November), Immaculate Conception (8 December), and Christmas Day (25 December).

The Arts and Humanities

Literature. Seychelles Creole is a written language and the only daily newspaper, the Nation publishes partly in Creole. Apart from folk tales which have been published in Creole there is no literature.

Graphic Arts. There are few arts and crafts in Seychelles that derive from a Seychellois tradition. There is a small crafts industry in conjunction with tourism.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

There is not much research either in physical or social sciences based in Seychelles. A journal that covers the sciences in general appears sporadically. Seychelles has nevertheless been the focus of research, in particular marine biology, ornithology, botany, and geology because of the uniqueness of the islands.

Bibliography

Benedict, Burton. People of the Seychelles, 1966.

——. "The Equality of the Sexes in Seychelles." In M. Freedman, ed. Social Organization, 1967.

Benedict, Marion, and Burton Benedict. Men, Women and Money in Seychelles, 1982.

Berge, Gunnvor. Hierarchy, Equality and Social Change: Exchange Processes on a Seychelles Plantation, 1987.

Pedersen, Jon. The Social Construction of Fertility: Population Processes on a Plantation in the Seychelles, 1985.

——. "Plantation Women and Children: Wage Labor, Adoption and Fertility in the Seychelles." Ethnology 26 (1): 51–61, 1987.

Scarr, Deryck. Seychelles since 1770: History of a Slave and Post-Slavery Society, 1999.

—J ON P EDERSEN

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