The history of Reunion Island

  • 05 June 2014

The eruption of Piton des Neiges three million years ago was the physical beginning of what is now known as Reunion Island. Photo courtesy of fabiaN NACHIAR

Modern-day Reunion Island: the capital city of Saint-Denis. Photo courtesy of Tristan Legros

Reunion Island was formed around three million years ago, by the eruption of the volcano Piton des Neiges. The French island, located in the Indian Ocean (about 200km south-west of Mauritius), is 63km long and 45km wide, and is home to around 800 000 people.

After several failed attempts to inhabit the island, the first successful settlers arrived in 1665. They were a group of 20, who were part of the French East India Company.

The island was originally known as Île Bourbon, but named Réunion in 1793. Between 1801 and 1810 it was known as Île Bonaparte (after Napoleon Bonaparte), and between 1810 and 1848 the island was again called Bourbon. The island's official name of Île de la Réunion has stood since 1848, and Bourbon is now the official name of the only beer brewed on the island.

Antoine Lozza, a Reunion Island tour guide, explains that coffee was the first industry to be established on the island (during the 18th century) and that slaves were sourced to assist with this. They were sourced mainly from Madagascar and Mozambique, with a few from countries such as Senegal.

Slavery was abolished in 1848 and landowners were required to pay salaries. While wages and working conditions remained poor for a long time, work opportunities on Reunion Island attracted immigrants from India, China and Africa. This contributed to the diversity of the island's population.

Reunion Island was briefly colonised by Britain between 1810 and 1815. During this time, coffee was replaced by sugar cane. In 1819, vanilla was introduced for the first time. Today, vanilla and sugar are the main agricultural products.

French is the official language of Reunion Island, but Creole (which derived from French) is also widely spoken.

Stéphane Bonneau, Indian Ocean and Asian markets manager for Reunion Island Tourism, says cultural diversity and integration on the island make it a very special place. He explains that there are many inter-faith marriages and there is an open-minded approach to religion. "Many families will go to church on Sundays and temple during the week," he says.

See a list of cultural and heritage attractions on Reunion Island, on the official tourism website.

Visit Le Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle (the Natural History Museum) in Saint-Denis to learn about the amazing natural diversity of Reunion Island. Photo courtesy of Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

Below is an interactive map of Reunion Island that you can use to become familiar with the various destinations.

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