Reunion Island

Reunion is an island in the western Indian Ocean in the southern hemisphere as well as a French overseas department. Covering an area of ​​2,512 km2, Reunion is located in the Mascareignes archipelago 172 km west-south-west of Mauritius and 679 km east-south-east of Madagascar. It is a volcanic island created by a hot spot: culminating at 3071 m at the Piton des Neiges, it presents a steep relief worked by a very marked erosion. Piton de la Fournaise, located in the south-east of the island, is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Benefiting from a tropical maritime trade climate and located on the cyclone route, Reunion is home to exceptional endemism.

Presumably spotted from the Middle Ages by the Arabs under the name of “Dina Morgabin” (the sunset island), Reunion was only inhabited from the middle of the 17th century, or about 150 years after its appearance on the portulans from Portuguese browsers. Until then known as Mascarin Island, it became under that of Bourbon Island, a stopover for the French East India Company on the Indian route and then, from the 1710s, a veritable colony practicing the culture of coffee. Become a plantation company, it passed under the direct control of the king of France in the 1760s before being reassigned to the sugar cane industry at the end of the Napoleonic wars. It was definitely renamed its current name and slavery was abolished there in 1848, replaced until the 1930s by the practice of engagism.

The island experienced a rampant economic crisis from the 1870s. It became a French department in 1946 (departmental code 974) and has been, since 2003, the overseas territorial authority most integrated into the Republic. Despite its membership of the euro zone, its productive fabric remains structurally fragile and highly dependent on metropolitan France. There is a particularly high unemployment rate, around 29%, including 60% among young people. The first economic sector of the island is today tourism. The GDP is estimated at 14.5 billion euros, the average income per capita being around 18,000 euros per year. According to the last census, the population was, in January 2015, of 850,727 inhabitants, mainly concentrated on the coasts where the main cities are located including Saint-Denis, the capital.

The local demography is characterized by the youth of the inhabitants and their varied origins, both European, West African, East African, Malagasy, Indian, Annamese, Malaysian and Chinese. This diversity influences Reunionese culture, characterized in particular by its language, Reunion Creole, its cuisine and even its music (sega, maloya, etc…).

Reunion Island’s history

Discovery and the first inhabitants

It is possible that the Austronesian explorers who criss-crossed the Indian Ocean from Indonesia to Madagascar and Africa many centuries before J.-C., spotted the Mascareignes islands and therefore the island of La Réunion. Later, in the 10th century AD. AD, Arab navigators discovered the island of Reunion and named it “Dîna morgabin”. The island seemed completely uninhabited when the Portuguese ships of the sixteenth century arrived en route to the Indies. A Portuguese navigator, Diogo Dias, is said to have landed there in July 1500. Another Portuguese navigator, Pedro de Mascarenhas landed there on February 9, 1512 or 1513, St. Apolline Day, while he was on the road to Goa. The island then appears on Portuguese maps under the name of Santa Apolonia. Around 1520, Reunion, Mauritius and Rodrigues were called the Mascareignes archipelago, named after Mascarenhas. Today, these three islands are commonly called the Mascarenes. At the beginning of the 17th century, the island was a stopover on the Indian route for English and Dutch ships. On March 23, 1613, the Dutch admiral Pierre-Guillaume Veruff, returning from Java, called at La Réunion. An English-speaking navigator also baptized the still uninhabited island England’s forest.

The French then landed there to take possession of it in the name of the king in 1642 and named it Bourbon Island, after the royal family. In 1646, twelve mutineers chased from Madagascar were abandoned in La Réunion. It was in 1665 that the first twenty settlers from the island of Bourbon arrived. Five ships made up the squadron commanded by Mr. Véron: The White Eagle, The Virgin, The Good Port, The Saint-Paul and The Bull. The flagship was flying the flag of the East India Company. The Loire was still carrying ice cubes when the fleet left the Quai de la Fosse in Nantes in the first days of February 1665. Taking the direction of the ports and establishments on the coast of Malabar and the Bay of Bengal, it arrived at the island Bourbon on July 9, 1665. The crossing was marked by a tragedy, which claimed twelve victims, during the stopover in Cape Verde on Maundy Thursday, March 4, 1665. On April 11, having paid a final tribute to his dead , the fleet set sail again. “She continued her journey without accident,” notes columnist Urbain Souchu de Rennefort. Among the twenty settlers from France, we note the presence of Hervé Dannemont (now Dennemont), born December 17, 1635 in Brix (Manche), son of Jacques Dannemont, master glassmaker, and Marie Lecarpentier. He married around 1668 in Saint-Paul, Léonarde Pillé, originally from Granville. Hervé Dennemont would have died on November 16, 1678. The Dannemonts of Normandy are represented today by around thirty families on the island of La Réunion. They are also found in Mauritius but also in Madagascar. In Normandy, the family died in the 18th century, the name having changed into Dalmont (his descendants are well known thanks to Camille Ricquebourg, author of the Genealogical Dictionary of Bourbon Families).

Françoise Chatelain de Cressy arrived during this period and is at the origin of several known families of Bourbon. From 1715, the island experienced an important economic boom with the development of the cultivation and export of coffee. This culture was at the origin of the considerable development of slavery in the colony. Bertrand-François Mahé de La Bourdonnais, governor of the island from 1735 to 1745, brought a strategic dimension to the development of the island, which had become a food supplier for the Isle of France (now Mauritius) and the French fleet engaged in the Franco-English Indian War. Let us also cite the role of the manager Pierre Poivre, who considerably enriched the local flora and diversified the agricultural resources by the introduction of very many tropical species, in particular cloves and nutmeg whose trade was flourishing in the 18th century and early 19th century.

Revolutionary upheavals

March 19, 1793, during the Revolution, its name becomes “Reunion Island” in homage to the meeting of the federates of Marseille and the Parisian national guards, during the march on the Tuileries Palace, the day of August 10, 1792, and to erase the name of the Bourbon dynasty. On September 26, 1806, the island took the name of Bonaparte and found itself on the front line in the Franco-English conflict for control of the Indian Ocean. The abolition of slavery voted by the National Convention on February 4, 1794 came up against the refusal of its application by Reunion, as by the Isle of France (Mauritius). A delegation accompanied by military forces, charged with imposing the liberation of the slaves, arrived at Bourbon Island on June 18, 1796 to be immediately expelled without bluntness. There followed a period of unrest and contestation of the power of the metropolis, which no longer had any authority over the two islands. The First Consul of the Republic, Napoleon Bonaparte, maintains slavery there which has never been abolished in practice, with the law of May 20, 1802. During the Napoleonic Wars, during the Mauritius campaign, the governor of the island, General Sainte-Suzanne, was forced to capitulate on July 9, 1810. The island then passed under British domination, then was returned to the French during the Treaty of Paris in 1814.

After the climatic disasters of 1806-1807 (cyclones, floods), the cultivation of coffee declined rapidly and was replaced by the cultivation of sugar cane, whose metropolitan demand increased, due to the loss by France of Saint-Domingue, and soon from the Ile de France (Mauritius). Because of its growth cycle, sugar cane is indeed insensitive to the effect of cyclones. Coming in 1841, Edmond Albius’ discovery of manual pollination of vanilla flowers soon made the island the world’s leading producer of vanilla. Also growing the cultivation of geranium, the essence of which is widely used in perfumery. From 1838 to 1841, Rear Admiral Anne Chrétien Louis de Hell was governor of the island. A profound change in society and mentality linked to the events of the past ten years led the governor to submit three emancipation projects to the Colonial Council.

On December 20, 1848, the abolition of slavery was finally proclaimed by Sarda Garriga (December 20 is a holiday in Reunion). Louis Henri Hubert Delisle becomes its first Creole governor on August 8, 1852 and remains in this position until January 8, 1858. Europe is increasingly using beet to meet its sugar needs. Despite the planning policy of the local authorities and the use of engagisme, the economic crisis brooded and became evident from the 1870s. Subsequently, the drilling of the Suez Canal led merchant traffic to move away from the ‘Isle. This economic depression did not prevent the modernization of the island, with the development of the road network, the creation of the railway, the construction of the artificial port of Pointe des Galets. These large projects offer a welcome alternative to agricultural workers.

Wars and modernization

The second half of the 19th century saw the Reunionese population evolve, with the massive arrival of Indian workers, some of whom settled permanently on the island, and with the liberation of immigration in 1862. Many Chinese and Indian Muslims settle down and form two important communities which participate in ethnic and cultural diversification. From the end of the 19th century, the sources of commitments gradually dried up. Many landowners then rent out their land (the practice of colonization), resulting in the emergence of a population of self-employed agricultural workers. Coffee production was destroyed at 75% in two decades, between 1880 and 1900, due to the spread of a disease from Ceylon and the English and Dutch colonies.

La Réunion’s participation in the First World War resulted in the sending of many Reunionese to the fighting in the metropolis and on the Greek front. 14,000 Reunionese are mobilized at the front. The aviator Roland Garros, a native of Reunion, covered with glory and died in the sky in 1918. Admiral Lucien Lacaze was appointed Minister of the Navy then Minister of War from 1915 to 1917. The war had economic consequences favorable for Reunion: sugar production increases sharply and prices rise, the metropolis being deprived of its sugar beet land, the scene of the fighting. About 80% of the Creoles wishing to enlist, however, are declared unfit for military service, it is referred to as “race bankruptcy” in the press, but it is likely that the economic interests of local planters played the main role in this state of fact. The Reunionese survivors were reached on their return by the Spanish flu which struck Réunion from March 1919 for 3 months. The Spanish flu has been brought back by the Reunion Islanders with the ship Madonna. The epidemic appears to have spread to the entire population and has reduced life expectancy to less than 40 years. While the island had already been in the midst of an economic crisis since the end of the 19th century, the poor districts were affected and impoverished. Estimates point to at least 2,000 deaths in the capital Saint-Denis for a population of 25,000 and 7,000 to 20,000 deaths out of the 175,000 people who live on the island. There are then more deaths than the 1,300 Reunionese Poilus fell on the field of honor.

During the interwar period, modernization continued: electricity appeared in wealthy homes, and provided public lighting in Saint-Denis. The telegraph (1923) and the radio (1926) put the Reunionese in contact with the world. In 1939, 1,500 privileged households subscribed to the telephone. We see cars and planes appear. The sugar industry is concentrated and public companies replace individual operators of sugar factories. This progress mainly benefits the homes of landowners, industrialists, executives, large traders, and the mass of the population remains poor. Another important development in the interwar period: mortality fell and the birth rate, which was very high, increased, resulting in exponential population growth, a growth that continues today.

The Second World War was a very difficult ordeal: although La Réunion was spared by the fighting, it suffered terribly from the almost total stoppage of its supplies. On November 28, 1942, a landing of the Free French Forces took place on the island: the local administration loyal to the Vichy government was overthrown, the territory passing under the control of free France.

Departmentalization and Westernization

On March 19, 1946, La Réunion became a French overseas department and, in 1997, one of the seven outermost regions of the European Union. At the departmentalization, La Réunion is in ruins. But the metropolis is forced to make great efforts for the reconstruction of the economy and social progress. Compulsory education is a breakthrough. The establishment, with a slight delay, of the hexagonal social security system brings considerable improvement. In the early 1950s, malaria, a major health scourge for a century, was eradicated. The number of hospital beds has tripled in ten years. The result is a significant improvement in public health, a dramatic drop in mortality and a galloping increase in the population, with the birth rate peaking at a record level close to 50 per thousand. At the end of the war, regular air links put Reunion just three days from the mainland. Another consequence of departmentalization: a considerable increase in the number of well-paid civil servants who generate a new trade flow causing the emergence of a middle class living on commerce, liberal activities and managerial functions. The election of Michel Debré to the deputation, in 1962, brings a considerable asset to the development, because of the size of the character and his political weight in metropolitan France.

In the 1970s and 80s, Reunion really reached modernity. A university appears and develops, as well as technical education. Television supplants radio. The traders abandoned their “Chinese shops” and “bazaar zarabs” to create mini-markets and supermarkets. Tourism is starting to develop. The road network is densifying and modernizing, but the car fleet is evolving even faster. Housing is improving, and housing construction, boosted by tax advantages specific to the French overseas departments, is very active. The economy is changing. In agriculture, market gardening and fruit crops, livestock are developing to meet the needs of a growing and consuming population. Sugar cane, however, maintains its rank as the leading agricultural product. The construction industry is doing well. But it is now the tertiary sector that drives the economy: trade, services, and, increasingly, tourism. Today, tourism is the primary activity on the island, along with construction.

Reunion Island’s politics

Reunion’s political parties are more or less the subsidiaries or counterparts of those in mainland France. The Reunion Communist Party nevertheless has some autonomist demands; we find the same reflection for union organizations. Political life, like the protest movements, is closely determined by the deadlines, government measures and mobilizations of the metropolis.

Reunion Island’s demography

In 2017, the region had 853,659 inhabitants, an increase of 2.36% compared to 2012 (France excluding Mayotte: + 2.36%).

Until the beginning of the 20th century, the growth of the Réunion population was moderate, even weak at certain times. The difficult living conditions and the epidemics of malaria, cholera, plague among others, are not unrelated to this observation. It is truly in the aftermath of departmentalization that demographic growth explodes: the population triples in the space of 50 years, to officially reach nearly 843,000 inhabitants in 2014. According to some projections, the island should cross the million mark inhabitants by 2030. The three main urban units in the department are those of Saint-Denis (177,684 inhabitants in 2014), Saint-Paul (172,548 inhabitants) and Saint-Pierre (165,013 inhabitants).

Reunion Island’s education

Reunion has its own academy, the rector of which has been Velayoudom Marimoutou since 2016. The rectorate is located in the capital, in the Moufia district of Saint-Denis. At the start of the 2012 school year, the Island had 522 nursery and / or primary schools, 26 of which were private for 120,230 primary school students, 82 middle schools, six of which were private for 300 students, 32 general and technological high schools, three of which were private for 23 650 students and 15 vocational high schools, including two private ones for 16,200 students. The priority education zones affect Reunion just over half of primary and secondary school pupils. The baccalaureate results are relatively close to the national average with a rate of 81.4% in 2012 against 82.4 in 2011 (respectively: 84.5% and 85.6% on the national average). In higher education, the University of La Réunion welcomes 11,600 students spread over the various sites, notably Saint-Denis and Le Tampon. 5,800 other students are spread over the post-bac high school and other higher education streams.

Reunion Island’s language

The language of administration, education and the written and oral press is French, but approximately 90% of the Reunionese population speaks Reunion Creole which is a vernacular language structured on the dominant French and born from the language concessions of the various migrant peoples to understand each other. However, part of the population speaks only Reunionese Creole. The transition from Creole to French has taken place over the centuries. According to the author Annegret Bollée, it is supposed that “the Creole of La Réunion gradually developed in the plantation society formed after the introduction of the culture of coffee in Bourbon (from around 1720)”. Now enjoying more recognition, Reunion Creole can be taught in secondary schools since 2001 as part of the “Regional language and culture” option. Given the presence of different ethnic groups within the Reunionese population, other languages ​​are present on the island such as Hakka, Cantonese, Gujarati, Urdu, Arabic, Tamil, Malagasy, Mahorais and the Comorian.