Réunion — History and Culture
The Portuguese were the first to discover the island of Réunion in the 16th century, although they left very little influence here. The French, who colonized Réunion in the 17th century, made their mark, however, as did many other peoples, leading to a fascinating mix of cultures in modern day Réunion.
Before the Portuguese discovered the island in 1507, Réunion was largely uninhabited. The exact details of the discovery are a little patchy, but historians strongly believe that the expedition to Réunion was led by Don Pedro Mascarenhas. This is why the islands around Réunion are known as the Mascarenes.
After some 100 years of Portuguese rule, the French occupied the island around 1642. The island was controlled from Mauritius, and by 1665, the French East Indian Company first settled upon Réunion. After originally being named Santa Apolonia, 1793, the island was named ‘Réunion’, but later changed to ‘Bonaparte Island’. The last name change occurred in 1848, when the island was once again renamed ‘Réunion’.
Large immigration occurred between the 17th and 19th centuries, particularly from India, Africa, Malay, and China. Even today, the influence of these cultures is quite profound. Non-European immigrants mostly worked as slave labor for the wealthy colonists who owned sugar plantations and other agricultural endeavors. A visit to the interesting Museum of Villele (D6 S of Saint-Gilles, Réunion) will take tourists back in time to the slavery days. The island’s economy decreased substantially following the establishment of the Suez Canal in 1869, as Réunion lost its stopover status on the East Indies route.
However, with the growth of Réunion’s population, its agricultural sector also continued to expand. Sugar was the main export, followed by other spices and products like vanilla. Unfortunately, typhoons often affected the island’s economic progress; the 1904 typhoon crippled both the sugar and vanilla industries. Just a year after WWII ended, Réunion became a French department. It continued to rely heavily upon the agricultural sector, but aid from the French government assisted the island’s progression.
The service industry now dominates the local economy, but agriculture still plays an important role. The island has experienced high unemployment over the last few decades, yet the local government is attempting to relieve this through a growth of tourism. Socioeconomic issues rose to boiling point in 1991, with civil unrest occurring on the streets of Réunion’s major cities. Today, the island still relies heavily on aid from the French government.
The culture in Réunion is quite unique. With the influx of immigrants throughout its history, Réunion can certainly say it is a multicultural destination. The language, food, and music are a wondrous blend of African, Malay, European, and Asian influences. Réunion is famous for its Sega music, which derives from African roots.