Both specks in the Indian Ocean, Réunion and Mauritius share a similar, fascinating history. An uninhabited island, Réunion was colonized by the French after the mid-17th century but was later invaded by the British. As in Mauritius, the colonizers introduced plantation crops and trafficked enslaved people from Africa. Later came Indian indentured labourers and Chinese merchants, creating an ethnic diversity which is one of these islands' most distinctive characteristics. While Mauritius gained its independence in 1968, Réunion remains an overseas colony of France.
Welcome to Paradise
The first visitors to the uninhabited island were probably Malay, Arab and European mariners, none of whom stayed. Then, in 1642, the French took the decision to inhabit the island, which at the time was called Mascarin. The first settlers arrived four years later, when the French governor of Fort Dauphin in southern Madagascar banished a dozen mutineers to the island.
On the basis of enthusiastic reports from the mutineers, King Louis XIV of France officially claimed the island in 1649 and renamed it Île Bourbon, after Colbert Bourbon, who had founded the French East India Company.
However appealing it seemed, there was no great rush to populate and develop the island. It was not until the beginning of the 18th century that the French East India Company and the French government took control of the island.
Coffee was introduced between 1715 and 1730 and soon became the island's main cash crop. The island's economy changed dramatically. As coffee required intensive labour, enslaved people from Africa and Madagascar were trafficked onto the island by the shipload. During this period, cereals, spices and cotton were also introduced as cash crops.
Like Mauritius, Réunion came of age under the governorship of the Mahé de Labourdonnais, who served from 1735 to 1746. However, Labourdonnais treated Île de France (Mauritius) as a favoured sibling, and after the collapse of the French East India Company and the pressure of ongoing rivalry with Britain, the governance of Île Bourbon passed directly to the French Crown in 1764.
A Brief British Interlude
The formerly productive coffee plantations were destroyed by cyclones very early in the 19th century, and in 1810, during the Napoleonic Wars, Bonaparte lost the island to the habits rouges (redcoats). After the British invasion, sugar cane was introduced to Réunion and quickly became the primary crop. The vanilla industry, introduced in 1819, also grew rapidly. The British didn’t stay long: just five years later, under the Treaty of Paris, the island was returned to the French as Île Bourbon. The British, however, retained their colonizing grip on Mauritius, Rodrigues and the Seychelles.
The French Return
In 1848 the Second Republic was proclaimed in France, the trade of enslaved people was abolished and Île Bourbon again became La Réunion. At the time, the island had a population of over 100,000 people, mostly enslaved people who had been freed. Like Mauritius, Réunion immediately experienced a labour crisis and, like the British in Mauritius, the French 'solved' the problem by bringing in contract labourers from India, most of them Hindus, to work the sugar cane.
Réunion's golden age of trade and development lasted until 1870, with the country flourishing on the trade route between Europe, India and the Far East. Competition from Cuba and the European sugar-beet industry, combined with the opening of the Suez Canal (which short-circuited the journey around the Cape of Good Hope), resulted in an economic slump: shipping decreased, the sugar industry declined, and land and capital were further concentrated in the hands of a small French elite. Some small planters brightened their prospects by turning to geranium oil.
After WWI, in which 14,000 Réunionnais served, the sugar industry regained a bit of momentum, but it again suffered badly through the blockade of the island during WWII.
Réunion Becomes a DOM
Réunion became a Département Français d'Outre-Mer (DOM; French Overseas Department) in 1946 and has representation in the French parliament. Since then there have been independence movements from time to time but, unlike those in France's Pacific colonies, these have never amounted to much. While the Réunionnais seemed satisfied to remain under French rule, general economic and social discontent surfaced in dramatic anti-government riots in St-Denis in 1991.
The turn of the century marked a new era for Réunion; the local authorities managed to sign a few agreements with the French state, which confirmed the launching of subsidised grands chantiers (major infrastructure works), including the expressway called the Route des Tamarins and the Nouvelle Route du Littoral (an expressway between St-Paul and St-Denis).