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The history of Reunion is very similar to that of Mauritius. Reunion was known to Malaysians, Arabs and European sailors, but was never permanently inhabited. The Maskarene Archipelago, which consists of Reunion, Rodrigues and Mauritius, was named after the Portuguese discoverer Pedro de Mascarenhas.

In 1642, the French began to settle on the island, which at the time was called Mascarin, and sent the ship St. Louis. It wasn't until four years later that Reunion was truly inhabited when the French governor of Fort Dauphin on southern Madagascar banished twelve mutineers to the island. Based on their enthusiastic reports, Réunion was officially claimed by the French king in 1649 and named Île de Bourbon. Despite the praise, the French were in no hurry to colonise the island on a large scale and from 1685 onwards, pirates from the Indian Ocean used the island as a trading post.

The 260 settlers present profited from this until the French government and the French East India Company took control of Réunion in the early 18th century. Until 1715, the French East India Company used the island exclusively for its own consumption and for passing ships. From then on, coffee was also cultivated on the island and remained the main crop until 1730. As a result, the economic and social situation changed completely. Because of this intensive cultivation, many slaves from Africa and Madagascar were brought to Réunion despite the ban on slaves by the French East India Company. During this period, grain, spices and cotton were also cultivated.

From 1735 Réunion, like Mauritius, developed well under the governorship of the progressive Bertrand-Francois Mahé de la Bourdonnais (1735-1746).

Nevertheless, Mauritius remained the showpiece of the French and Reunion just hung around. Poor administration, the rivalry between France and Great Britain and the collapse of the French East India Company during the eighteenth century led to the island falling directly under the French crown in 1764. After the French Revolution in 1789, the Île de Bourbon came under the jurisdiction of the "Colonial Assembly". During this time, the name of the island changed to La Réunion. Shortly afterwards, the name changed again, this time to Île de Bonaparte after the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. At the end of the 18th century, many slave uprisings broke out and many of them fled into the mountains of the interior. These so-called Maroons eventually became the first real inhabitants of Reunion, although they were hunted down and killed by slave hunters for some time.

The productive and lucrative coffee plantations were largely destroyed by cyclones in the early 19th century and in 1810, during the Napoleonic Wars, France lost Réunion to the British. Five years later, after the Treaty of Paris, the island was awarded again to the French under the old name of Île de Bourbon. Under British rule sugar cane was already introduced and soon became the main crop on Réunion. A monoculture was developed but at the expense of the small farmers. Many of them left for the interior to continue their activities. The Desbassayns brothers became the most important cane barons.

The vanilla industry also became increasingly important from 1819 onwards. The maroon slave Edmond Albius was an important figure in the cultivation of vanilla. At the age of 12, he invented a technique for better and more efficient pollination of the vanilla orchid, which increased profits enormously.

In 1848 France declared the Second Republic, slavery was abolished and Île de Bourbon became La Réunion again. Réunion had about 100,000 inhabitants at the time, mostly freed slaves. As on Mauritius, a labour shortage immediately developed and Indian contract workers were brought to Réunion to work on the sugar cane plantations. In 1865, 75,000 Hindu immigrants arrived, followed by Muslims at the beginning of the 20th century. The golden age of trade and development lasted until 1870. Competition from Cuba, the European sugar beet industry and the opening of the Suez Canal resulted in an economic decline. After the First World War, there was a small revival of the sugar industry, but then it suffered greatly from a blockade of the island during the Second World War.

In 1936 the Comité d'Action Démocratique et Social was founded with the aim of complete integration with France. In 1946 Réunion officially became a French overseas department (Département Français d'Outremer) instead of a colony, and the Comité was more interested in a far-reaching form of self-government with continuous financial support from France. In February 1991, ten people died in anti-government demonstrations. In 1993, the situation on the island calmed down, although there was still much discontent among the population. In 1996, the minimum wage was raised to the same level as in France. In 1997, the public sector went on strike against a law that eroded the financial benefits of future civil servants. The strikers were supported by Paul Vergès, the leader of Réunion's Communists, and by Margie Sudre, the former Minister of French-speaking Territories.

Réunion now comes under the Minister for Départements d'Outre-Mer et Territoires d'Outre-Mer (DOM-TOM). Because of its special location, Réunion was the first place to introduce the Euro on 1 January 2002.


Ellis, R. / Mauritius, Rodrigues & Réunion : the Mascarene Isles

Mauritius, Réunion & Seychelles
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CIA - World Factbook

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Last updated May 2024
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