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Reunion island: five hundred years of history

Written by editor

“Bourbon Island [known today as Reunion island] may appear rather primitive with its mass of mountains and impenetrable forests, but there are some exceedingly beautiful places, fresh air and clean

“Bourbon Island [known today as Reunion island] may appear rather primitive with its mass of mountains and impenetrable forests, but there are some exceedingly beautiful places, fresh air and clean water, and such a large amount of game, fish, turtles, tortoises, wild cows, goats and pigs that anyone ought to be overjoyed at the prospect of living there,” says the Marquis de Mondevergue.

This is just one description of the Indian Ocean outcrop in 1666, a few years after the French had taken possession and had named it after their own royal family.

A recent and multi-cultural colonization

Arab, Portuguese, British and Dutch sailors had all been aware of Reunion for some time, stopping merely to replenish water and food stores, but several Frenchmen started to settle there, accompanied by their servants from Madagascar, including some women. The first children born in Reunion all therefore had some Malagasy blood.

As of 1715, the East India Trading Company took over the responsibility of running the island and, up until 1767, organized coffee bean cultivation, a produce which required a very large workforce. A social system of slavery was put in place and the coffee plantations covered most of the island’s hillsides, right up to the beginning of the 19th century. Clover and nutmeg trees were also introduced successfully.

The Villele Museum was built on the private domain of the Panon-Desbassyns-Villele family, and acts as a fine witness to this era. You can visit the “Chapelle Pointue,” the remains of the sugar refinery, the outside kitchen and the landowner’s abode.

A string of different names

It was first called Dina Morghabine by the Arabs, and then Bourbon Island by the French, but it wasn’t until 1794 that the name of Reunion was adopted for the first time, in reference to a coming-together of the States General forces following the revolution. In 1803, it was renamed Bonaparte Island and then Bourbon once again in 1814 after five years of British rule. And finally in 1848, the name changed back to Reunion island for the last time.