©Lazaret|Emmanuel VIRIN

Five hundred years of history

A thousand wonders, from the blue stretches of water to the majestic peaks, are sketched across Reunion Island 



Bourbon 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.” 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 colonisation

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, organised 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 Villèle Museum was built on the private domain of the Panon-Desbassyns-Villèle 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.

Single-crop farming

A real industrial revolution kicked off in 1815 with the beginnings of sugar cane cultivation, and this soon ousted coffee production around the coastal areas. The sugar industry managed to pass the tests of time and remains today the agricultural pillar of island economy. In St Leu, the Stella Matutina Museum traces Reunion’s agro-industrial history in all its glory.

In 1848, slavery was abolished. Former slaves and slave owners found it difficult to work in harmony, and labour was sought after overseas. Many of the workers “drafted” in large numbers from India would end up staying in Reunion.


An island of fragrances


In 1841, a young slave by the name of Edmond Albius, invented a process of artificial insemination of the vanilla plant. Bourbon vanilla soon became the very best in the world. This production still exists today, and you can visit either private plantations or public cooperatives in the east or alternatively taste it first-hand in the restaurants which make vanilla their speciality.

Highly reputed essential oils come from the distillation of geranium and vetiver. These places in Petite France up in the hills of St Paul are definitely worth a visit, as is the Cooperative of Essential Oils in Le Tampon.

After the coastline, it was the turn of the island’s upper plateaux and interior (the three ‘cirques’) to be inhabited and cultivated.




When France colonised Madagascar in 1895, Reunion was left by the wayside somewhat, and for several decades lived in the shadow of its imposing neighbour.

But in 1946, when the island became an Overseas Department of France, Reunion began to benefit from considerable public investment. This continued progressively and explains the island’s modern and developed infrastructure today. Reunion is also a region of the European Union in itself, even though Brussels is 10 000 km away…

The main economic activities today include farming, fishing, conversion industries, commerce, information technology and communications, audio-visual and tourism.


The story is just beginning !

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