East of Madagascar, a little corner of France floats in the tropical waters just south of the equator. It’s surrounded by pristine beaches, dressed in the finery of verdant forests and topped with the majestic Piton de Neiges: a towering volcano and the highest point in the Indian Ocean. The island of Réunion’s a collage of microclimates offering a variety of geological wonders, from lunar landscapes to breathtaking waterfalls. Reflecting that diversity is Réunion’s people, a population of Creoles as richly diverse as their island home.

Réunion’s History and Heritage

Cheval Grand Etang

Cheval Grand Etang
Photo: Emmanuel-Virin

Réunion had been known for many years to Arab, Malay and European sailors who visited this small island during their voyages, but none laid claim to the land. In the early 1500s, Portuguese explorers led by Dom Pedro Mascarenhas (of Mascarene Archipelago fame) visited the island. Aside from naming it Santa Apolónia, the Portuguese left little imprint behind, and the uninhabited island remained a virtually- untouched way station in the sea.

Later, Dutch and English sailors landed on the island, but it wasn’t until 1642 that the French arrived, claiming the island in the name of King Louis XIII and christened it with a new name: Ile Bourbon. Colonists took up residence, and a population mix of white French landowners and slaves of African and Malagasy ancestry began to slowly develop.

The island persisted mostly as a convenient trading post for mariner merchants and pirates for some time. In the early- to mid-1700s, coffee came to the island, and that valuable cash crop proved to grow extremely well in the fertile soil and tropical environment of Bourbon. Coffee was profusely planted throughout the island, and other crops were eventually added to the agricultural enterprise, including cotton, sugar cane, vanilla, nutmeg and other spices. Planting and harvesting all these crops required a large workforce, and slave labour provided the muscle well into the mid-1800s.

In 1794, the island received another new name–Réunion–in honour of the union between revolutionaries following the French Revolution. Réunion would soon give way to the name Ile Bonaparte, then return to Bourbon, then finally settle on Réunion once again, the name which has remained to this day. In 1946, Réunion became an official colony of France, and as such, is considered French soil.

A Multicultural Creole Population

Piton De La Fournaise

Piton De La Fournaise En Eruption
Photo: Serge-Gelabert

Réunion received with open arms a wide variety of foreign travellers over hundreds of years. This has resulted in a population mix that reflects the rich diversity of all those who have visited Réunion’s sandy shores since the 1600s, including those who only briefly visited, and those who went on to make Réunion their new permanent home.

Réunion’s present-day mélange of demographics is a result of this centuries-long process of combining and recombining races representing geographic locations across many points of the globe. Both respected French landowners and imprisoned French convicts came to the island early on. Slave populations imported from Madagascar, Africa, China, India (Malbars), Sri Lanka, Sumatra, Thailand, Burma and other locations mixed with each other and also with people of French heritage. People from nearby regions who came to participate in trade, and pirates, who might have hailed from exotic points unknown and roamed the wide expanses of the sea only to weigh anchor at Réunion, also contributed to the diverse heritage of the island’s population.

It’s accurate to label all Réunion inhabitants Creole, since the existence of Réunion’s entire population¡s directly attributable to the influx of foreigners. Each group coming to the island brought their own background and heritage from various places of origin. The resulting mix of populations is inevitably Creole in nature.

And what a multifaceted Creole population it is too. Rather than a mix of just a few peoples, the permutations of blends to be found in Réunion exhibit a richness of variety found in few other places in the world.

It’s more than just the blending of bloodlines. The cultural icons, cherished songs and dances, revered religions and other treasures of heritage are preserved, mixed and shared among the 800,000 people living in Réunion today. While French remains the official language of the island, the lingua franca of Creole has gathered steam and is growing in popular usage. More publications than ever are being released or translated into Creole, and Creole music, art, storytelling and poetry continue to enjoy an increased popularity among the residents of Réunion.

Creole of Réunion

The people of Réunion share a common ancestry: the ancestry of immigration. It’s this shared diversity that brings together Catholics, Hindus and Muslims. True to the island’s name, this common heritage of diverse backgrounds is what unites people of Chinese Indian, French, African and other ancestries, forming a union of Creole people living together under the shared banner of “Réunion.”