Reunion Cultural History

January 29th 2024 in Facts
Reunion Cultural History

Nestled in the heart of the Indian Ocean, Reunion Island is a melting pot of cultures with a rich and diverse heritage. It is a multicultural society that brings together people from various ethnicities, including French, Mozambican, Indian, Chinese, Malagasy, and Comorian origins.

The islanders proudly identify themselves based on their ethnic backgrounds, and it is fascinating to see how each group has its distinct culture and traditions. For example, the Cafres are the descendants of enslaved Africans and have a rich musical and dance tradition. The Z'oreilles are the French settlers who came to the island in the 17th century and have contributed significantly to the island's culture and economy.

Tamouls come from southern India and bring their traditional Hindu culture. The Z'arabes are from northern India and have their unique culture and language. The Chinois are Chinese immigrants who have significantly contributed to the island's economy, particularly agriculture. The Malgaches come from Madagascar and have their own language and cultural practices. The Comores are from the Comoros Islands and have brought their unique blend of African, Arab, and Malagasy cultures. The Petits Blancs are the descendants of poor French settlers who lived in the highlands and have a unique Creole language and culture. The Creole blancs are white landowners who have significantly shaped the island's history and culture.

Despite their diverse backgrounds, all the island's inhabitants are French citizens, and its official language is French. However, each community has managed to preserve its unique identity and culture, making Reunion Island a fascinating and vibrant place to explore.

Reunion Island is a stunning jewel in the Indian Ocean, located off the eastern coast of Madagascar. The island boasts an impressive size, covering an area of 970 square miles (2,512 square kilometres), and is the largest of the Mascarene islands. The island is adorned with two volcanic systems separated by high plains, providing a unique, awe-inspiring and breathtaking landscape. The climate on the island is varied, ranging from humid to dry tropical and Mediterranean. However, it can be unpredictable, and periodic cyclones can be devastating. The capital city of Reunion Island is Saint-Denis, which offers a fascinating mix of French and Creole culture.

As of 1999, the population of Reunion Island was over 717,000, making it a vibrant and bustling place. The population is diverse, and it is difficult to categorise people by their ethnic background. However, it is estimated that around twenty per cent of the population is of Indian ancestry, while five per cent is born in mainland France. The island has a unique linguistic affiliation, with French being the official language and Creole the language of everyday life. Creole is based on French, including Malagasy and Tamil words, and is used for informal interactions and with relatives. French is generally used in formal situations, and many people cannot speak it, making its use a marker of educational achievement and social status.

Reunion Island has a rich symbolic significance, with strong economic and cultural ties to mainland France. It is often referred to as "the France of the Indian Ocean," the island has been heavily influenced by French culture and traditions. Since the development of tourism in the 1970s, the island has sought to project an image of a multicoloured society where people of different ethnic backgrounds live together peacefully. Visitors to Reunion Island can enjoy a unique blend of cultures, stunning natural scenery, and a vibrant atmosphere unlike anywhere else.

History and Ethnic Relations

The island of Reunion was discovered at the beginning of the sixteenth century and reached by the French in 1643. It was called Mascarin and did not have any inhabitants. In 1649, twelve convicts were sent there in exile, and in the same year, the French officially claimed the island on behalf of the king, naming it Bourbon. The island's colonisation began in 1665 when the French East India Company sent the first twenty settlers. After 1715, settlers began producing coffee and spices, eventually replaced by sugarcane. In 1792, France renamed the island La Reunion.

Enslaved people from Mozambique and Madagascar supplied the labour force required for sugarcane plantations. By the end of the seventeenth century, the population consisted of white French landowners and African and Malagasy slaves. Many white settlers arrived too late to gain access to the land and, therefore, retired to the highlands, where they constituted a poor white population known as Petits Blancs.

The abolition of slavery in 1848 led white landowners to recruit indentured labourers for their plantations, particularly Tamils. Most Tamils stayed beyond their five-year contracts and continued to work for the white landowners. At the turn of the century, some Chinese and Muslim Gujaratis arrived to sell food and textiles. In 1946, Reunion became one of the four overseas departments of France, and in 1974, it became an administrative region.

The African and Malagasy slaves, having lost their cultural links with their societies of origin, suffered deculturation and pauperisation. In contrast, whites, Chinese, Muslim Gujaratis, Tamils, and French from the mainland have been able to maintain most of their original systems of value while adapting them to the local context.

Since the beginning of immigration, the French government has emphasised the assimilation of the populations under its control while exploiting the island's resources. As a result, all members of this multicultural society are officially "French citizens." However, many descendants of Tamil immigrants have maintained their ancestral beliefs and patterns of behaviour. Although Chinese residents were converted to Christianity, they are less Westernised than residents of South Indian ancestry. Most still speak Chinese and have kept links with relatives in China. Gujarati Muslims have also been able to preserve their culture and religion.

White and non-white native residents consider themselves the island's original inhabitants, in contrast to Gujaratis and Chinese. However, all native residents feel a substantial difference between themselves and people from mainland France. The French, who generally stay up to three or four years on the island, are rarely considered full members of the society. Both populations live close to each other but inhabit different cultural worlds.

Food and Economy

The economy of Reunion Island has been traditionally dependent on agriculture. Coffee, cloves, and sugarcane were the most critical crops during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Currently, the labour force of Reunion Island consists of workers in services (73%), industry (19%), and agriculture (8%). The island's Major industries include sugar, rum, handicrafts, and flower oil extraction.

The island's major exports are sugar, rum, vanilla, and perfume essences, while the imported commodities include manufactured goods, food, beverages, tobacco, raw materials, machinery, transportation equipment, and petroleum products. The economy of Reunion Island heavily relies on financial assistance from mainland France, which is also the principal trading partner. Around 100,000 people from Reunion Island work and live in mainland France.

Due to the massive importation of goods, the trade balance has been significantly affected, leading to a large deficit. To reduce unemployment, which affects more than a third of the labour force, the government has promoted tourism as an alternative source of revenue.

Social Stratification

Reunion Island's transformation into a French department brought significant social changes, replacing the previous colonial and rural society with a pseudo-industrial and consumer culture. There are deep social inequalities and significant disparities in wages among workers. The minimum wage is about ten per cent lower than mainland France's, while public sector workers earn approximately forty per cent higher salaries. These differences between the rich and the poor have led to social tensions. The white and Indian communities are better off than other segments of the population, while people of African descent are at the bottom of the social scale. The administration and private sector are primarily run by French immigrants, who earn higher wages than other groups. The French language characterises social stratification, a sign of education and high status.

Political Life

The political system in Reunion is French, and the representative of the French state is the prefect, who the French president appoints. There is one general council and one regional council, whose presidents are elected by their members, and they finance development projects. City mayors and five deputies to the French National Assembly are popularly elected.

The legal system in Reunion is also French, and homicide and rape are relatively common crimes, usually committed by men under the influence of alcohol. The courts take into account the social background of criminals while making judgments.

France is responsible for defence, and the military is not present in Reunion. Men serve their military terms in France.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

State welfare programs are crucial due to high unemployment rates. Over 60% of the population benefits from welfare.


Infant care practices vary depending on the family's ethnic and cultural background. For instance, families from mainland France tend to put their children in a separate room early on and may provide them with stories, toys, and a night lamp for the company while they sleep. In contrast, families of Indian origin view sleep as a positive and encouraging event, and children go to bed willingly. In such families, it is common for children of the same sex to share a bedroom.

Child rearing and education practices also differ among different ethnic groups. Children of Tamil ancestry learn to differentiate between two spheres of action: that of the family and the community, where the Indian value system dominates, and that of the larger society, where the cultural models of the mainstream culture are dominant.

Education is highly valued in families of Tamil, Gujarati, and Chinese ancestry. For the lower and middle classes, school is a democratic institution that allows them to achieve a better future. However, pupils of African and mixed origin who grow up in single-mother families often experience academic failure. The literacy rate in Reunion was 57% in 1954, but it has since decreased to less than 10%. The University of La RĂ©union has over seven thousand students and continues to expand.


The majority of the population in this region follows Roman Catholicism, which constitutes 86% of the total population. Christianity was introduced by the first settlers in this area. Although the contracts of indentured labourers specified that their religious beliefs should be respected, the Catholic Church and the authoritarian administration attempted to convert them. The Tamils were required to attend church, wear French clothes, and give Christian names to their children. Contract workers had to portray Christian attitudes and follow Christian rites to gain acceptance by their employers and the larger society. The Catholic priests in the eighteenth century attempted to stop the construction of Hindu temples and the public practice of Hinduism. Even when it was finally authorised, the priests continued to spread a negative perception of the Hindu religion as "pagan."

Although people of Indian origin have mainly been Christianized, they still refer to Hindu Gods in essential matters. Folk Hinduism has been maintained almost in the same way as it was in India at the time of emigration over a century ago, although it has been adapted to a new social context. Firewalking, animal sacrifices, and rituals of possession by a deity or ancestor are among the expressions of this religion. This Hinduism is strongly associated with protection against bad luck, the evil eye, and opposing forces of the visible and invisible world.

Medicine and Health Care

In rural areas, modern medicine is augmented by traditional local practices based on a blend of various beliefs, including Hinduism, Christianity, and Malagasy. Additionally, many individuals seek the guidance of devineurs who can predict the future and provide advice for resolving their issues. Also, "devineurs" should be corrected to "diviners".

Secular Celebrations

The main holidays in this region coincide with those celebrated in France, including National Day, Bastille Day, Christmas, and New Year's Eve. Additionally, there are local festivities commemorating events such as the elimination of slavery on December 21st and the Tamil and Chinese New Year celebrations.

The Arts and Humanities

Local literature on Reunion has existed for twenty years. It celebrates the culture of the island. However, most writers who use the Creole language tend to focus on a global identity of being Reunionese. They neglect the cultural diversity of the population.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

In the 1970s, a local university was established, and French scholars were granted funding to research the island. Since then, numerous studies have been published, primarily focusing on the Creole language and culture. Researchers or students from mainland France or island natives carried out these studies. Most of these studies view society as an integrated unit or a place of culturally distinct subcultures. However, an outward perspective is still needed for better analysis and detachment.