Reunion Island: India’s French Connection

A diffused, numinous quality inhabits the light over Reunion Island. The physics is not too complicated to explain. Every day, with the utmost reliability, clumps of cloud form around the peaks of the island’s central mountains, filtering the tropical sun, allowing it to shine through in broad shafts of golden light. These beams blaze at will upon Reunion’s plains of volcanic soil, its sugar cane plantations, its beaches of satin-soft sand, and the wind-tossed waters of the Indian Ocean that encircle the island. In a fanciful moment, it is possible to imagine some divine authority spotlighting, in turn, the varied seductions of Reunion’s landscape. These are best experienced from the air, and so, on my first morning in this tiny outpost of France, I took a seat on a Helilagon chopper for a sortie of the island.

As we clattered upwards, the full curve of the island’s west coast fell away, all sand and sun, bristling with yacht masts, looking every inch the French Riviera. But then we swooped into a gap in the mountains, past the extinct, 10,000ft-high Piton des Neiges volcano, around its crater valleys, and through the Iron Hole, a canyon with waterfalls pouring off its lip.

Within just eight minutes of our flight, the weather had changed again. We were in another of Reunion’s 200 microclimates, with clouds rapidly assembling about us and the wind bouncing us around. We couldn’t, the pilot said, proceed on to Piton de la Fournaise, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, or to the forested east coast. All this diversity packed into an island just 45km wide and 63km long from tip to toe: my mind reeled. Geology has indeed had a playful time here, confounding our expectations of this speck of rock lying due east of Madagascar.

It is easy to find, in the variety of Reunion’s population, a mirror of the terrain on which it lives. Among the eight lakh people on the island are descendants of French settlers, of African slaves, of Tamil indentured labourers and Gujarati merchants, and of Chinese and South-East Asian immigrants. Reunion can appear to be a perfectly named, post-racial idyll. But, fortunately, it isn’t as if Reunion’s demographics have been whipped into some bland, homogeneous confection. Rather, its society is textured and jagged in all kinds of fascinating ways, holding hidden and surprising interconnections for the amateur anthropologist to discover.

Reunion’s striking mixture of humanity has been conferred upon it by geography and thence by history. As European explorers rounded the Cape of Good Hope and proceeded northeast towards India, the Mascarene Islands—Reunion, Mauritius and Rodrigues—were frequently used as mid-Indian Ocean pit stops. The French took the island in the mid-17th century, and its history evolved alongside France’s. It was called Bourbon until the downfall of that royal house, and Bonaparte until the fall of the emperor; but the name Reunion, commemorating the 1792 concord between revolutionaries and citizen militia in a republican France, stuck. Slaves from Africa worked on the island’s sugar cane plantations until 1848, when France abolished slavery in its colonies. Subsequently, Reunion imported its labour: Tamils from the French-controlled areas near Puducherry and Chinese from the Malay Peninsula, all nominally under contract but toiling away in conditions indistinguishable from slavery. In 1946, Reunion became a French ‘département’, an administrative region, and it now sends three senators and seven deputies to the country’s legislatures in Paris.

My friend Sully Chaffre, a cheery man who drove me all over Reunion for four days, pointed out how these histories had distributed themselves over the island’s geography. For instance, the people of Tamil and Chinese descent live in the northeast and southwest, where the plantations were—and still are—located. All around the coast are towns with classic French names: Saint-Denis, Saint-Pierre, Saint-André. “But deeper in the mountains, places have names given to them by African slaves who escaped and settled there: Mafate, Cilaos,” said Chaffre. Some of these settlements are, even today, famously inaccessible and can only be reached by helicopter or on foot. “And the people who live there? How do they get around the island?” I asked him. “Oh, they’ve become very good at walking,” Chaffre replied, with a laugh. “Sometimes veteran hikers will go on these trails with their superb shoes and all their equipment. Then they’ll see some little boy from Mafate overtake them in just a pair of sandals.”

- Samanth Subramanian

Click here to subscribe. Digital editions: iPhone and iPad; Android


You may also like:




Team Traveller


Did you know that you can get stories like this on the Yahoo mail app?
Download it here.

Latest News

  • Arjun Rampal growing beard for 'Daddy'

    Mumbai, April 18 (IANS) Actor Arjun Rampal is growing a beard in preparation for his role in the film "Daddy". …

  • KJO moved by 'Humari Adhuri Kahani' trailer

    Mumbai, April 18 (IANS) Filmmaker Karan Johar has found the trailer of Mohit Suri's "Humari Adhuri Kahani" to be "compelling". The film features acting talent as wonderful as the National Award winning Vidya Balan and Rajkummar Rao, as well as Emraan Hashmi. Veteran filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt has in the past said that the movie will perhaps turn out to be Suri's career best directorial. -*- A year since '2 States', Arjun nostalgic Time flies, and actor Arjun Kapoor agrees. …

  • 'Main Hoon (Part-Time) Killer' release pushed further

    Numbai, April 18 (IANS) The release date of filmmaker Faisal Saif's comedy spoof "Main Hoon (Part-Time) Killer", earlier titled "Main Hoon Rajinikanth", has been pushed forward from April 24 to a new date, which is yet to be locked. It is the same movie against the release of which superstar Rajinikanth had petitioned the Madras High Court for a stay last year, as he had felt the entertainer might defame him and upset his large fan base. Now, the Madras High Court is said to have instructed …

  • Online audition dates announced for K-POP India

    New Delhi, April 18 (IANS) The Korean Cultural Centre here has announced the online auditions of the fourth edition of K-POP 2015 festival, where artistes of the popular music genre compete with one another. In the new edition of K-POP 2015, auditions are happening on a larger scale, and not just across India, but other neighbouring countries Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Nepal are also participating. With two and ahalf months of online auditions, K-POP will continue to pore through the submissions …

  • Akshay Kumar wraps up 'Brothers' shooting

    Mumbai, April 18 (IANS) Actor Akshay Kumar has wrapped up shooting for Dharma Productions' "Brothers", which he says has turned out to be a "memorable" film. …

  • French film shot in India to compete at Cannes

    Chennai, April 18 (IANS) French film "Dheepan", parts of which have been shot in Tamil Nadu, will vie at the competition section of the 68th Cannes International Film Festival. The last Indian film to compete for coveted Palm D'Or at the prestigious gala was Shaji N. Karun's "Swaham" in 1994. India's Wide Angle Creations, led by Suresh Balaje and George Pius collaborated with Paris' Why Not Productions' "Dheepan", directed by Jacques Audiard, for shooting in India. Balaje, who will be …

  • Amitabh Bachchan And Aishwarya Rai Bachchan Launch Jewellery Showroom At A Star-Studded Event
    Amitabh Bachchan And Aishwarya Rai Bachchan Launch Jewellery Showroom At A Star-Studded Event

    Chennaiites thronged to the much awaited launch of Kalyan Jewellers’ first showroom in Chennai. Kalyan Jewellers brand ambassadors and mega stars of Indian celluloid Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Prabhu Ganesan, Nagarjuna, Shivaraj Kumar, Manju Warrier and Vikram Prabhu regaled the crowd at the inauguration of Kalyan Jewellers’ 50th showroom in South India and 78th store globally. …

  • Kangana Ranaut’s Tanu Weds Manu Returns Trailer Creates A Splash!
    Kangana Ranaut’s Tanu Weds Manu Returns Trailer Creates A Splash!

    The team of Eros International & Colour Yellow Productions’ Tanu Weds Manu Returns are back with the highly awaited sequel, Tanu Weds Manu Returns directed by Aanand L Rai, starring R.Madhavan and Kangana Ranaut!The trailer of the film that launched 3 days ago, was received with heavy applause by the audience and the industry alike and is fast trending on the social media platform.Several personalities took to a popular micro-blogging site to voice their praise –The first to talk about the …