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

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