Reunion - Encyclopedia

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REUNION, known also by its former name Bourbon, an island and French colony in the Indian Ocean, 400 m. S.E. of Tamatave, Madagascar, and 130 S.W. of Port Louis, Mauritius. It is elliptic in form; its greatest length is 45 m. and its greatest. breadth 32 m., and it has an area of 965 sq. m. It lies between 20° 51' and 21 0 22' S. and 55° 15' and 55° 54' E.

The coast-line (about 130 m.) is little indented, there are no, natural harbours and no small islets round the shore. The narrow coast-lands are succeeded by hilly ground which in turn gives place to mountain masses and tableland, which occupy the greater part of the island. The main axis runs N.W. and. S.E., and divides the island into a windward (E.) district and a leeward (W.) district, the dividing line being practically that of the watershed. The form of the mountains. is the result of double volcanic action. First there arose from the sea a mountain whose summit is approximately represented by Piton des Neiges (10,069 ft.), a denuded crater of immense proportions, and at a later date another crater opened towards the E., which, piling up the mountain mass of Le Volcan, turned what was till then a circle into an ellipse. The oldest erupted rocks belong to the type of the andesites; the newest are varieties of basalt. The two massifs are united by high tablelands. In the older massif the most striking features are now three areas of subsidence - the cirques of Salazie, Riviere des Galets and Cilaos - which lie N.W. and S. of the Piton des Neiges. The first, which may be taken as typical, is surrounded by high almost perpendicular walls of basaltic lava, and its. surface is rendered irregular by hills and hillocks of debris fallen from the heights. Towards the S. lies the vast stratum of rocks (150 to 200 ft. deep) which, on the 26th of November 1875, suddenly sweeping down from the Piton des Neiges and the Gros Morne (a "shoulder" of the piton), buried the little village of Grand Sable and nearly a hundred of its inhabitants. Besides the Piton des Neiges and the Gros Morne the chief heights in this part of the island are the pyramidical Cimandef (73 00 ft.), another shoulder of the piton, and the Grand Bernard (949 0 ft.), separating the cirques of Mafate and Cilaos.

The second massif, Le Volcan, is cut off from the rest of the island by two "enclosures," each about 500 or 600 ft. deep.

The outer enclosure runs across the island in a N. and S. direction; the inner forms a kind of parabola with its arms (Rempart du Tremblet on the S. and Rempart du Bois Blanc on the N.) stretching E. to the sea and embracing not only the volcano proper but also the great eastward slope known as the Grand Brule. The 30 m. of mountain wall round the volcano is perhaps unique in its astonishing regularity. It encloses an area of about 40 sq. m. known as the Grand Enclos. There are two principal craters, each on an elevated cone, - the more westerly, now extinct, known as the Bory Crater (8612 ft.), after Bory de St Vincent, the geologist, and the more easterly called the Burning Crater or Fournaise (8294 ft.). The latter is partially surrounded by an "enclosure" on a small scale with precipices 200 ft. high. Eruptions, though not infrequent (thirty were registered between 1735 and 1860), are seldom serious; the more noteworthy are those of 1 745, 1 77 8, 1791, 1812, 1860, 1870, 1881. Hot mineral springs are found on the flanks of the Piton des Neiges; the Source de Salazie (discovered in 1831) lies 2860 ft. above sea-level, has a temperature of 90°, and discharges 200 to 220 gallons per hour of water impregnated with bicarbonate of soda, and carbonates of magnesium and lime, iron, &c.; that of Cilaos (discovered in 1826) is 3650 ft. above the sea with a temperature of ioo°; and that of Mafate 2238 ft. and 87°.

Vertically Reunion may be divided into five zones. The first or maritime zone contains all the towns and most of the villages, built on the limited areas of level alluvium occurring at intervals round the coast. In the second, which lies between 2600 and 4000 ft., the sugar plantations made a green belt round the island and country houses abound. The third zone is that of the forests; the fourth that of the plateaus, where European vegetables can be cultivated; and above this extends the region of the mountains.

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The year divides into two seasons - that of heat and rain from November to April, that of dry and more bracing weather from May to October. The prevailing winds are from the S.E., sometimes veering round to the S., and more frequently to the N.E.; the W. winds are not so steady (three hundred and seven days of E. to fifty-eight of W. wind in the course of the year). It is seldom calm during the day, but there is usually a period of complete repose before the land wind begins in the evening. Several years sometimes pass without a cyclone visiting the island; at other times they occur more than once in a single "winter." The raz de maree occasionally does great damage. On the leeward side of the island the winds are generally from the W. and S.W., and bring little rain. Mist hangs almost all day on the tops of the mountains, but usually clears off at night. On the coast and lower zones on the windward side the mean temperature is about 73° F. in the "winter" and 78° F. in the "summer." On the leeward side the heat is somewhat greater. In the Salazie cirque the mean annual average is 66° F.; at the Plaine des Palmistes 62° F. The rainfall is very heavy on the windward side, some stations registering 160 in. a year, while on the "dry" side of the island not more than 50 in. are registered. On the mountain heights snow falls every year, and ice is occasionally seen. In general the island is healthy, but fever is prevalent on the coast.

Fauna and Flora

The fauna of Reunion is not very rich in variety of species. The mammals are a brown maki (Lemur mongoz, Linn.) from Madagascar, Pteropus edwardsii now nearly extinct, several bats, a wild cat, the tang or tamec (Centetes setosus, Denn.), several rats, the hare, and the goat. Among the more familiar birds are the "oiseau de la vierge" (Muscipeta borbonica), the tectec (Pratincola sybilla), Certhia borbonica, the cardinal (Foudia madagascariensis), various swallows, ducks, &c. The visitants from Madagascar, Mauritius and even India, are very numerous. Lizards and frogs of more than one species are common, but there is only one snake (Lycodon aulicum) known in the island. Various species of Gobius, a native species of mullet, Nestis cyprinoides, Osphronamus olfax and Doules rupestris are among the freshwater fishes. Turtles, formerly common, are now very rare.

In the forest region of the island there is a belt,4500-5000ft. above the sea, characterized by the prevalence of dwarf bamboo (Bambusa alpina); and above that is a similar belt of Acacia heterophylla. Besides this last the best timber-trees are Casuarina laterifolia, Foetida mauritiana, Imbricaria petiolaris, Elaeodendron orientate, Calophyllum spurium (red tacamahac), Terminalia borbonica, Parkia speciosa. The gardens of the coast districts display a marvellous wealth of flowers and shrubs, partly indigenous and partly gathered from all parts of the world. Among the indigenous varieties may be noted the vacoa (Pandanus utilis) and the aloe.

A species of coffee plant is also indigenous. Fruits grown in the island are: the banana, the coco-nut, bread-fruit and jack-fruit, the bilimbi, the carambola, the guava, the litchi, the Japanese medlar, the mango-steen, the tamarind, the Abelmoschus esculentus, the chirimoya, the papaya, &c. Forests originally covered nearly the whole island; the majority of the land has been cleared by the inhabitants, but there are still some 200 sq. m. of forest land and the administration has in part replanted the higher districts, such as Salazie, with eucalyptus and caoutchouc trees.


The inhabitants are divided into various classes, the creoles, the mulattoes,.; the negroes, and Indians and other Asiatics. The creole population is descended from the first French settlers, chiefly Normans and Bretons, who married Malagasy women. Later settlers included European women, but the presence of non-European blood is so common among the creoles that the phrase "Bourbon white" was given in Mauritius to linen of doubtful cleanness. Three kinds of creoles are recognized - those of the towns and coasts, those of the mountains, and the petits creoles, originally a class of small farmers living in the uplands, now reduced to a condition of poverty and dependence on the planters. The creoles blancs de villes, the typical inhabitants of the island, are in general of a somewhat weak physique, quick-witted and of charming manners, brave and very proud of their island, but not of strong character. The mixed races tend to approximate to a single type, one in which the European strain predominates. The creole patois is French mixed with a considerable number of Malagasy and Indian words, and containing many local idioms. The population, about 35,000 towards the close of the 18th century, was in 1849, at the period of the liberation of the slaves, 120,000, of whom 60,800 were newly freed negroes. Thereafter coolies were introduced from India, and in 1870 the population had increased to 212,000. In 1882 the government of India ceased to authorize the emigration of coolies to Reunion, and in consequence of that and other economic causes the population decreased. In 1902 the inhabitants numbered 173,315. Of these 13,492 were British Indians, 4496 Malagasy, 9457 foreign-born negroes, and 1378 Chinese. Of the native born the creoles numbered about 3000, the remainder being negroes or of mixed race. Among the Indian population the males are as three to one to the females, and the birth-rate is lower than the death-rate.

Towns and Communication

St Denis, the capital of the island, lies on the N. coast. It had in 1902 a population of 27,392. It is built in the form of an amphitheatre, and has several fine public buildings and centrally situated botanic gardens. It is the seat of a bishopric, a court of first instance and an appeal court. It has an abundant supply of pure water. The only anchorage for vessels is an open roadstead. St Pierre (pop. 28,885), the chief town on the leeward side of the island, has a small artificial harbour. Between St Pierre and St Denis, and both on the leeward shore, are the towns of St Louis (pop. 12,541) and St Paul (pop. 19,617).19,617). A few miles N. of St Paul on the S. side of Cape Pointe des Galets is the port of the same name, the only considerable harbour in the island. It was completed in 1886 at a cost of £2,700,000, covers 40 acres, is well protected, and has 28 ft. of water. A railway serving the port goes round the coast from St Pierre, by St Paul, St Denis, &c., to St Benoit (a town on the E. side of the island with a pop. of 12,523), a distance of 834 m. This line is carried through a tunnel nearly 62 m. long between La Possession and St Denis. Besides the railway the lower parts of the island are well provided with roads. There is regular steamship communication between Pointe des Galets, Marseilles, Havre and Madagascar. Telegraphic communication with all parts of the world was established in 1906 when a cable connecting Reunion with Tamatave and Mauritius was laid.


The Sugar Plantations. - The area of the cultivated lands is estimated at 148,200 acres (or 230 sq. m.), of which 86,450 acres are under sugar-cane, the remainder being under either maize, manioc, potatoes, haricots, or coffee, vanilla and cocoa. The sugar-cane, introduced in 1711 by Pierre Parat, is now the staple crop. In the 18th century the first place belonged to coffee (introduced from Arabia in 1715) and to the clove tree, brought from the Dutch Indies by Poivre at the risk of his life. Both are now cultivated on a very limited scale. Vanilla, introduced in 1818, was not extensively cultivated till about 1850. Bourbon vanilla, as it is called, is of high character, and next to sugar is the most important article of cultivation in the island. There are small plantations of cocoa and cinchona; cotton-growing was tried, but proved unsuccessful.

The sugar industry has suffered greatly from the competition with beet sugar and the effects of bounties, also from the scarcity of labour, from the ravages of the phylloxera (which made its appearance in 1878) and from extravagant methods of manufacture. It was not until 1906 that steps were taken for the creation of central sugar mills and refineries, in consequence of the compulsory shutting down of many small mills. Rum is largely distilled and forms an important article of export. There are also manufactories for the making of geranium essence, St Pierre being the centre of this industry. Other articles exported are aloe fibre and vacoa casks. The mineral wealth of the island has not been exploited, except for the mineral springs which yield waters highly esteemed. Almost all the products of the island are exported, so that the import trade is very varied. Cattle are imported from Madagascar; rice, the chief article of food, from Saigon and India; petroleum, largely used in manufactories, from America and Russia; almost everything else comes from France, to which country go the great majority of the exports. Over 15% of the shipping is under the French flag.


The total trade amounted in 1860 to the value of 4,4 6 4, 000 (the highest during the century); in 1900, to £1,533,240. In 1905 the imports were valued at 727,000 and the exports at 428,000. Of the imports L500,000 were from France or French colonies; of the exports 388,000 went to France or French colonies. The currency consists of notes of the Banque de la Reunion (guaranteed by the government) and nickel token money. Neither the notes nor the nickel money have any currency outside Reunion; the rate of exchange varies from 5 to 20%.

Administration and Revenue. - Reunion is regarded practically as a department of France. It sends two deputies and one senator to the French legislature, and is governed by laws passed by that body. All inhabitants, not being aliens, enjoy the franchise, no distinction being made between whites, negroes or mulattoes, all of whom are citizens. At the head of the local administration is a governor who is assisted by a secretary-general, a procureur general, a privy council and a council-general elected by the suffrages of all citizens. The governor has the right of direct communication and negotiation with the government of South Africa and all states east of the Cape. The council-general has wide powers, including the fixing of the budget. For administrative purposes the island is divided into two arrondissements, the Windward, with five cantons and nine communes, and the Leeward, with four cantons and seven communes. The towns are subject to the French municipal law. The revenue, largely dependent on the prosperity of the sugar trade, declined from an average of 163,765 in the five years 1895-99 to an average of X 1 47, 22 5 in the five years 1900-4. For the same periods the average colonial expenditure, which includes the loss incurred in maintaining the harbour and railway, increased from 224,508 to 225,088. Deficits are made good by grants from France.


Reunion is usually said to have been first discovered in April 1513 by the Portuguese navigator Pedro Mascarenhas, and his name, or that of Mascarene Islands, is still applied to the archipelago of which it forms a part; but it seems probable that it must be identified with the island of Santa Apollonia discovered by Diego Fernandes Pereira on the 9th of February 1507. It was visited by the Dutch towards the close of the 16th century, and by the English early in the 17th century. When in 1638 the island was taken possession of by Captain Gaubert, or Gobert, of Dieppe, it was still uninhabited; a more formal annexation in the name of Louis XIII. was effected in 1643 by Jacques Pronis, agent of the Compagnie des Indes in Madagascar; and in 1649 Etienne de Flacourt, Pronis's more eminent successor, repeated the ceremony at a spot which he named La Possession. He also changed the name of the island from Mascarenhas to Bourbon. By decree of the Convention in 1793, Bourbon in turn gave place to Reunion, and, though during the empire this was discarded in favour of Ile Bonaparte, and at the Restoration people naturally went back to Bourbon, Reunion has been the official designation since 1848.

The first inhabitants were a dozen mutineers deported from Madagascar by Pronis, but they remained only three years (1646-49). Other colonists went thither of their own will in 1654 and 1662. In 1664 the Compagnie des Indes orientales de Madagascar, to whom a concession of the island was granted, initiated a regular colonization scheme. Their first commandant was Etienne Regnault, who in 1689 received from the French crown the title of governor. The growth of the colony was very slow, and in 1717 there were only some 2000 inhabitants. It is recorded that they lived on excellent terms with the pirates, who from 1684 onward infested the neighbouring seas for many years. In 1735 Bourbon was placed under the governor of the Ile de France (Mauritius). at that time the illustrious Mahe de Labourdonnais. The Compagnie des Indes orientales gave up its concession in 1767, and under direct administration of the crown liberty of trade was granted. The French Revolution effected little change in the island and occasioned no bloodshed; the colonists successfully resisted the attempts of the Convention to abolish slavery, which continued until 1848 (when over 60,000 negroes were freed), the slave trade being, however, abolished in 1817. During the Napoleonic wars Reunion, like Mauritius, served the French corsairs as a rallying place from which attacks on Indian merchantmen could be directed. In 1809 the British attacked the island, and the French were forced to capitulate on the 8th of July 1810; the island remained in the possession of Great Britain until April 1815, when it was restored to France. From that period the island has had no exterior troubles. The negro population, upon whom in 1870 the Third Republic conferred the full rights of French citizenship including the vote, being unwilling to labour in the plantations, the immigration of coolies began in 1860, but in 1882 the government of India prohibited the further emigration of labourers from that country, in consequence of the inconsiderate treatment of the coolies by the colonists. Reunion has also suffered from the disastrous effects of cyclones. A particularly destructive storm swept over the island in March 1879, and in 1904 another cyclone destroyed fully half of the sugar crop and 75% of the vanilla crop.

See A. G. Garsault, Notice sur la Reunion (Paris, 1900), a monograph prepared for the Paris exhibition of that year; E. Jacob de Cordemoy, Etude sur l'ile de la Reunion, geographic, richesses naturelles, &c. (Marseilles, 1905); W. D. Oliver, Crags and Craters;. Rambles in the island of Reunion (London, 1896); C. Keller, Natur and Volksleben der Insel Reunion (Basel, 1888); J. D. Brunet, Histoire de l'association generale des francs creoles de file Bourbon (St Denis, Reunion, 1885); Trouette, L'Ple Burtrbon pendant la periode revolutionnaire (Paris, 1888). Of earlier works consult Demanet, Nouv. Hist. de l'Afrique franchise (1767); P. U. Thomas, Essai de statistique de l'ile Bourbon (1828); Dejean de la Batie, Notice sur l'ile Bourbon (1847); J. Mauran, Impressions dans un voy. de Paris a Bourbon (1850); Maillard, Notes sur file de la Reunion (1862); Azema, Hist. de file Bourbon (1862). The geology and volcanoes of Reunion were the object of elaborate study by Bory de St Vincent in 1801 and 1802 (Voyages dans les quatre principales Iles des mers d'Afrique, Paris, 1804), and have since been examined by R. von Drasche (see Die Insel Reunion, &c., Vienna, 1878, and C. Velain, Descriptions geologique de ... file de la Reunion.. ., Paris, 1878). The best map is Pau Lepervanche's Carte de la Reunion rioo,000 (Paris, 1906).

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