Sunday, 22 March 2015

Réunion - France in the Indian Ocean

For one reason or another, I haven't managed to blog about any French regions until now and it's strangely apt that my learning about France should start in one of France's most far-flung regions, the island of Réunion, which lies about 600 miles east of Madagascar, in the southern part of the Indian Ocean.  

Réunion is one of France's many DOMs/TOMs, short for Départements (or territoires) d'outre-mers - i.e. overseas departments or territories.  France is currently divided into 27 regions, 22 of which are in 'Metropolitan' France (i.e. Europe) and the other 5 are 'outre-mer' - these include Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, French Guiana on the South American mainland and Mayotte and Réunion in the Indian ocean.  

It's around 5,800 miles from Paris to St-Denis, the capital of Réunion, yet the people of Réunion island participate fully in the French state, sending deputies to the Assemblée nationale, receiving the same state benefits as people in metropolitan France and using the Euro, which is the official currency in France.  

Map of the French DOMs/TOMs
Apart from overseas regions, France also has many overseas territories as far apart as St Pierre et Miquelon off the coast of Canada, to Kerguelen near Antarctica and Tahiti in French Polynesia.  I've long been fascinated by the French DOMs/TOMs and I'd love to visit all of them some day, despite the fact that's prohibitively expensive to get to places like Nouvelle Caledonie or Wallis and Futuna!

As I've started learning about Réunion, I've begun to realise that I'm not just learning about France and a French overseas territory, but I'm also learning about other islands of the Indian ocean, known collectively as the Mascarenes.  

Unlike most other places I've previously blogged about, Réunion and the other Mascarene islands remained uninhabited until Europeans settled there in the 17th century.  Previous to that the islands were known to Arab and (no doubt) Chinese sailors, but they weren't considered to be particularly important, until the drive for European trade with India and the Far East made Réunion and other Indian islands strategic recuperation points for European ships, after their long voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. 

Not surprisingly, the Portuguese were first on the scene and the name 'Mascarene' comes from the Portuguese explorer, Pedro Mascarenhas, however, it was the French who eventually colonised the Mascarene islands, Ile Bourbon (Réunion), Ile de France (Mauritius) and Rodrigues.  

La Plaine des Palmistes by Jo Kerozen
Due to political wrangling during the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars, Ile Bourbon changed its name to Réunion, to honour the joint campaign of the Marseille revolutionaries and the National guard, then briefly became Ile Bonaparte, before reverting back to Réunion again, when Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo.  

Seeing the chance of gains in the Indian ocean, the British took control of Ile de France, renaming it Mauritius, after an earlier Dutch colony.  They also took control of the much smaller island of Rodrigues, which is still administered from Mauritius.  As well as the Mascarene islands, the French had established a settlement on the Seychelles in the 18th century, but Britain also took over these islands after the fall of Napoleon.  

By all accounts, Réunion is quite different than the other Mascarene islands and the Seychelles. Whilst Mauritius and the Seychelles have some of the world's best beaches and have, therefore, massive tourist industries, Réunion has lurked quietly in the background, largely unknown to the English-speaking world and a hidden treasure of volcanoes, fantastic hiking trails and an interesting mixture of French, Indian, African and Chinese cultures.

I'm really looking forward to learning more about this little piece of France in the Indian ocean and I hope you'll join me on my learning journey as I read books, watch movies, listen to music and cook the food of Réunion.

Image credits:

All images were taken from the English language Wikipedia page on Réunion