Before becoming part of the French Empire in the 17th century, the island was uninhabited. The population came in successive waves, with the very first settlers arriving from France, accompanied by servants from Madagascar. The first children born in Reunion were therefore of mixed race, as their mothers were Malagasy.
A social system of slavery was put in place, bringing in manual labour from Madagsacar and various regions of Africa. When slavery was abolished in 1848, the colony turned to India for more muscle. These ‘drafted’ workers came mostly from Tamil Nadu (southern India).
During the 19th century, travellers from China and Muslim India (Gujarat) came to settle on the island, and they were joined in greater numbers by their compatriots in the 20th century.
Reunion began to see more and more arrivals from mainland France during the 1960s, and during the seventies the French department in the Indian Ocean started to attract people from Comoros and Mayotte.
Reunion’s population today is naturally of mixed race, bearing witness to the island’s history. The various types are familiarly known as:
- cafres : the descendants of slaves or workers brought in from Africa and Madagascar;
- zarabs : Muslim Indians, for they share the same religion as Arabs;
- malbars : the descendants of workers drafted in from southern India;
- zoreys : those from Mainland France (‘zorey’ is Creole for ‘oreille’ meaning ‘ear’, possibly named because any other languages than their own fall on deaf ears!);
- chinois : Reunionese of Chinese origin.
- yab, or “poor white man of the hills”: the descendants of the poorer colonists who were driven up into the hills of the island during the second half of the 19th century.
However, the true beauty lies in the fact that no particular community has formed its own enclave: as each day passes, another wedding brings origins closer together. Reunion is representative of tomorrow’s world, a microcosm of diversity where unity goes beyond racial boundaries.
For a breath of fresh air away from racism and prejudice, nothing beats a trip to Reunion.