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 Indians 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 immigrants 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.
From the 17th to the 19th centuries, French immigration, supplemented by influxes of Africans, Chinese, Malays, and Malabar Indians, gave the island its ethnic mix. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 cost the island its importance as a stopover on the East Indies trade route.
The economy has traditionally been based on agriculture, but services now dominate. Sugarcane has been the primary crop for more than a century, and in some years it accounts for 85% of exports. The government has been pushing the development of a tourist industry to relieve high unemployment, which amounts to one-third of the labor force. The gap in Reunion between the well-off and the poor is extraordinary and accounts for the persistent social tensions. The white and Indian communities are substantially better off than other segments of the population, often approaching European standards, whereas minority groups suffer the poverty and unemployment typical of the poorer nations of the African continent. The outbreak of severe rioting in February 1991 illustrates the seriousness of socioeconomic tensions. The economic well-being of Reunion depends heavily on continued financial assistance from France.
* Portions of this txt originated in the public domain print edition of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.