La Réunion: Culture and History of the Island

Christina/ October 21, 2023/ Culture

Even without visiting museums, as attentive visitors to the island, you can’t avoid encountering its colonial history. Our first encounter of this nature took place in St. Denis when we visited the natural history museum in the Jardin de L’Etat. In fact, it was the architecture of the neoclassical building that led us to the site. The museum is also beautifully designed on the inside.

Back on the street, it’s the “Rue de Paris” with its Creole villas that capture our attention. Here, it becomes clear how beautiful and comfortable the white upper class lived here in the past and perhaps still does today. Many of these buildings have now been converted into hotels, galleries, museums, or public institutions.

Domaine du Grand Hazier
The Grand Hazier estate is located in Sainte-Suzanne in the east of the island. The property is a former colonial plantation founded at the end of the 17th century.

Between 1674 and 1678, Henry Esse d’Orgeret, the colonial governor of the island of Bourbon (La Réunion), granted a concession to Jean Julien, a native of Lyon born around 1640, and a former soldier in the service of the Compagnie des Indes. Together with his Malagasy wife, they settled on the windward coast (eastern side of the island) and cultivated the land he owned in Sainte-Suzanne, which was confirmed to him in the year 1703. They also raised some cattle and poultry.

From the beginning, slaves contributed to the development of the Grand Hazier estate. One of them, Charles, a slave originally from India, arrived with Jean Julien and his wife and was likely the first captive to cultivate the Grand Hazier concession.

During the Second Republic, slavery was definitively abolished in the year 1848, accompanied by compensation to slave owners. The abolition led to the departure of captive workers from the plantations. To address this labor shortage, plantation owners turned to the indenture system to source agricultural workers, primarily from India (Malbars), and to a lesser extent from Africa and Madagascar.

The main house, along with its outbuildings, parks, gardens, orchards, and the grand avenue lined with coconut palms leading to National Road 2, has been listed as a historical monument since December 16, 1991.

Domaine des Tourelles
On the journey from Hell-Bourg to the Plaine des Palmistes plateau, we pass by another former mansion. It is the Domaine des Tourelles, built by Alexis de Villeneuve in the year 1927. In 1993, the house was completely restored. Today, a collective of artists occupies the premises. They offer various souvenirs, including jams, baskets, pottery, and fruits preserved in rum, some of which are typical, and others are quite stylish. A visit is worthwhile not only because of the beautiful building and grounds.

Lazaret La Grande Chaloupe
On our last day, while returning to St. Denis, we left the N1, the Red Tamarins Road, at the sign “Le Lazaret.” The sign piqued my curiosity. I was surprised to learn that it was a memorial site. On this site stand the remains of a former quarantine station.

The Lazaret in La Grande Chaloupe on the island of La Réunion is part of a network of quarantine sites established worldwide in the 19th century. These isolation sites were built to prevent the spread of epidemics in areas hosting immigrants from countries plagued by epidemic diseases such as plague, smallpox, cholera, and more. These immigrants had spent several weeks or months at sea under rudimentary hygiene conditions.

The Onset of the Indenture System in La Réunion
In the 19th century, La Réunion’s economy was primarily based on the cultivation of spices, coffee, and, most importantly, sugarcane. These crops required a large workforce, which plantation owners in La Réunion recruited through slavery and later through the indenture system.

After experiments in the first half of the 19th century, the indenture system gained prominence following the abolition of slavery in 1848. Unlike slaves, indentured laborers signed employment contracts that typically bound them to an employer for a period of five years. They received a salary, retained their religious freedom, and had the option to return to their home country at the end of their contract.

However, the reality often differed significantly. In practice, recruiters working for the employers purchased hundreds of individuals on the old slave markets. But this freedom came at a price: the obligation to sign an indenture contract. As early as 1859, voices in England rose against these recruitments, which were akin to the slave trade, and against the working conditions of the indentured on the plantations, which were scarcely different from those of former slaves.

Between 1860 and 1936, La Réunion received several tens of thousands of people from various countries, primarily from India, but also from Madagascar, the Comoros, Mozambique, China, and Europe. However, in the mid-20th century, it becomes apparent that the indenture system loses momentum. From the 1900s to 1910s onwards, it gradually gave way to free, spontaneous immigration, leading individuals to La Réunion, some of whom remained on the island. These included, among others, Chinese from Canton and Indo-Muslim immigrants who did not engage in agriculture but lived in the cities, forming communities specialized in trade.

Quarantine as a Means to Combat Epidemics
In the 19th century, given the boom in sugarcane cultivation, the colony decided to recruit labor from countries such as India, China, Africa, Madagascar, and the Comoros. At that time, many diseases like plague, cholera, smallpox, and malaria were rampant in these countries.

To prevent these diseases from spreading on the island, the colonial authorities decided to quarantine all travelers and goods transported by suspect ships. Quarantine involves isolating a group of individuals and/or goods for a specific period. Quarantine is carried out in isolation sites known as lazarets.

Several lazarets were built in La Réunion. Faced with the influx of indentured laborers on the island, the colony built a major quarantine facility in 1860: the Lazaret of La Grande Chaloupe. This location was chosen for its remote and easily monitored setting.

From 1860 to 1865, a pier, dormitories, warehouses, and various outbuildings were constructed in La Grande Chaloupe, located on the coast on both sides of the river valley. They became known as Lazaret No. 1 (in the municipality of La Possession) and Lazaret No. 2 (in the municipality of Saint-Denis). Thousands of people, including Indians, Chinese, Malagasy, Rodrigues, East Africans, and many others, passed through La Grande Chaloupe during the 19th century, marking their first contact with the island. For this reason, this site deserves to be remembered as an iconic place in the history of La Réunion’s settlement.

I found the visit to the memorial site very impressive, and I’m glad we made a stop here.

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