Reunion Island is a volcanic mountain, having been brought to life as it rose up out of the Indian Ocean. Uninhabited until the East India Company established a trading post in 1642, it was also the site for many pirate landmarks. And from the point man arrived, the sugar cane plantations on the island shaped the face of Ile Bourbon, Reunion’s original name.
The draught board-like districts in Saint-Denis or the isolated villages (like Hell Bourg, in the hollow of the majestic mountainous cirque of Salazie) are evidence of typical Creole architecture.
Several museums display Reunion’s past to the general public:
In Piton Saint Leu, Stella Matutina, a former sugar refinery, magnificently tells the story of the farm production which was the basis of the fortune of the great colonial family and slave labour. At Saint Gilles-les-Hauts, the Panon-Debassayns estate recalls the destiny of a dynasty and the outrages of slavery whilst the Vanilla Cooperative explains the amazing secrets of this world-famous orchid, which was, for a long time, a very precious spice and basic production of Reunion. The Prefect Sarda-Garriga, who was later appointed director the Cayenne penal colony, announced the end of slavery in 1848, setting two thirds of the population free.
Even before this, a large number of slaves had fled into the inaccessible mountains, setting up small farming villages that clung to the steep slopes.
Despite being for the most part Catholic, the customs of the Hindu community in Reunion island are very present. At Saint-André in November, the celebration of Divali, the festival of light, serves as a reminder of the presence of a Tamil and Indian community, only recently arrived from India and Sri Lanka. Further proof of the charms of an ethnic diversity, well tolerated in the tropics.
No doubt there were more than three hundred Kanak clans before the explorer James Cook arrived in 1774 in New Caledonia, but it was he who changed the name of the island in homage to Scotland. Very rapidly coming under French protection, the island remained an important maritime stopover. Part of its territory adopted an Australian model of cattle-rearing, in which large herds were driven by mounted stockmen.
Countless petroglyphs such as rock carvings with symbolic and geometric patterns have been found, particularly beside Poya. These reveal that the Melanesians had been there for a very long time.
More recently, it was the discovery of enormous mineral deposits, particularly nickel, that have determined the island’s destiny. Nowadays, the Kanaks are returning to their founding culture: their abilities as sailors and fishermen.
With spectacular architecture, by Renzo Piano, ‘The Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre’ in Nouméa strongly emphasises the Kanak civilisation: Designed by Renzo Piano and inspired by Melanesian Great Houses, the centre traces the Kanak culture and customs, as well as explaining the Kanak myth of the creation of the first man on earth. Warm moments can be shared listening to legends and tasting the delicious cuisine.. An inescapable evidence of the past and the future of New Caledonia.
French explorer Bougainville was so enchanted by the warm welcome and the gentleness of the people when he got to French Polynesia that he named their island New Cythère. The story of his trip contributed largely to the creation of the legendary Polynesian paradisiacal myth.
In recent years, the Polynesian people have been able to refresh the island’s identity by reviving many of its traditions.
Rooted in the mists of time, dance and music in Polynesian culture are seen a genuine means of communication. Passed on by oral traditions in the secrecy of isolated valleys and out of the way atolls, these traditions were nevertheless preserved and have now been revived and renewed with vigour. Power and charm, symbolic gestures, beautiful ornaments (costumes, crowns of flowers) are characteristic of these arts, that express social togetherness during festivals and ceremonies, culminating in the Heiva i Tahiti festival in July. This yearly event is also the opportunity to celebrate the community’s sports and artists and also allows Polynesian artists to showcase their best works.
Art and history lovers should not miss the numerous museums in Tahiti: the Museum of Tahiti and its islands, the Robert Wan Pearl Museum, the Shell Museum as well as one dedicated to the painter Paul Gauguin.
For the Pacific people, the great art of tattooing means far more than an aesthetic wish: tattooing has its own language, it defines the individual’s social status. The “Tatau i tahiti tattoonesia” festival is an annual event which, in November, brings together in Papeete the best tattooists in Polynesia, the Pacific islands and the rest of the world, as well as attracting more than 15,000 visitors.