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Réunion is an island in the Indian Ocean, southwest of Mauritius, and east of Madagascar. Inhabited since the 17th century, the island is a region of France. Nearly half the island has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Although sea travelers were aware of the island as early as the 12th century AD, it was uninhabited when it was discovered by Portuguese explorers in 1507. The island was claimed for Portugal, but no one settled the island, and it was rarely visited.

More than a century later, the island was occupied by the French and administered from Mauritius. France deported some French mutineers to the island from Madagascar, but they were later returned to France. In 1649, the island's name was changed to Île Bourbon for the French Royal House of Bourbon, but colonization of the island didn't begin until 1665.

That year, the French East India Company sent a contingent to live on the island, which was renamed Île de la Réunion, which means Reunion Island in English. In honor of Napoleon Bonaparte, France renamed the island Île Bonaparte in 1801, but it was invaded by Britain, who took control of it in 1810, giving it its old name of Bourbon, a name that was retained after the island was restored to French control in 1815, up until the fall of the Bourbons during the French Revolution of 1848, when it was again given the name of Île de la Réunion.

During this period, settlers arrived from Europe and Asia, but mostly from France. As France was involved in the slave trade up until the mid-19th century, slaves from the African continent were imported to work the coffee and sugar cane plantations set up by the French. In the 1700s, there were more black slaves on the island than people of other races.

As landholdings were subdivided between siblings, the less fortunate were forced to farm the difficult terrain of the higher regions and were unable to earn a living through agriculture. Between 1830 and 1840, land concessions were made for Salazie and Cilaos. Mafate, a large depression created by the collapse of a volcano, was very difficult to access and was settled by escaped slaves.

When slavery ended, many of the freed slaves remained on the island, establishing themselves as blacksmiths, charcoal makers, or in other trades, while some continued to work the plantations for pay. Malagasy, Indians, Chinese, Comorans, and Yemenis were also brought to Réunion to work, and some remained. As a result, today the population of Réunion is made up of people of mixed origins.

A few wealthy white families hold economic influence that may be disproportionate to their numbers. These are what is left of the former plantation owners, some of whom have transitioned to banking and other businesses, as well as more recently arrived professionals and senior civil servants. Less wealthy whites, known locally as petits blancs, who have been living on Réunion for generations, tend to form a tightly-knit community, usually attached to the agricultural and handicraft occupations of their ancestors.

French is the official language of Réunion, although Réunion Creole is the most widely spoken. Fluency in English is rare, but German and Spanish are offered in the schools as a third language. Better than 90% of the Réunion population are literate, most in more than one language. The University of La Réunion serves the higher education needs of the island.

The most common religion in Réunion is Christianity, primarily Roman Catholicism. More than eighty percent of the population are Christians, followed by about ten percent Hindus and two percent Muslims.

Administratively, Réunion is divided into municipalities, known as communes. There are twenty-four of them: Bras Panon, Cilaos, Entre Deux, La Plaine des Palmistes, La Possession, Le Port, Les Avirons, Le Tampon, L'Étang Salé, Petite Île, Saint André, Saint Benoît, Saint Denis, Sainte Marie, Sainte Rose, Sainte Suzanne, Saint Joseph, Saint Leu, Saint Louis, Saint Paul, Saint Philippe, Saint Pierre, Salazie, and Trois Bassins.

With large areas of rainforests and dramatic volcanic terrain, Réunion is a popular destination for outdoor adventurers and those who enjoy wildlife. Its landscape is punctuated by craters, peaks, wild rivers, spectacular waterfalls, dense forests, and challenging trails. Piton de la Fournaise, a shield volcano in eastern Réunion, is among the most active on earth. As the island is not well known in the English-speaking world, the majority of its tourists and visitors are French.

Besides tourism, Réunion exports sugar and rum. Réunion is the wealthiest island in the Indian Ocean, with the highest GDP per capita in the region. Nevertheless, unemployment is a significant problem on the island, and approximately forty percent of its population live below the poverty level.



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