The Indian Ocean is the world’s third largest (after the Pacific and Atlantic, larger than the fourth, the Arctic), and far less known than its two big brothers. The named countries in the map are those that border it, with the ancient land of India so predominant the ocean itself is named after it.
Yet there is another country that has for centuries dominated the ocean far more than India ever did, a country that doesn’t border it but lies thousands of miles away in Europe: France. So much so that it should be more appropriately labeled the French Ocean.
France’s Empire Alive and Well
Most people think that Western colonialism and imperialism ended in the three decades following World War II, that the term “Western colonial power” is a quaint anachronism. This is not true of France, which has maintained its worldwide colonial empire by direct or devious means right through to today.
From St. Pierre & Miquelon off the east coast of Canada; to St. Martin, St. Bart’s, Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean; to French Guiana in South America; to Corsica in the Mediterranean; to New Caledonia, Wallis & Futuna (between Fiji and Samoa), Tahiti, and French Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean; to Clipperton off the south coast of Mexico. The sun never sets on the French Empire.
These are outright colonies owned by France – the list doesn’t include the countries of Francophone Africa over which France still exercises various degrees of control: e.g. Brazzaville Congo, Central African Republic, Gabon, Cameroun, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Guinea, and Senegal.
Yet it is in the Indian Ocean that French colonial influence most clearly dominates an entire region.
Nearly Alone in this Pool
There are other players, of course. Australia owns the small isolated islands of Cocos-Keeling and Christmas, as well as the uninhabited sub-antarctic islands of McDonald-Heard.
India owns the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, and the Laccadive (or Lakshadweep) Islands off its west coast.
South Africa owns the uninhabited sub-antarctic islands of Marion and Prince Edward, site of a suspected nuclear weapons test explosion performed for Israel on September 22, 1979 (called the Vela Flash, after the name of the US satellite that detected it).
Great Britain owns the Chagos Archipelago, a group of tiny atolls and one main island, Diego Garcia, which it leases to the US for a significant military air and naval base.
The Maldive Islands form an independent Islamic “Republic” – the scare quotes because the same families have ruled the place for centuries. Being a British Protectorate from 1887 to 1965 had little or nil impact. It’s composed of dozens of small atolls, many of which have been converted into scuba-diving resorts.
So now let us turn to France’s portion. Before we take a closer look, note (see the map above) this includes the largest of the subantarctic islands, Crozet and Kerguelen, plus the smaller islets of Amsterdam and St. Paul. These are all uninhabited, and are so remote that although Crozet and Kerguelen contain more birdlife than any other place on Earth, National Geographic has never had an article on them.
Mauritius and the Seychelles were given independence (1968 and 1975 respectively) after being British crown colonies since Waterloo. Prior to 1815, they had been French possessions – and weirdly, the Brits made no effort to supplant French culture and language with their own.
European explorers found the islands uninhabited. The Dutch named Mauritius (mo-rish-ee-us) after Prince Maurits of Nassau in 1598, but abandoned their settlement by 1710 after they had exterminated a large bird unique to the island, the Dodo.
By the 1730s, the French colonized it, followed by the Seychelles (say-shulls) in the 1750s – naming them after Jean Moreau de Séchelles, Louis XV’s Minister of Finance, who financed the colonization.
They proceeded to populate them with African slaves. When the Brits took over, they freed the slaves and imported thousands of indentured laborers from India and China, especially to Mauritius where there were large sugar cane plantations. They made little effort to teach them English.
So even though the French ruled Mauritius for 80 years and the Seychelles for 60, followed by over 120 years of British rule for each, the folks there still prefer to speak French. How did those imperialist guys in Paris do this?
One word: Réunion. Pronounced ray-yoon-yohn, it’s an island the size of Rhode Island (about a thousand square miles) between Mauritius and Madagascar that the French consider neither territory or colony – but rather an integral part of France, like Brittany or Provence. Or what Hawaii is for the US. Except…it’s 6,000 miles away on the other side of the world.
The Portuguese were the first to discover it in 1513. Finding it uninhabited, they named it Santa Apollonia (after Apollonia, the Catholic patron saint of dentistry, which is a little odd), and kept on sailing east.
The French showed up in 1638, and by 1649 the descriptions of the island’s untouched beauty persuaded Anne of Austria, mother of and regent for Louis XIV (who was then 11 years old) to officially claim it with the new name Ile Bourbon (the name of the French Royal Family).
When the French East India Company started growing coffee there after 1715, African slaves were brought in by the shipload, along with laborers from Madagascar, India, Malaya, and China. During the French Revolution in 1793, the folks operating the guillotines decided to dump the hated Bourbon name and call it Réunion after the joining of the Marseilles revolutionaries with those of Paris a few months earlier (which enabled the revolution’s success).
By the Treaty of Paris in 1815, the French had to cede Mauritius and the Seychelles to the Brits, but in a fit of English magnanimity, were allowed to keep Réunion. They spent the rest of the 19th century using it as their base to reconstruct the French Ocean.
Their first move, immediately after the Treaty of Paris, was to claim the 200 acre sandbank of Tromelin (after the chevalier de Tromelin, a French naval captain from the 1770s) to the north of Réunion.
They progressively colonized the Comoros starting in the 1840s. Then they targeted British Madagascar: by 1883, they got the Brits to sell out the Great Red Island.
They then proceeded to encircle Madagascar with tiny colonial possessions. Look at the Western Indian Ocean map again.
They nabbed the Gloriosos (two small coral islands and three rocks within a reef) in 1892. Then, in 1897, they proceeded to take Juan de Nova (less than two square miles, named after a Galican explorer in the service of Portugal who first saw it in 1501), Bassas da India (Portuguese for “Indian shoals”, ten rocks inside a reef that gets washed over at high tide), and Europa (ten square miles, named after a British ship in 1774).
These four, together with Tromelin, are called the Iles Eparses, the Scattered Islands, and remain France’s colonial possessions to this day.
France In the Tropics
All during this, they made every effort to worm their way back into the culture and economy of the Seychelles and Mauritius – establishing Catholic schools which taught French, providing scholarships for study in France, subsidizing French businessmen, and underwriting French banks.
It went on unceasing decade after decade, an amazing attempt of imperialist perseverance in a region the rest of the world knew and cared little about. And it was all run through Réunion.
The island is unique – not just in the Indian Ocean, but the world. Since it was previously uninhabited, it has no native culture, like in Tahiti or French Polynesia: the population is a polyglot mix, with everyone coming from somewhere else, and never developing a culture of their own.
The Seychellois and Mauritians have done so, but not the Réunionnais, as the people call themselves. They are French, the place is France-in-the-tropics, with bistros and baguettes and a million Renaults running all over the place. The difference is the stunning physical gorgeousness.
Pristine, Natural Glory
Réunion is renowned for its waterfalls:
The homes are all beflowered:
The beach at St. Gilles-les-Bains is always active:
It is a volcanic island studded with deep extinct craters covered in lush foliage and a myriad of waterfalls pouring wispily down their walls. An active volcano, the Piton de la Fournaise (The Furnace), erupts frequently and spectacularly, with giant streams of lava flowing into the ocean. Since the active areas of the volcano are not inhabited, its eruptions pose no danger and cause little damage. Here’s a picture from the BBC of an eruption in 2006:
Much of the island is like a huge botanical garden. One third is covered by preserved native forest. Everywhere you look is a profusion of flowers – orchids, hibiscus, bright red poinciana flame trees, purple jacaranda trees, yellow trumpet lilies, frangipani, bougainvillea. Everyone’s home is surrounded by them.
The beaches are magnificent, with waves that attract surfers from all over the world. The breezes that sweep up the hills above the beaches attract paragliders worldwide, as do the lagoons offshore for scubadivers. Then there’s the deep-sea fishing and mountain canyoneering.
It’s All About Your Attitude
Which makes me think of two people I met, Jean-Francois and Petra.
Jean-Francois hails from a small town south of Paris, is a flight attendant for a regional airline called Air Austral, and as such has been living in Réunion for six years. Every opportunity he gets, he treks into one of the “cirques,” or crater amphitheaters and explores.
“There are forests in some of the deep ravines that have never been touched by man,” he explains enthusiastically. “There is always something new to experience. In six years I have not seen all the island.”
Then again, there’s also paragliding at St. Leu, the endless parties with the beach bunnies at St. Gilles-les-Bains, the charming mountain towns like Hellbourg, and the thermal baths of Cilaos (which means “the place one never wants to leave” in Malagasy) up in the high plains of the interior. No wonder Jean-Francois is never bored in Réunion.
Petra, though, always is. She’s from Vienna, Austria, married to a Frenchman, and all she can think of is Washington, D.C. For four years, her husband was the bodyguard for the French Ambassador to the US. It was non-stop receptions and soirees and diplomatic events, constant mingling with the Washington power elite and the cream of the ambassadorial community in the world’s most important city.
It’s all she can talk about. All she can think about is how much she wishes she were there again and how bored, terminally bored, she is here with her husband now assigned in Réunion. She’s a nice, charming, attractive lady – the manager of the small hotel where Jackson and I stayed in Réunion’s capital of St. Denis – and it’s all so pointlessly sad.
It’s amazing how someone can be so determined to be unhappy in a real paradise.
For that’s what Réunion is. A French-made, French-preserved, totally French paradise. You’ve got to hand it to them: Réunion is heaven on Earth.