If you want to learn about the history of Réunion Island you should visit the Stella Matutina Museum. Drive about 15 minutes from Le Boucan Canot my hotel en Saint-Gilles-les Bains. The museum has free parking on site.
In the 16th century Europeans colonized the islands in the Caribbean and then America. These new colonies produced raw materials that were coveted by the elite, such as dyes, spices, coffee, tea and of course sugar. The model was based on a plantation economy with large farms cultivated by slaves who first were local and then brought from Africa.
Sugar travels the world
Sugarcane was originally discovered in New Guinea at the end of the Prehistoric period. The Austronesians planted it in the surrounding islands. The crop was spread through Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. The first efforts to produce sugar occurred in China in 3000 BC. It arrived in Persia during the Antiquity and then to the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages. It finally reach the islands of the Indian Ocean in the 17th century.
Originally, sugar was produced from cane since they did not know about sugar beet. Before the colonization all the sugar plantations were located in the Mediterranean. The first sugar mills were very basic with a fireplace and some frying pans. The little sugar that was produced was of poor quality. These processes were improved and the price of sugar decreased. By the 18th century the middle class began consuming sugar and in the 19th century it was accessible to the masses.
Europeans preferred white sugar instead of raw brown sugar. The producers in the colonies had to refine the sugar so that it was white. In 1684 the sugar refineries in France pushed for new laws that affected the colonies. These laws prohibited the creation of new refineries and placed taxes on sugar imported into France.
The colonies began a new practice called ‘terrage’ where they put a layer of wet clay on the sugar that removed the viscous syrup that gave it its chocolate color. It was very similar to refined sugar. Between 1791 and 1816 taxes continued to rise in France, dissuading the colonies from producing quality sugar. They decided to focus on producing raw sugar.
An island with many names
5,000 years ago tribes began to cross the Indian Ocean thanks to the monsoon winds. The Arabs sailed using boats called ‘dhows’ (you can read more about these dhows of Oman). They sailed to the Mascarene Islands between the 10th and the 16th centuries. They named them ‘Dina Morgabi’ (Réunion), ‘Dina Mozare’ (Mauritius) and ‘Dina Arobi’ (Rodrigues).
The island was discovered by Europeans in the 16th century. Until the beginning of the 18th century it was a stop en route to India. The Portuguese arrived between 1507 and 1538 and called the island ‘Santa Apollonia’ and then ‘Mascarenhas’. Then the English arrived in 1616 and named it ‘Island of Pearls’ and then ‘Forest of England‘. The Dutch arrived in 1619. Finally the French arrived in the 17th century and proclaimed it theirs. They called it ‘Mascarin’, then ‘Bourbon’, ‘Réunion’ and ‘Island of Bonapate’. During the Second Republic (1848) they decided to leave it the name of ‘Réunion‘.
The island had an economy based on plantations. Its inhabitants were a mixture of slaves and free men of different origins. French colonizers; Malagasy and African slaves; and pirates were those who inhabited and developed the island. Apart from sugar, they developed coffee plantations, diversifying the economy.
Like all the other European superpowers, the French established trading companies to develop their relations in the Indian Ocean. The island of Bourbon became the place to produce and store food. This served to feed the population and the slaves, who continued to grow in numbers, as did the sailors who passed through the islands.
Plantations in Réunion
Since 1715 the Company encouraged the planting of coffee, but Mahé de Labourdonnais had the harvest controlled. You can visit a plantation called Domaine de Labourdonnais in Mauritius. The plants were brought from Mocha and were to be planted by the villagers. The law obliged to sow if not the concessions of land would be removed. They paid quite low prices that made it profitable only for large plantations with slaves. After 1760, coffee prices fell further due to competition from the French Antilles. The villagers had to diversify their plantations with pepper, cloves and nutmeg.
After 1815, only coffee was planted in small plantations while the large ones opted for sugarcane. France lost its main sugar colonies and the Bourbon boom began between 1810 and 1830. Napoleon’s wars caused shortages and inflation of sugar. To remedy this, since 1801, they encouraged the sowing of sugar beet in France. There was a lot of rivalry and the sugar war was declared. They went through periods of highs and lows until the production quotas ended in 1930.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the island of Bourbon was still agricultural and had no factories or industries. They also did not know how to process sugar. A couple of pioneers had wooden mills with hydraulic motors and small cast iron boilers. They produced little sugar of low quality. Therefore, they were replaced with factories that followed the model of Santo Domingo. Finally the production took off.
Stella Matutina, means morning star in Latin and is the planet of Venus. After the sun and the moon, it is the brightest celestial object. It is also associated with Santa María who was the patron chosen by the owners of the mill.
Growing sugar meant having strong competition and many crises. In order to survive in the 19th century, farms had to grow. That meant buying more land or joining with other farms. Stella Matutina grew until 1913. It produced sugarcane, coffee, tobacco, food, geranium and firewood.
The plantation had its own sugar factory that today is the Stella Matutina Museum. The settlers did not own the lands they cultivated. They had to pay a third to the owner. This system was abolished in Réunion Island in 2010.
Stella Matutina Museum
Stella Matutina Museum is located in the municipality of Saint-Leu that was founded in 1790. They have 118 square kilometers that go from the sea to the mountain. The museum was founded in 1991 and for 20 years it was a place where people could learn about the industrial techniques used for sugar production.
In 2011 the museum was closed to completely renovate it. It reopened in 2015 and is one of the most complete museums I’ve seen in my life. For this reason he has the accreditation of ‘Musée de France’.
When visiting, you enter a huge factory. The tour begins in the basement where you learn about the history of the conquest of the Réunion Island. Then you take an elevator to the last level that focuses on sugar cane. You go down the floors, seeing the old machinery used in Stella Matutina.
The final exhibition shows what life was like on the island and its people. There is a replica of a Chinese grocery store and a bus that they used as transportation on the island.
When you finish there is a store that sells island products and sugar. Take the opportunity to taste the rums with fruits and spices which give it a delicious flavor.
Sugar is still very important in the economy of Réunion since it represents 70% of its exports. In addition to creating 12,000 direct and indirect jobs. Today, the island that is still part of France, is the largest producer of sugar in Europe. If you visit the island of Réunion make sure you go through the Stella Matutina Museum.