For a new arrival on Reunion, getting the feel of the place involves acquainting oneself with its unique geography and the words that describe it. So an ‘ilet’ which in normal French would mean a small island, here indicates a self-contained hamlet, often situated on a remote mountain peak (‘piton’). The ‘cirques’, or circles, are the enormous extinct volcanic craters that form the island’s mountainous interior. A ‘bras’, meaning ‘arm,’ can be a stretch of river, or a ridge of rock. The island is sliced up by water running from its cool peaks down to the coast, forming ‘ravines’, ‘cascades’ and ‘bassins’ – literally ‘basins’, but here meaning the pools at the foot of the waterfalls.
Reunion’s place names, indicators of its –too often brutal – history, pose questions that tweak the writer’s imagination. The villages of Mafate, Cilaos and Salazie are named after escaped slaves who sought sanctuary in ‘les hauts’ (the mountain regions) and founded communities (‘ilets’), sometimes at the bottom of ‘les cirques’, which even today have no roads down to them and may be a two hour descent on foot. But what did they look like, these brave and desperate individuals who eked out an existence in the unforgiving landscape? How did they feed and clothe themselves on an island that had no indigenous mammals and no human inhabitants until the first settlers arrived? How did they keep their children alive? How did they maintain their morale, as slave hunters tracked them down, chopping off their hands and displaying these ‘trophies’ in the town squares to deter other runaways?
And what of the Ravine de la Veuve (Widow’s Ravine): how did she lose her husband and what happened to her afterwards? Which particular face of human suffering is commemorated by the Ravine a Misère (Misery Ravine)? Easier to guess the scourge indicated by the Ravine des Poux (Lice Ravine) – but who had lice and how did the ravine come to be named after them?
Happier occasions are evoked by the Cascade Délices (Delights Waterfall) or Cascade a la Voile de la Mariée (Bridal Veil Waterfall) – but was there a particular bride in mind, and who was she marrying? Who was the Nicole of Bassin Nicole and what did she do there? And the village of Dos d’Ane (Donkey’s back) – does that suggest the best way of getting there, or is there a story behind the name?
In the créole village of Entre Deux (Between Two), I plucked up the courage to ask a local the obvious question: “Between Two what?” His reply was most poetic: “Entre deux bras, un coeur” (“Between two arms, one heart”), combining the physical – the village is situated below a dip between two massive mountain ridges– and the metaphorical. Is this then a paean to the unity of the village’s residents, or might it refer to a darker tale of division and loyalty?
The true source of these suggestive place names may never be traced and delving into the history of Reunion is not for the fainthearted, but for me they provide a territory as lush and fertile as the island itself, full of mystery and intrigue.
Jo Hepplewhite from a small French ‘department’ somewhere between Mauritius and Madagascar in the Indian Ocean
The photo depicts a ‘cascade’ and a ‘bassin’