The Portuguese discovered the uninhabited island in 1513. From the 17th to the 19th centuries, French immigration supplemented by influxes of Africans, Chinese, Malagasy, and Malabar Indians gave the island its ethnic mix. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 cost the island its importance as a stopover on the East Indies trade route. It remained a colony until 1946, when it became a département of the French Republic.

Locals take great pride in marking the anniversary of the abolition of slavery which happened on the 20th December 1848, in a festival known locally as "La Fête Cafre" a "cafre" being the name given to an indigenous dweller on the island, now widely used to address friends. This gesture towards the past is still very much present in society today, and as such the word "slave" "esclave" is a grave insult to a Réunionnais.

Today, the population of Reunion is widely varied in terms of ethnic origin, which each group inheriting its respective traditions.