Why were the Mascarenes islands, La Réunion and Mauritius (and Rodrigues), uninhabited until Europeans arrived ?

Many islands off the coast of Africa remained uninhabited until the arrival of Europeans, because, as I understand it, they weren't close enough to be seen from the mainland and the people on the mainland weren't good navigators.

However, the closest land to La Réunion and Mauritius was Madagascar, which was settled by Austronesians, that is, perhaps the best seafarers of their time.

It seems a little strange that they haven't colonized these islands as well, especially since, unlike the desolate islands of Mozambique channel, they have freshwater, and, at the time, abundant game. Indeed, they are far less desolate than the Chathams, that are at about the same distance from New Zealand as La Réunion from Madagascar, and which the Maori did settle.

They don't seem to have been prevented from doing so by the prevailing winds either.

Also, it is said on Wikipedia that both islands were known to Arab traders before the arrival of Europeans. Now in their case, if they were traders who travelled along the coast, it makes a bit more sense that they wouldn't have cared given their remoteness from the trade routes. Still, it seems that they didn't even set foot on the islands to check whether they were worth something.

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    I was wondering the same thing. Does it have to do with the size? An island of that size could hardly support a growing population. And if I'm a seafaring explorer in ancient times, I'm probably going to keep going until I find a large Island that I can continue to explore, not just settle down in... – SimaPro Jul 18 '16 at 19:04
  • I'm not sure if it's a very good explanation... See my example of the Chathams islands. – Typhon Jul 20 '16 at 14:33
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    This might all come down to chance: A small island is easy to miss, so maybe it is simply that nobody has sailed close to these islands. Small boats follow major ocean streams. I would check the map of the Indian ocean streams. – Moishe Cohen Jan 14 '17 at 19:44
  • True, it might all come down to chance, as frustrating as this explanation feels. – Typhon Jan 14 '17 at 20:02
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    Any of these islands are more than 10 times larger than Easter Island, and they are certainly closer to other inhabited lands. – Miguel Costa Jan 14 '17 at 21:01
up vote 4 down vote accepted
+50

The map (not great but the best I could find online) from this wikipedia article might provide an explanation. enter image description here

The two little dots to the East of the cost of Madagascar are the La Réunion and Mauritius islands. The South Indian Ocean stream splits before reaching the islands and makes an accidental discovery less likely. Compare this with the streams (West Australian current becoming the South Equatorial current) going straight into the coast of Madagascar.

  • I'm not sure I understand your reasoning. Well, indeed, if one considers only the currents, a discovery starting from Madagascar looks less likely. However, for people navigating from Indonesia, as were the Austronesian who came to Madagascar, I'm not sure if it's so clear-cut. – Typhon Jan 17 '17 at 0:51
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    @Typhon: Just take a look at the current coming from Australia: It (barely) misses the islands (as I said, it splits). – Moishe Cohen Jan 17 '17 at 1:28
  • Ocean currents do occasionally bring objects to Mauritius & Réunion, though, as the debris from MH 370 has proved. Granted, nobody knows precisely where those particular objects started out, but it's not like the islands are in some magical no-current zone. – Michael Seifert Jan 19 '17 at 17:46
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    @MichaelSeifert: Of course, nothing is a no-current zone. My observation is about probabilities: The stronger is the current from P to Q, the higher is the probability that a small boat (akin to one used by Austronesian people) is to get from P to Q by accident. – Moishe Cohen Jan 19 '17 at 19:04

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