Madagascar Precolonial Era, Prior to 1894
Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies
The ruins of fortifications built by Arab traders as far back as the ninth century underscore Madagascar's historical role as a destination for travelers from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Not until the beginning of the sixteenth century, however, did European ships flying Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French flags explore Madagascar's shoreline. Beginning in 1643, several French settlements emerged; the best known of these, Tolagnaro (formerly Faradofay) on the southeast coast, lasted for more than thirty years. The settlement survived in part because the colonists had taken pains to establish cordial relations with the Antanosy, the ethnic group inhabiting the area. Relations deteriorated later, however, and in 1674 a massacre of nearly all the inhabitants ended French colonization endeavors for more than a century; survivors fled by sea to the neighboring territory of Reunion.
This early checking of French imperial designs coincided with the spread of piracy into the Indian Ocean. In the absence of a significant naval power in waters remote from Europe, privateer vessels attacked ships of many nations for nearly forty years. The favorite hunting grounds were in the north in the Arabian Sea and Red Sea areas, but Madagascar was a popular hiding place where crews could recuperate and replenish supplies for another attack. By this time, the institution of slavery also had been implanted on the island. Madagascar became a source of slaves, not only for the neighboring islands of Mauritius and Rodrigues, but also for more distant points, including the Western Hemisphere.
Madagascar's social and political structure facilitated the slave trade. Within several small coastal kingdoms, stratified societies of nobles, commoners, and slaves gave allegiance to a single king or queen. For example, the Sakalava ethnic group dominated the western and northern portions of Madagascar in two separate kingdoms. Menabe, on the barren western grasslands, had its first capital at Toliara; Boina, in the northwest, included the port of Mahajanga. The towns became centers of trade where cattle and slaves, taken in war, were exchanged with European merchants for guns and other manufactured goods. These political domains were complemented by the Betsimisaraka kingdom along the east coast, and the southern coastal kingdoms dominated by the Mahafaly and the Antandroy ethnic groups.
The most powerful of Madagascar's kingdoms--the one that eventually established hegemony over a great portion of the island--was that developed by the Merina ethnic group. Before the Merina emerged as the dominant political power on the island in the nineteenth century, they alternated between periods of political unity and periods in which the kingdom separated into smaller political units. The location of the Merina in the central highlands afforded them some protection from the ravages of warfare that recurred among the coastal kingdoms. The distinction, recognized both locally and internationally, between the central highlanders (the Merina) and the côtiers (inhabitants of the coastal areas) would soon exert a major impact on Madagascar's political system (see Population and Ethnicity , this ch.). Organized like the coastal kingdoms in a hierarchy of nobles, commoners, and slaves, the Merina developed a unique political institution known as the fokonolona (village council). Through the fokonolona, village elders and other local notables were able to enact regulations and exert a measure of local control in such matters as public works and security.
Two monarchs played key roles in establishing Merina political dominance over Madagascar. The first, who ruled under the name of Andrianampoinimerina (r. 1797-1810), seized the throne of one of the Merina kingdoms in 1787. By 1806 he had conquered the remaining three kingdoms and united them within the former boundaries of Imerina, the capital established at the fortified city of Antananarivo. Radama I (r. 1816-28), an able and forward-looking monarch, succeeded to the throne in 1810 upon the death of his father. By adroitly playing off competing British and French interests in the island, he was able to extend Merina authority over nearly the entire island of Madagascar. Radama I first conquered the Betsileo ethnic group in the southern part of the central highlands and subsequently overpowered the Sakalava, an ethnic group that also sought at times to assert its hegemony over other groups. With the help of the British, who wanted a strong kingdom to offset French influence, Radama I modernized the armed forces. In 1817 the peoples of the east coast, facing an army of 35,000 soldiers, submitted with little or no protest; Radama then conquered the entire southeast as far as Tolagnaro. Particularly barren or impenetrable parts of the island escaped conquest, especially in the extreme south, but before his death Radama I succeeded in bringing the major and more hospitable portions of the country under Merina rule.
Radama I's interest in modernization along Western lines extended to social and political matters. He organized a cabinet and encouraged the Protestant London Missionary Society to establish schools and churches and to introduce the printing press--a move that was to have far-reaching implications for the country. The society made nearly half a million converts, and its teachers devised a written form of the local language, Malagasy, using the Latin alphabet. By 1828 several thousand persons, primarily Merina, had become literate, and a few young persons were being sent to Britain for schooling. Later the Merina dialect of Malagasy became the official language. Malagasylanguage publications were established and circulated among the Merina-educated elite; by 1896 some 164,000 children, mainly Merina and Betsileo, another ethnic group, attended the mission's primary schools. Along with new ideas came some development of local manufacturing. Much productive time was spent, however, in military campaigns to expand territory and acquire slaves for trade.
The reign of Radama I's wife and successor, Queen Ranavalona I (r. 1828-61), was essentially reactionary, reflecting her distrust of foreign influence. Under the oligarchy that ruled in her name, rivals were slain, numerous Protestant converts were persecuted and killed, and many Europeans fled the island. The ruling elite held all the land and monopolized commerce, except for the handful of Europeans allowed to deal in cattle, rice, and other commodities. Remunerations to the queen provided the French traders a supply of slaves and a monopoly in the slave trade. Enjoying particular favor owing to his remarkable accomplishments was French artisan Jean Laborde, who established at Mantasoa, near Antananarivo, a manufacturing complex and agricultural research station where he manufactured commodities ranging from silk and soap to guns, tools, and cement.
During the reign of Radama II (r. 1861-63), the pendulum once again swung toward modernization and cordial relations with Western nations, particularly France. Radama II made a treaty of perpetual friendship with France, but his brief rule ended with his assassination by a group of nobles alarmed by his pro-French stance. He was succeeded by his widow, who ruled until 1868, during which time she annulled the treaty with France and the charter of Laborde's company.
After 1868 a Merina leader, Rainilaiarivony, ruled the monarchy. To avoid giving either the French or the British a pretext for intervention, Rainilaiarivony emphasized modernization of the society and tried to curry British favor without giving offense to the French. He made concessions to both countries, signing a commercial treaty with France in 1868 and with Britain in 1877. Important social developments under his leadership included the outlawing of polygamy and the slave trade; promulgation of new legal codes; the spread of education, especially among the Merina; and the conversion of the monarchy in 1869 to Protestantism.
Data as of August 1994
NOTE: The information regarding Madagascar on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Madagascar Precolonial Era, Prior to 1894 information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Madagascar Precolonial Era, Prior to 1894 should be addressed to the Library of Congress.