Madagascar the Mysterious Island

Madagascar is one of the world’s largest islands and a republic off the coast of Mozambique . This African island is a place of mystery to some observers, but examining its history reveals a tale of transformation, societal change, and migration. The island used to be part of the African mainland, but separated during the Late Jurassic to Upper Cretaceous period. That was around 130 million years ago. The island is also a documentation of biological evolution. Madagascar developed many endemic species. Wildlife such as tarsiers, lemurs, lorises, bats, civets, mongooses,  and tenrecs add to a unique biodiversity. The primates that are present still have attributes of early homonoids. Not only is the wild life diverse, but the population of the island. It is a mixture of African and Asian peoples. The fusion of both African and Asian cultures reveals that human contact between various lands is nothing new.

              There has been debate to who were the first inhabitants of Madagascar. One theory poses that the earliest group of people traveled from Indonesia. This is based on linguistic and cultural analysis. The speculation was that around the second or third century Indonesians migrated by means of outrigger canoes. The possible travel route was possibly based around the Indian Ocean Rim. The linguistic evidence stem from similarities in Arabia, southern India, and eastern Africa. Considering when the first inhabitants arrived, it was rugged terrain. The method of survival was to employ various subsistence strategies. Swidden agriculture had its advantages, but resulted in deforestation. Fishing became an alternative. The crops that were grown were mostly rice, yams, toro, and arrowroot.


Pastoralism was adopted as well. Sometimes the early inhabitants did foraging. As time  passed more newcomers would follow. They would also transform the culture and economy of Madagascar.  The Antolalotra came to Madagascar around a 1,000 years ago. This group was mostly Muslim of Arab, Bantu, and Persian ethnic background. They were mostly involved in commerce. Having skills in trade gave them an advantage combined with their acceptance of the Malagasy language. Madagascar was becoming a trade center exporting goods along the Swahili Coast and to Arabia. Madagascar did have economic competitors that emerged in the Indian Ocean. Diego Diaz a Portuguese navigator and attempted conqueror landed on the island in 1500. Diaz wanted to establish a trade route to India. Instead, the Europeans wanted to establish colonies and take over Indian Ocean trade. The Muslim control of trade was dissipating with the arrival of the Portuguese, English, and  French. The attempts at establishing dominance and colonies over the island was not successful. The resistance was too powerful. The island itself was not a single unified state, but independent ones. The ethnic groups that had their own leadership included Merina, Sakalava, and Antimoro. Other ethnic groups established the same forms of government. The Bara, Betsileo, and  Betsimisaraka  had monarchs of their own. It would only be a matter of time before an ambitious ruler would seek to unite all of the island.

       The Merina  set out to build a unified kingdom. However. it took some time to build an island empire. The central plateau saw the rise of large chiefdoms. Rice cultivation was the key to creating a surplus and advancing the societal stricture. The king Andrianampoinimerina was embarking on an ambitious campaign  for unification in 1780.

Andrianampoinimerina (1745-1810)

The base of operations became Ambohimanga. He was able to bring through warfare the Betsileo, Bezanozano, and Sihanka. It was not just warfare that allowed him to build an empire. Andrianaampoinimerina established a system  of taxation, courts, and a  new administration structure. Land tenure and marriage laws were also instituted under his reign. Radama I was able to build on his father’s success. During the 1820s he was able to absorb the Sakalava Empire. His foreign policy was based on exploiting conflicts between the French and British in the Indian Ocean. Madagascar was becoming a vital source of supplies for colonies in Mauritius and Bourbon. It also traded slaves to colonies in the Indian Ocean region. The British were slowly encroaching on the island and on Radama’s court. The British provided military advisors  and educational training to the island. This was the early establishment of  indirect rule, which was a technique that the British used in their empire. The British established agreements to get resources of the island and a promise to stop the trade of slaves. Robert Farquher who was the governor of Mauritius orchestrated  a treaty in 1816. The British recognized Radama as king of the entire island and maintained full diplomatic relations. The Manabe and the Boina were defeated. There was still the challenge from the French. They had been weakened by Napoleon’s defeat in Europe, but were making a resurgence in other areas of the world. The French began dealing with multiple groups in Madagascar. They consulted with the King  and both the Sakalava including the Betsimisaraka. These groups were rivals, but the Europeans wanted to play each of them off against one another to eventually gain control.

           Ranavalona  was the next in line for the throne. She was the wife of Radama. The French and British continued to threaten  Madagascar’s security Queen Ranavalona responded with anti-colonial foreign policy and waging a war against Christianity.

Queen Ranavalona (1778-1861)

Christianity was associated with pro-European sympathies and colonization. This explained Queen Ranavalona’s  hate of Christianity. Many times across Africa and elsewhere around the globe missionaries were part of the colonization process. It was a method of controlling a population and having them simultaneously repudiate their own culture.  The Queen then declared all former treaties null and void. The London Missionary Society had been very active on the island.  They produced a number of Malagasy converts who would also be targeted. The persecution of the Malagasy converts could have been an error on her part. They would later emerge as accomplices in the colonization of the island after her death. Queen Ranavalona was a politician of  high caliber and was not afraid to challenge both the British Empire and the French Empire. Her reign has been viewed as a period of isolation, but it was more so the preservation of independence and national sovereignty. Around 1845, the British and the French amassed a force for a punitive expedition against Madagascar.  They were defeated at Tamatave  and could never recover. Queen Ranavalona had shown that Europeans could be defeated and stopped. French and British influence had been removed from the island. The European press characterized her as a tyrant. This was a distortion that later historical examination did correct.The intention of present this image was to encourage public support for future military intervention. It was not possible during her reign. As long as Queen Ranavalona was in power, Madagascar would be free.

           The death of Queen Ranavalona  was a turning point. Her son did not continue her policies and reversed previous royal decrees. King Rakoto ( later taking the name Radam II) allowed Europeans to purchase property on the island and reducing the restrictions of Christianity. The British and the French were given preferential treatment. They were were the European powers most involved in Madagascar, so it only seemed natural in the eyes of King Rakoto. The population despised this reversal in foreign policy. This could have been what induced the 1863 assassination.

Radama II (1829-1863)

 The monarchy was in political crisis. It was strength had dissipated under Europeanization and internal disputes. What Radama II father and mother built up was slowly being absorbed. His parents made considerable territorial gains to the Merina Kingdom. Madagascar’s challenge was that it had to deal with two powerful European empires and the it had to modernize fast enough to fight invasion. An island nation must have a strong navy to ensure security. The errors that the monarch made was not having a large navy to counter the British threat. After Radama II’s death his wife ascended the throne. Queen Rasoherina dismantled the absolute monarchy. This was further proof that political power was slipping out of the royal court’s hands. Queen Rasoherina however, made a master stroke by simply marrying the prime minister. Rainilaiarivony  became prime minsiter of Madagascar and would continue to have a long political career. His political survival was based on marriage to the women of the royal family.  He married a total of three queens. This not only provided him safety, but political authority. Madagascar had experienced coups or attempted plots, which continued to be a constant theme. Rainilaiarivony was allegedly conspiring to depose Ranavalona I during her reign.

This relationship between prime minister and monarch provide a level of stability for the time. The changing geopolitical climate would soon be too much to handle. Madagascar would gradually lose its independence.


The French and the British had a new opportunity to take the island. There were different reasons for imperial acquisition.

          The British Empire was interested in Madagascar at one point, but it waned by the 1860s. The Suez Canal had opened in 1869 and was now more of a priority. It would have been more favorable to have complete control over the Indian Ocean , but the political situation in Europe was altering the balance of power. The unification of Germany  and Italy made European power more competitive for colonies. The British were competing with Russia for influence in Central Asia, while France was at war with an emerging German Empire. They lost to Germany in 1871 and wanted to recover their pride. This meant gaining new colonies and being more oppressive in areas already under their dominance. The British lost interest in Madagascar and France used the opening to seize the island. The French deliberately instigated armed conflict and used naval blockades. The Malagasy people and the French attempted a peace settlement in 1885. This failed ultimately, because the French demanded that the Merina  court grant them a permanent military base and prohibit relations with any other nations. Then around 1895 the French and Malagasy began fighting. The French absorbed the island by 1896. For 64 years the island would be a French colony.

          The oppression that followed was directed by the governor general Joseph Simon Gallieni. The last monarch to rule Ranavalona II was exiled to Algeria, never to see her native land. The 7000 troops brought to the island used deadly force. A head tax was also imposed on the Malagasy people. Political and economic exploitation created the rise of a nationalist political party. The Vy  Vato Sakeliak  became to voice of resistance to French imperialism in Madagascar. Many leaders of the VVS were jailed in 1915 for their activities. It was not until World War II did a chance at freedom came. France was conquered in 1940 , which gave anti-colonial activists a period to organize. The British invaded the island in 1942 as a preventive measure against possible Japanese military maneuvers.  The British gave control of the island to the Free French in 1943. It was clear after the war the status quo could not remain. Madagascar would get representation in the French Parliament and political reforms would be implemented in 1946. This marks the struggle for independence.

         New political parties emerged and many times along ethnic lines. The Mouvement  democratique pour la renovation malgache was mostly Merina. This caused another political party to form known as the Parti des desherites de Madagascar. Ethnic tensions led to clashes between these two political parties in 1947. It was rumored that the secret societies of the PADESM  under Manja Jaona. These secret societies became involved in low scale guerrilla warfare. The French wanted to keep that island so they unleashed another campaign of suppression. The desire to exploit Madagascar took another form in an attempt to develop a plantation economy. This involved tax and labor incentives in policy . This was stopped by Malagasy resistance and waning French power. The traditional economy largely remained in tact, while French attempts at full economic subjugation failed.

      The French could no longer hold on to their colonies. Madagascar like other African nations was demanding independence. Madagascar was granted an autonomous status within the French Community in 1958, which then became fully independent by 1960. A new era had began as the island nation had to restructure its self with a new form of government. Philibert Tsiranana became the first president in 1959. His party was the Parti social democrate which focused more on non-Merina interests. Philbert Tsiranana  was pro-Western and staunchly anti-communist. He did not share the Pan-African political vision like other leader on the African continent. Tsiranana frequently condemned such ideology routinely criticizing Kwame Nkrumah. Actions like that made him least popular among other African leaders.

Philibert Tsiranana (1912-1978)

 Conflict then emerged with Parti du congres de l’independence de Madagascar. The PSD and AKFM would be in constant conflict through out the 1960s. The AKFM wanted to promote Merina needs first. This party was led by Richard Andimanjato. The Tsiranana presidency ended in 1972 amid mass protests and riots. He was forced from office and Gabriel Ramanantsoa took over. The general headed a five year transitional government. The ethnic conflict did not end between Merina and Cotiers. This was exacerbated by the poor economic conditions of the island nation. A coup happened in 1975 placing Richard Ratsimandrava as leader. He was assassinated six days later after his rise. Gilles Andriamahazo another general then came to power. Martial law was imposed and political parties were banned in Madagascar. Andriamahazo the resigned and another leader came to power. Didier Ratsiraka would become president under a newly established supreme revolutionary council.

       The Didier Ratsiraka’s  presidency lasted from 1975 to 1992. His government was the opposite in terms of foreign policy. President Ratsiraka chose to be a non-aligned in terms of Cold War politics.

Didier Ratsiraka

Madagascar was now a democratic socialist republic. It established relations with the Soviet Union and the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. This was a major change in relations considering the more anti-communist stance of previous presidents. Martial law was ended,however other reforms did not come. The press was under strict censorship. Certain industries were nationalized  and the most important was banking. Ratsiraka was moving politically in the tradition of anti-colonial leaders. During this time the only legal political party was the Avant-garde  de la revolution malgache. Elections were held in 1977, with little opposition. The AREMA  also won more seats in the National Popular Assembly in 1983. Despite nationalization efforts the economy was still in critical condition. The unemployed youth of Madagascar then became active. They did not do so in a positive manner, but turned to crime.  The two major gangs that formed were Tanora Tonga Saina  and Zatovo Western Andevo Malagasy. They engaged in petty crime and extortion on the island.  Vigilante bands the formed to counter the gangs. The government had no choice, but to intervene. Social unrest continued  and the worst was between the 1986 to 1987 period. There was lack of food security in the south of the country. Ethnic tensions never disappeared. President Ratsiraka was reelected in 1989 even though there were multiple civil disturbances. Madagascar would then allow for multiparty elections in 1990. This meant an end to the Ratsiraka era. He would again serve as president from 1997 to 2002 , which was brief compared to his other terms.

        As the 21st century approached Madagascar was still in turbulence. The fall of the Soviet Union meant the country had to turn to the West to solve economic problems. During the early 1990’s France proposed cancelling $750 million of debt in exchange for  naval   bases. Madagascar then turned to the IMF for financial assistance. The fiscal austerity measures caused public upheaval. The end of rice subsidies caused public protests.  A combination of discontent among the citizens, the frustration of both opposition parties and labor unions led to the downfall of Rasiraka. The Forces of Vives formed to hold the government accountable. The coalition of labor unions and opposition parties. Then demanded Ratsiraka resign. Large demonstrations erupted in 1991. Didier Ratsiraka was forced to relinquish power under pressure and a provisional government was established. Albert Zafy would only maintain the presidency for a brief period under a new constitution. Around 1996 Zafy was impeached for violating the constitution. This did not stop him from running for president again. Ratsiraka was able to get voted back into office. The reason could have been the Malagasy people wanted some form of stability.

          The elections of 2001 created another political crisis. The challenger Marc Ravalomanana was in a political standoff with President Ratsiraka. Ravalomanana claimed that he won the first round of  elections and that it was not necessary for a run off elections. The controversy over who won the election turned into a nation wide crisis. Then around January 2002 Ravalomana and his supporters engaged in mass protests and general strikes.  The High Court then declared in April that Marc Ravalomanana was the winner after a recount. Rtsiraka said he did not accept that verdict. The crisis continued and only ended with Ratsiraka going into exile in France. The Ravalomanana presidency lasted from 2002 to 2009 producing mixed results. The IMF and International Monetary Fund wrote off some of Madagascar’s debt, which was estimated to be $2 billion. Although this was a positive development the country needed. The problem with the administration was that it decided to then take aid from the United States. This program rewarded governments on their progress toward a democratic system and market reform . That appeared to be creating an image of dependent on a foreign power. The country became more of an interest to Washington in 2008 when the possibility of off shore oil drilling became a reality. The transition of power or relinquishing power has been a persistent struggle in the politics of Madagascar. Unrest came in 2009 when president Ravalomanana shut down opposition television and radio stations. He was deposed by Andry Rajoelina with the assistance of the military. After the coup Ravalomanana fled to South Africa. The next presidency was short, but still had turbulence with constitutional reforms and a series of referendums. Rajoelina lost the elections and by 2014 Hery Rajaonarimampiana  was elected president. The following year he avoided impeachment following accusations of misrule and constitutional violations. The court ruled in his favor. It is uncertain how this current presidency will address long lasting issues.


 Appiah, Anthony, and Henry Louis Gates. “Madagascar.” Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. New York: Basic Civitas, 1999. 1222-223.

News, BBC. “Madagascar Profile – Timeline.” BBC News. British Broadcasting Corporation, 15 June 2015. Web. 03 Dec. 2016. <;.


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