• Nicky, Digital Researcher, Africa Analyst

Madagascar Profile (A Brief History)

Updated: Nov 29, 2020


Madagascar officially known as the Republic of Madagascar, previously called Malagasy, is an island country located in east Africa on the Indian Ocean. Madagascar is separated from the coast of Africa by the Mozambique channel about 400km away. Scientific evidence indicates that Madagascar was probably separated from Africa by a violent earthquake about 200 million years ago. The country, which is said to be the second largest island country in the world, comprises of the island of Madagascar and other smaller neighboring islands.


Although the Island has proximity to Bantu-speaking Africa and several features of the Bantu language are abound in the Malagasy dialect, the people do not consider themselves to be Africans. In fact, the entire population of Madagascar are primarily related to Indonesian ancestors rather than African. However, due to French colonization of the Island it has come to share some levels of economic, political, and cultural links with other former French colonies in Western Africa. The Malagasy represent a unique blend of Asian and African cultures.


About 90% of the Madagascar's population is Malagasy, with about 20 ethnic groups of which the Merina subgroup is the most dominant. The Malagasy people are a mixed race resulting from intermarriages between Austronesians and Africans. Ethnic groups represented in Madagascar include Merina, Betsimisaraka, Betsileo, Tsimihety, Sakalava, Antaisaka, Antandroy and others. The country's official languages are Malagasy and French.


Early history of Madagascar


Archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest human activities in Madagascar dates to about 10,000 years ago. The first humans to settle in the region were probably Austronesian-speaking Indians who arrived at the Island from the Indonesian archipelago between 350 BC to 550 AD. They were later joined in the 9th century by Bantu-speaking migrants that came in from East Africa. Other ethnic groups like the Arabs and Asians arrived and settled in the island as early as the 9th century.


Between the 10th and 11th centuries, some slaves from Arab kingdoms and Zanzibar worked their way into the Island and settled on the western coast of Madagascar. Another set of Arab migrants settled in the northwestern area of the Island, bringing along with them the Islamic religion. With the introduction of Islam, Arab and Persian traders gained more grounds and would soon supplant the Indonesians along the African coastline and extended their control to some parts of Madagascar.


By the Middle Ages, several ethnic groups headed by local chiefs had been established in the Island of Madagascar. These chiefdoms would grow into Kingdoms and they would establish regular trade exchanges with Arab and European seafarers. The Sakalava and Merina kingdoms took advantage of this exchanges to amass much power, the primarily dealt in the business of trading Malagasy slaves in exchange for firearms and other goods.


Arrival of Europeans in Madagascar


European merchants in the coastal region of the Indian Ocean attempted to claim the Island a couple of times but were never able to fully overthrow that Malagasy. By the 19th century there was fierce competition between the British and French over who would have the greatest influence in Madagascar.


Portuguese explorers were the first to land in Madagascar in 1500 and named the Island Saint Lawrence. By the late 17th century, they established trading ports along the East Coast but were not able to establish Madagascar as a colony. Between the 15th and 17th centuries the English and French made several attempts to establish settlements on the island however the hostile climate of Southern Madagascar and opposition from the Malagasy made sure none of the settlements established by the English lasted beyond a few months. By the 17th century The French succeeded in establishing trading posts along the east coast.


Slave trading bloomed with the arrival of European slave traders and the various tribes would often engage in inter-tribal wars using ammunition obtained from the Europeans to capture prisoners that would be sold as slaves to the Europeans.


Between 1774 and 1824, pirates settled in parts of Madagascar and frequently targeted merchant ships sailing the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea leaving many shipwrecks in their wake.

By the late 17th century King Andrianampoinimerina united the highly populous Merina kingdom and his son Radama I would eventually hold authority over the Island of Madagascar. Monarchs from the Merina tribe continued to rule the kingdom of Madagascar and over the 19th century the kingdom underwent some levels of modernization. It maintained close diplomatic ties with Britain, and this led to the establishment of government institutions, schools and infrastructures modelled after the style of the Europeans.


Queen Ranavalona II who was queen of Madagascar between 1868 to 1883 Christianized the kingdom after the introduction of Christianity by the London Missionary Society. The competition between France and Britain continued until 1890 when Britain finally conceded to France.


Colonization of Madagascar

With the recognition of French authority of the island by Britain in 1890, France proclaimed Madagascar their colony, naming it the Malagasy Protectorate. However, the nobles of the Madagascar Kingdoms refused to acknowledge France's rule over them France responded by launching a military campaign. The war against the native rulers would end in September of 1985 when France finally captured the capital city of Antananarivo.


The Merina monarchy was dissolved, and slavery was abolished freeing about 500, 000 slaves. In 1896 French Parliament voted for the annexation of Madagascar and would integrate the colony with France’s East African colonies. The French would establish plantations throughout the island and bring in labor from east Africa.


Independence of Madagascar


A group of Merina elites, driven by anti-French sentiments, led by a Malagasy clergyman, pastor Ravelojoana came together with the objective of upholding Malagasy cultural identity. Although the group was brutally suppressed by French authorities, it earned Malagasy some voice in its government. Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s several Malagasy nationalists, under various umbrellas drove the independence agenda of Madagascar. The move against French colonial rule grew stronger after World War II and France would allow Madagascar self-rule under its supervision.


In 1946, some prominent representatives of Madagascar organized the first political party, the Democratic Movement for Malagasy Restoration and the party was outlawed after Malagasy nationalists revolted against the French in 1947. The French responded with a military campaign that killed thousands of the natives.


As other uprisings in Africa continued to build France enacted provision for parliamentary government in its colonies including Madagascar. In October of 1958, the Malagasy Republic was proclaimed an autonomous state, and with its adoption of a constitution it was granted full independence on 26 June 1960


In the first Republic, Philibert Tsiranana was appointed President by the French; and it lasted between 1960-1972 with France still exerting much influence over Madagascar. The country of Madagascar has since then transitioned through three more Republics, and the constitution revised at the turn of each new Republic.


Presently, the nation runs a semi-presidential representative democratic multi-party system where the elected president appoints a prime minister who then recommends the candidates for ministerial positions. Since independence, the island has seen significant political crises, military coups, and protests which was detrimental to its economy.


Economy of Madagascar


Madagascar’s 14 billion-dollar GDP thrives on the production of agricultural commodities such as rice, shrimp, palm oil, silk, coffee, and cotton. In addition, fishing and forestry are mainstays of the agriculture industry which represents 24% of GDP and employs 68% of the countries workforce.


The industrial sector represents 23% of GDP and employs 7% of the workforce and is dominated by mining. The mining of precious metals rubies, sapphires, and emeralds, production of textile goods, automatize parts, and cement are the maid drivers of the industry.


The service industry represents 48% of GDP and employs 25% of the workforce. Trade and tourism are the industry’s main driver. Banking and telecommunications and other services are growing opportunities for the nation.

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