Madagascar’s settlement is a topic of continuing study and discussion. Cut markings on bones discovered in the northwest and stone tools discovered in the northeast suggest that foragers visited Madagascar about 2000 BC. Archaeologists have often assumed that the first inhabitants came in consecutive waves between 350 BC and 550 AD, but others are skeptical of dates older than 250 AD. In any event, these dates place Madagascar as one of the world’s last major landmasses to be colonized by humans.
Outrigger boats brought the first immigrants in from southern Borneo. Slash-and-burn agriculture was used by early immigrants to remove the coastal rainforests for crops. The earliest inhabitants came upon Madagascar’s abundant megafauna, which included gigantic lemurs, elephant birds, huge fossa, and the Malagasy hippopotamus, all of which have now gone extinct owing to hunting and habitat degradation. By 600 AD, groups of these early immigrants had started destroying the central highlands’ forests. Between the seventh and ninth century, Arab merchants first arrived on the island. Around 1000 AD, a wave of Bantu-speaking migrants from southeastern Africa arrived. They introduced the zebu, a long-horned humped cow with huge herds that they maintained.
Irrigated paddy fields had been established in the central highland Betsileo Kingdom by 1600, and a century later, terraced paddies had been spread across the adjacent Kingdom of Imerina. By the 17th century, the central highlands had been completely converted from a forest environment to a grassland ecosystem due to increased land cultivation and an ever-increasing need for zebu pasturage. The Merina people, who may have arrived in the central highlands between 600 and 1000 years ago, tell of meeting an established community known as the Vazimba in their oral histories. The Vazimba were assimilated or driven from the highlands by the Merina monarchs Andriamanelo, Ralambo, and Andrianjaka in the 16th and early 17th century. They were probably descendants of an earlier and less technologically sophisticated Austronesian colonization wave. Many traditional Malagasy tribes see the Vazimba spirits as tompontany (ancestral rulers of the land) today.
Arab and European contacts
In the early years after human colonization, Madagascar was an important transoceanic trade center linking Indian Ocean ports. The Arabs established trade stations along Madagascar’s northwest coast by at least the 10th century, bringing Islam, the Arabic script (which was used to transcribe the Malagasy language in a form of writing known as sorabe), Arab astrology, and other cultural aspects with them. The Portuguese sea captain Diogo Dias first saw the island in 1500, and it was the start of European interaction. In the late 17th century, the French built trade stations along the east coast.
Madagascar rose to popularity among pirates and European merchants, especially those engaged in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, between 1774 and 1824. Some historians have suggested Nosy Boroha, a tiny island off Madagascar’s northeastern coast, as the location of the fabled pirate paradise of Libertalia. Many European sailors were shipwrecked off the island’s beaches, including Robert Drury, whose diary is one of the rare documented accounts of life in southern Madagascar during the eighteenth century. The riches produced by marine commerce fueled the development of organized kingdoms on the island, which by the 17th century had become very strong. The Betsimisaraka alliance on the east coast, as well as the Sakalava chiefdoms of Menabe and Boina on the west coast, were among them. The Kingdom of Imerina, based in the central highlands and with its headquarters at Antananarivo’s royal palace, arose about the same period, led by King Andriamanelo.
Kingdom of Madagascar (1540–1897)
The highland kingdom of Imerina was originally a small force in comparison to the bigger coastal kingdoms when it arose in the early 17th century, and it became much weaker in the early 18th century when King Andriamasinavalona split it among his four sons. Imerina was restored in 1793 by King Andrianampoinimerina (1787–1810) after almost a century of warfare and hunger. This Merina monarch quickly extended his authority over surrounding kingdoms, first from Ambohimanga and then from the Rova of Antananarivo. King Radama I (1810–28), his son and successor, succeeded in bringing the whole island under his authority, and was acknowledged by the British administration as King of Madagascar.
In 1817, Radama signed a contract with the British governor of Mauritius to prohibit the profitable slave trade in exchange for military and financial support from the British. The London Missionary Society sent artisan missionary envoys to Madagascar in 1818, including James Cameron, David Jones, and David Griffiths, who established schools, transcribed the Malagasy language into the Roman alphabet, translated the Bible, and introduced a variety of new technologies to the island.
In response to growing political and cultural encroachment by Britain and France, Radama’s successor, Queen Ranavalona I (1828–61), issued a royal decree banning the practice of Christianity in Madagascar and forcing most foreigners to leave the country. Residents of Madagascar might accuse one another of a variety of crimes, including robbery, Christianity, and, most notably, witchcraft, for which the tangena experience was almost always required. Between 1828 and 1861, the tangenaordeal claimed the lives of approximately 3,000 people each year.
Those who remained in Imerina included Jean Laborde, a monarchy-backed industrialist who built munitions and other businesses, and Joseph-François Lambert, a French adventurer and slave trader with whom then-Prince Radama II signed the Lambert Charter, a contentious trading deal. Radama II (1861–63), who succeeded his mother, tried to ease the queen’s strict policies, but was deposed two years later by Prime Minister Rainivoninahitriniony (1852–1865) and an alliance of Andriana (noble) and Hova (commoner) courtiers, who wanted to end the monarch’s total authority.
Following the coup, the courtiers offered Radama’s queen Rasoherina (1863–68) the chance to reign provided she agreed to share power with the Prime Minister—a new social contract that would be sealed by their political marriage. Queen Rasoherina consented, marrying Rainivoninahitriniony first, then deposing him and marrying his brother, Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony (1864–95), who would subsequently marry Queen Ranavalona II (1868–83) and Queen Ranavalona III (1883–97).
Several measures were implemented during Rainilaiarivony’s 31-year term as Prime Minister to modernize and solidify the central government’s authority. Schools were built all across the island, and attendance was made compulsory. British experts were hired to educate and professionalize troops, and army structure was enhanced. Polygamy was abolished, and Christianity, which had been proclaimed the official religion of the court in 1869, was embraced by an increasing number of people alongside traditional beliefs. Three European-style courts were created in the capital city, and legal rules were revised based on British common law. Rainilaiarivony also successfully defended Madagascar against numerous French colonial invasions in his dual capacity as Commander-in-Chief.
French colonisation (1897–1960)
In 1883, France invaded Madagascar in what became known as the first Franco-Hova War, mostly because the Lambert Charter had not been honored. Madagascar gave France the northern port town of Antsiranana (Diego Suarez) and paid 560,000 francs to Lambert’s heirs at the conclusion of the war. The British recognized the complete legal installation of a French protectorate on the island in 1890, but the government of Madagascar refused to recognise French control. In December 1894 and January 1895, the French bombed and seized the harbors of Toamasina on the east coast and Mahajanga on the west coast, respectively, to compel surrender.
After that, a French military flying column marched into Antananarivo, with many soldiers succumbing to malaria and other illnesses. Algeria and Sub-Saharan Africa sent reinforcements. The column attacked the royal palace with heavy artillery when it arrived in September 1895, inflicting severe fatalities and forcing Queen Ranavalona III to surrender. The Merina monarchy was disbanded and the royal family was exiled to Réunion Island and Algeria when France invaded Madagascar in 1896 and proclaimed the island a colony the following year, abolishing the Merina monarchy and sending the royal family to exile to Réunion Island and Algeria. In the aftermath of the French seizure of the royal palace, a two-year resistance movement was successfully put down at the end of 1897.
Plantations were developed during colonial authority to produce a range of export crops. Slavery was abolished in 1896, freeing about 500,000 slaves; many stayed in their former owners’ houses as servants or sharecroppers; strong discriminatory attitudes towards slave descendants are still maintained in many areas of the island today. In Antananarivo’s capital, wide paved boulevards and meeting spaces were built, and the Rova royal complex was converted into a museum. Additional schools were constructed, especially in rural and coastal regions where the Merina’s schools had not yet reached. Between the ages of 6 and 13, education became compulsory, with an emphasis on the French language and practical skills.
The French maintained the Merina royal practice of paying taxes in the form of labor, which was utilized to build a railway and roads connecting important coastal towns to Antananarivo. During World War I, Malagasy soldiers fought for France. In the 1930s, Nazi political theorists devised the Madagascar plan, which identified the island as a possible destination for Europe’s Jews to be deported. The Battle of Madagascar, fought between the Vichy administration and the British, took place on the island during WWII.
The occupation of France during WWII tainted the colonial administration’s reputation in Madagascar, igniting a burgeoning independence movement that culminated in the Malagasy Uprising of 1947. As a result of this campaign, the French established reformed institutions in 1956 under the Loi Cadre (Overseas Reform Act), and Madagascar began its peaceful transition to independence. On October 14, 1958, the Malagasy Republic was established as an independent state inside the French Community. With the ratification of a constitution in 1959 and complete independence on June 26, 1960, a period of temporary administration came to an end.
Independent state (since 1960)
Madagascar has gone through four republics since achieving independence, each with its own constitution modifications. Under the leadership of French-appointed President Philibert Tsiranana, the First Republic (1960–72) was marked by a continuance of strong economic and political relations with France. French expatriates occupied many high-level technical jobs, while French instructors, textbooks, and curriculum were utilized in schools throughout the nation. Tsiranana’s support for this “neocolonial” arrangement sparked a series of farmer and student demonstrations in 1972, which overthrew his government.
In the same year, Gabriel Ramanantsoa, a major general in the army, was named temporary president and prime minister, but he was forced to resign in 1975 due to poor popular support. Colonel Richard Ratsimandrava, his successor, was murdered six days after taking office. After Ratsimandrava, General Gilles Andriamahazo governed for four months before being succeeded by another military appointment, Vice Admiral Didier Ratsiraka, who led the socialist-Marxist Second Republic from 1975 until 1993.
During this time, there was a political alignment with Eastern Bloc countries, as well as a move toward economic isolation. These policies, along with economic constraints brought on by the 1973 oil crisis, led to the fast collapse of Madagascar’s economy and a severe fall in living standards, with the nation declaring bankruptcy in 1979. In return for a bailout of the country’s shattered economy, the Ratsiraka government agreed to the IMF’s, World Bank’s, and other bilateral donors’ requirements of transparency, anti-corruption measures, and free market policies.
Ratsiraka’s waning popularity peaked in the late 1980s, when presidential guards opened fire on unarmed protestors during a demonstration. Within two months, Albert Zafy (1993–96), who went on to win the 1992 presidential elections and inaugurate the Third Republic (1992–2010), had formed a transitional administration. The new Madagascar constitution created a multi-party democracy and a division of powers, giving the National Assembly considerable authority. Human rights, social and political freedoms, and free commerce were also highlighted in the new constitution. Economic downturn, accusations of corruption, and Zafy’s drafting of laws to grant himself more authority tarnished Zafy’s tenure. In 1996, he was impeached, and Norbert Ratsirahonana was named as temporary president for the three months leading up to the next presidential election. Ratsiraka was subsequently re-elected for a second term on a platform of decentralization and economic reforms, serving from 1996 until 2001.
The disputed 2001 presidential elections, in which then-mayor of Antananarivo, Marc Ravalomanana, ultimately won, resulted in a seven-month stalemate between Ravalomanana supporters and Ratsiraka supporters in 2002. Ravalomanana’s progressive economic and political policies, which promoted investments in education and ecotourism, enabled foreign direct investment, and developed regional and international trade relationships, eventually offset the negative economic effect of the political crisis. During his presidency, the national economy expanded at an annual pace of 7% on average. Ravalomanana was chastised by local and foreign observers in the latter part of his second term, who accused him of growing authoritarianism and corruption.
Andry Rajoelina, the opposition leader and then-mayor of Antananarivo, spearheaded a campaign in early 2009 to remove Ravalomanana from office in an illegal procedure generally seen as a coup d’état. Rajoelina was named President of the High Transitional Authority, an interim governmental body tasked with preparing the nation for presidential elections, by the Supreme Court in March 2009. In 2010, a new constitution was approved by referendum, creating the Fourth Republic and maintaining the previous constitution’s democratic, multi-party system. Hery Rajaonarimampianina was proclaimed the winner of the 2013 presidential election, which was considered fair and transparent by the international community.