Most people had never heard of Madagascar until the movie was made, and even then, some people don’t know where it is! Madagascar is an island off the East Coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean, east of Mozambique, west of India.
In size, it’s about twice the size of Arizona, and the 4th largest island in the world. It is home to 23 million people most of whom are “Malagasy”; which is an amalgam of ancestries: some Bantu, some Indonesian, some Arab, some French, some Indian. The people primarily speak Malagasy although French is the national language. Indigenous beliefs are practiced by the majority of people, although some are Christian and a few are Muslim. Each of the many ethnic sub-groups in Madagascar adhere to their own set of beliefs, practices and ways of life that have historically contributed to their unique identities. However, there are a number of core cultural features that are common throughout the island, creating a strongly unified Malagasy cultural identity. In addition to a common language and shared traditional religious beliefs around a creator god and veneration of the ancestors, the traditional Malagasy worldview is shaped by values that emphasize fihavanana (solidarity), vintana (destiny), tody (karma), and hasina, a sacred life force that traditional communities believe imbues and thereby legitimates authority figures within the community or family. Other cultural elements commonly found throughout the island include the practice of male circumcision; strong kinship ties; a widespread belief in the power of magic, diviners, astrology and witch doctors; and a traditional division of social classes into nobles, commoners, and slaves.
Agriculture, including fishing and forestry, is a mainstay of the economy, accounting for more than one-fourth of GDP and employing 80% of the population. Agricultural products include coffee, vanilla, sugarcane, cloves, cocoa, rice, cassava (manioc, tapioca), beans, bananas, peanuts and livestock products, while industry includes meat processing, seafood, soap, beer, leather, sugar, textiles, glassware, cement, automobile assembly plant, paper, China and France are Madagascar’s primary trade partners. 50% of the population live below the poverty line, 90% live on less than $2 per day.
In a cataclysmic earthquake, Madagascar broke free of the African coast 165 million years ago. Other reports say that Madagascar split with India 88 million years ago. However it formed, Madagascar has been free from human influence for most of its existence. The land is full of rainforests and wild-life such as lemurs, dwarf hippos, giant tortoises, chameleons and over 100 other exotic species of animal found nowhere else on earth. Humans arrived on the island only about 2500 years ago, from India, Africa and Arabia by canoe. Only in the past two thousand years have humans come to the island. Since around 500 BC, the island has received waves of settlers of diverse origins including Austronesian, Bantu, Arab, South Asian, Chinese and European populations.
According to the traditions of some Malagasy peoples, the first Bantus and Arabs to settle in Madagascar came as refugees from the civil wars that followed the death of Mohammed in 632. There is archaeological evidence that Bantu peoples, agro-pastoralists from East Africa, may have begun migrating to the island as early as the 6th and 7th century. Other historical and archaeological records suggest that some of the Bantus were descendants of Swahili sailors and merchants who used dhows to traverse the seas to the western shores of Madagascar. In the 7th century, Omani Arabs and Shirazi Persians established trading posts along the northwest coast and introduced Islam, the Arabic script (used to transcribe the Malagasy language in a form of writing known as sorabe), Arab astrology and other cultural elements. During this early period, Madagascar served as an important transoceanic trading port for the East African coast that gave Africa a trade route to the Silk Road and served simultaneously as a port for incoming ships.
Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, certain Malagasy tribes occasionally waged wars to capture and enslave prisoners. They either sold the slaves to Arab traders or kept them on-hand as laborers. Following the arrival of European slavers, human slaves became more valuable, and the coastal tribes of Madagascar took to warring with each other to obtain prisoners for the lucrative slave-trade. Instead of spears and cutlasses, the tribesmen fought with muskets, musket-balls, and gunpowder that they obtained from the Europeans, conducting fierce and brutal wars.
European contact began in 1500, when the Portuguese sea captain Diogo Dias sighted the island after his ship separated from a fleet going to India. In the ensuing two-hundred years, the English and French tried (and failed) to establish settlements on the island. Fever, dysentery, hostile Malagasy, and the trying arid climate of southern Madagascar soon terminated the English settlement near Toliary (Tuléar) in 1646. Another English settlement in the north in Nosy Bé came to an end in 1649. The French colony at Taolañaro (Fort Dauphin) fared a little better: it lasted thirty years. On Christmas night 1672, local Antanosy tribesmen, perhaps angry because fourteen French soldiers in the fort had recently divorced their Malagasy wives to marry fourteen French orphan-women sent out to the colony, massacred the fourteen grooms and thirteen of the fourteen brides. The Antanosy then besieged the stockade at Taolañaro for eighteen months. A ship of the French East India Company rescued the surviving thirty men and one widow in 1674.
Between 1680 and 1725, Madagascar became a pirate stronghold. Many unfortunate sailors became shipwrecked and stranded on the island. Those who survived settled down with the natives, or more often, found French or English colonies on the island or even pirate havens and thus became pirates themselves. Madagascar is one of Captain Kidd’s favourite ports of call for shelter and provisions. As pirates, worked the coastline, along the interior was the emergence of numerous kingdoms. Meanwhile, and of greater local significance, substantial kingdoms are beginning to be established at this same period by some of the island’s many competing rulers. By the middle of the 17th century almost half the island, in the west and north, is ruled by a dynasty emerging from the Sakalava tribes. The Sakalava dominance, declining in the 18th century, is followed by that of a Merina family from the central plateau. The Merina kingdom is firmly established by a forceful ruler with a name to test the memory, Andrianampoinimerina. On his death in 1810 he bequeaths to his son, Radama, the challenge of conquering the entire island. The sea, he says, should be the boundary of the Merina ricefield. Radama I does so with British help. After agreeing to abolish the export of slaves and to accept a British agent at his court in Antananarivo, he receives many concrete benefits – an annual subsidy, arms and ammunition, training and uniforms for his troops. A script is devised for the Malagasy language. Printing is introduced. And members of the London Missionary Society set about the task of converting the Malagasy to Protestant Christianity. Radama and his family ruled Madagascar until 1895 when the king was deposed and sent to Algeria and France officially “colonized” the island. A notable ruler was Queen Ranavalona I, the widow of Radama I; she was characterized by a struggle to preserve the cultural and political sovereignty of Madagascar from French and British colonial designs. The queen repudiated the treaties that Radama I had signed with Britain and, in 1835 after issuing a royal edict prohibiting the practice of Christianity in Madagascar. She expelled British missionaries from the island and began persecuting Christian converts who would not renounce their religion. Malagasy Christians would remember this period as ny tany maizina, or “the time when the land was dark”.
Unbeknownst to the queen, her son and heir, the crown-prince (the future Radama II), attended Roman Catholic masses in secret. The young man grew up under the influence of French nationals in Antananarivo. In 1854, he wrote a letter to Napoléon III inviting France to invade and uplift Madagascar. On June 28, 1855 he signed the Lambert Charter. This document gave Joseph-François Lambert, an enterprising French businessman who had arrived in Madagascar only three weeks before, the exclusive right to develop all minerals, forests, and unoccupied land in Madagascar in exchange for a 10-percent royalty payable to the Merina monarchy. In years to come, the French would show the Lambert Charter and the prince’s letter to Napoléon III to explain the Franco-Hova Wars and the annexation of Madagascar as a colony. In 1857, the queen uncovered a plot by her son and French nationals in the capital to remove her from power. She immediately expelled all foreigners from Madagascar, sparing her son. Ranavalona died 5 years later. In his brief two years on the throne, King Radama II re-opened trade with Mauritius and Réunion, invited Christian missionaries and foreigners to return to Madagascar, and re-instated most of Radama I’s reforms. His liberal policies angered the aristocracy, however, and Rainivoninahitriniony, the prime minister, engineered a coup d’état which resulted in the King’s death by strangling.
Madagascar was relatively stable under French rule, Madagascar prospers economically under French rule. Railways are introduced, roads are improved, new crops are cultivated (including coffee and tobacco) to supplement the existing exports of rice and cassava. Soon three quarters of Madagascar’s external trade is with France. Like all French colonies, when President de Gaulle was elected in 1958, he gave Madagascar the right to choose between an immediate severing of all links with France or internal autonomy within what is now called the French Community. Madagascar, as The Malasy Republic, chose independence with Philibert Tsiranana as the first president.
After 1960, Madagascar has seen a success of presidents and prime ministers who have struggled with both attempted and successful coups and assassinations. Philibert Tsiranana’s rule in 1960 represented continuation, with French settlers (or colons) still in positions of power. In 1972, protests against these policies came to a head and Tsiranana had to step down. He handed power to General Gabriel Ramanantsoa of the army and his provisional government. This régime reversed previous policy in favour of closer ties with the Soviet Union.
On 5 February 1975, Colonel Richard Ratsimandrava became the President of Madagascar. After six days as head of the country, he died in an assassination while driving from the presidential palace to his home. Political power passed to Gilles Andriamahazo. On 15 June 1975, Lieutenant-Commander Didier Ratsiraka came to power in a coup. Elected president for a seven-year term, Ratsiraka moved further towards socialism, nationalising much of the economy and cutting all ties with France. These policies hastened the decline in the Madagascan economy that had begun after independence as French immigrants left the country, leaving a shortage of skills and technology behind. Ratsiraka’s original seven-year term as President continued after his party became the only legal party in the 1977 elections. Another president, Albert Zafy, won election in 1993, but lost again to Ratsiraka in 1996. An opposition candidate Marc Ravlomanana’s I Love Madagascar party achieved overwhelming electoral success in December 2001 and he survived an attempted coup in January 2003. He used his mandate to work closely with the IMF and the World Bank to reform the economy, to end corruption and to realise the country’s potential. Ratsiraka went on trial (in absentia) for embezzlement (the authorities charged him with taking $8m of public money with him into exile) and the court sentenced him to ten years’ hard labour.
Ravalomanana is credited with improving the country’s infrastructure, such as roads, along with making improvements in education and health, but faced criticism for his lack of progress against poverty; purchasing power is said to have declined during his time in office. On November 18, 2006, his plane was forced to divert from Madagascar’s capital during a return trip from Europe following reports of a coup underway in Antananarivo and shooting near the airport; however, this alleged coup attempt was unsuccessful. In early 2009, protests over increasing restrictions on opposition press and activities resulted in Ravalomanana handing over power to the military, which then conferred the presidency on the mayor of Antananarivo, Andry Rajoelina, in what amounted to a coup d’etat. Following a lengthy mediation process led by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Madagascar held UN-supported presidential and parliamentary elections in 2013. Former de facto finance minister Hery Rajaonarimampianina defeated Ravalomanana’s favored candidate Jean-Louis Robinson in a presidential runoff and was inaugurated in January 2014.
The most notable news in Madagascar right now is the outbreak of Bubonic plague. 40 people died from the plague last year and the disease was found spreading within the slums of the country’s capital, Antananarivo. Experts noted that recent flooding in the country has displaced thousands of people, and along with them disease-carrying rodents, which may be the cause of the plague.