The History Of Madagascar

Ashley Lavanceau

Origins of Inhabitants

The origins of Madagascar’s population have been subject to much debate but there is general agreement that the islands diverse ethnic composition is the result of multiple waves of migrants. The first of these migrants arrived from the Malayo-Indonesian archipelago sometime between 200 and 500 A.D. People of east African origin are also believed to have come to the island most likely by way of previous interaction with Indonesians on the mainland of Africa. This was followed by Arab merchants arriving on the northwest coast around 800 A.D. (U.S Department of State). Madagascar became a melting-pot and to this day the influence of these cultures can be found in the different dialects, music, musical instruments, and other cultural traditions of the Malagasy (Stone, 782-783).

Early European and Pirate Involvement


The discovery of the island in 1500 A.D. by the Portuguese opened the door for other Europeans, namely the French, Dutch, and English. At this time Europeans failed to establish a permanent residence because they were rejected by the Malagasy and therefore control on the island remained minimal. The French were finally able to hold a trading post on the eastern coast starting in the 1700s. Despite the Europeans lack of success staring around 600 A.D. and lasting until the 1800s Pirates became very influential on the island gaining control of the eastern coast (U.S. Department of State). During this time, and extending into the 19th century, slave trade was pervasive on the Island. All parties participated in the slave trade and records indicate that, “Even in the seventeenth century, Dutch and Portuguese records speak of vigorous economic and cultural activity at the Sakalava port of Nosy Antsoheribory in Bonia Bay, where 6,000-7,000 Muslims were ruled by trader kings who spoke the languages of the European Slave trade” (Allen, 10).

200 Year Old Pirate Map


Rise of the Sakalava and Merina Empires

The 1700s hundreds were also characterized by the emergence of the first Malagasy empires. This started with the Sakalava rising to dominances along the western coast. The Sakalava kingdom can be defined by the main characteristics of its dialect, royal ancestor veneration, practices of spirit possession, and dynastic family rule. All of these key features are heavily influenced by or borrowed from African traditions (Kent, 159-204). In the late 1700s the Merina kingdom originating from the central plateau rose to prominence, gaining control over most of Madagascar. Only the Sakalava were able to defy their advances. The Merina were known for their paddy rice cultivation, oral tradition, and like the Sakalava royal ancestor veneration (Allen, 15, 16). Music was important to both of these royal monarchies and each has its own distinct style of poetry, women’s choirs, and performances similar to opera (Stone, 782). Under Merina rule Christianity was first allowed to spread, before later becoming persecuted. In the 1800s the Merina corresponded with European powers and instituted new policies such as the abolishment of the slave trade in 1817 (Allen, 15, 16).

Merina Queen Ranavalana II

Colonial Period


During the late 1800s Europeans became much more powerful in Madagascar. The Merina formed treaties with Britain, France, and the United States in an effort to avoid falling under European imperial rule. Britain first gained the most authority in Madagascar by converting the Merina ruling class to Protestant Christianity. Music was a key tool used by the missionaries in their efforts to control the populations. Christian hymns were adapted to include Malagasy music and some traditional instruments were forbidden. The power of the French was dwindling and between 1883 and 1885 the first war between the French and Malagasy occurred over a land dispute. The British helped restore the presence of the French when they made France a Protectorate of Madagascar in 1890 in an attempt to eliminate French influence over the Suez Canal in Egypt. France went on to invade Madagascar in 1894 and officially declared it a colon in 1896. This resulted in the dismantling of the Merina monarchy (Thompson, and Richard, 13-34).

Poster of French War in Madagascar

Revolution and Contemporary Madagascar

Memorial of 1947 Uprising


Nationalist ideas began to take hold of the population after World War II and no longer followed forced labor and racial discrimination that occurred during colonialism, especially during the war years. Nationalist political parties began to emerge most notable among them the M.D.R.M (Mouvement Democratique de la Renovation Malagache). Leadership by this group has been credited with starting the violent revolt of 1947 which resulted in extremely high numbers of casualties. In 1960 Madagascar gained independence becoming known as the Independent Malagasy Republic headed by President Philibert Tsiranana (Thompson, and Richard, 34-54, 113). Like many new nations Madagascar has experienced some turmoil since its independence. After Tsiranana stepped down due to revolts his successor Richard Ratsimandrava who came to power in 1975 was assassinated. This was followed by Didier Ratsiraka gaining power through a military coup. Albert Zafy was elected in 1993 followed by the reelection of Ratsiraka in 1997. Marc Ravalomanan won the 2001 election but the country was almost thrown into civil war when Ratsiraka refused to step down. Ravalomanan remained president until 2009 when protests caused him to step down leading to the military appointment of Andry Rajoelina as president. This presidency is seen by the United States as the equivalent of a military coup and is not being recognized (U.S. Department of State). The continuous change that has occurred since 1960 is reflected in the countries music. The most notable changes in music have been the creation of new musical styles, dances, and the adoption of new instruments. Political changes in particular can be seen in the music which has at times been used for propaganda. This musical transformation can best explained in the statement “One of the most important traits of Malagasy music is that it has always assimilated, then dominated, diverse currents of influence, to create new genres-all the while maintaining traditional forms” (Stone, 792).

References for Malagasy History

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