The Dark And Beautiful History Of Madagascar’s Malagasy People

The Dark And Beautiful History Of Madagascar's Malagasy People

On June 26th, 1960 Madagascar won a blood soaked war of liberation from France. That day brought an end to more than more than 200 years of European influence and colonization.

The liberation also brought more unity to the island and its people than any other event in Madagascar’s history.

This is a short history of the Malagasy people.


The Masters Of The Land

The Dark And Beautiful History Of Madagascar's Malagasy People

The people of Madagascar carry their history in their blood. Collectively known as the Malagasy, the island nation is a diverse mixture of races and cultures from all over Africa and Asia.

Even though the term Malagasy describes all people on the island, there are more than 20 smaller ethnic groups that are divided by their racial and historical background.

The Dark And Beautiful History Of Madagascar's Malagasy People
The Ethnic groups of Madagascar

There were three historic migrations to Madagascar. The first people to settle the island were the Vazimba – a Bantu speaking population described as being very dark and “smaller in stature than the average person”.

Known as tompon-tany (masters of the land) – these earliest of inhabitants of Madagascar established their Kingdoms  – usually ruled by Queens – in the central Highlands region.


These original masters of the land lived undisturbed from 2,000 B.C. until the second wave of Austronesian migrants from South East Asia arrived.

The Dark And Beautiful History Of Madagascar's Malagasy People
Austronesian Peoples

The arrival of the Austronesians meant the end of the Vazimba. The first people arrived from Borneo between 350 BC and 550 AD and set about conquering the inland and its people. By the 1600s, the Vazimba had been either driven into extinction or assimilated into a group called the Merina.

These new invaders claimed the inland for themselves and came to be known as the Highlanders.

The final wave of settlers came from – once again – Africa. Starting around 1000 AD, Bantu migrants crossed the Mozambique Channel from East Africa.

Since the majority of the Highlands had been taken by South East Asians,  the Bantu migrants occupied the relatively unpopulated coastlines and came to be known as the “coastal dwellers”.

Not only were these groups divided geographically, they were divided politically as well. Both cultures had their own dialects, their own justice systems, and their own economic styles.

That would come to an end when the Highlanders established a racial alliance – the Merina Confederacy – and began a campaign to conquer the Bantu migrants and dominate the entire island.

Using both diplomacy and warfare, Merina rulers conquered two-thirds of the island by 1830.

The Madagascar Wars of Liberation

In keeping with the colonial playbook, Europeans took advantage of the Merina quest for domination and divisions that existed on the island.

First, Europeans would come as traders. Then they would come as missionaries. And finally, they would bring their militaries.

First, Europeans came as traders.

The Portuguese, French, and British had used Madagascar as a trading port between Europe, Africa, and Asia as early as 1500.

But as political divisions and battle lines formed between Malagasy ethnic groups, the British in particular saw an opportunity to capitalize on the chaos.

In 1817, Britain named King Radama I as the recognized King of Madagascar and used him to sign a trade treaty. The treaty gave Britain control over the slave trade in the area in exchange for British military and financial assistance.

Using these new British weapons, Radama was able to conquer two-thirds of the island – killing thousands of Black men, women, and children in the process.

Then they came as missionaries.

Radama’s treaty of 1817 opened the nation to British missionaries that flooded into the country. According tho historical accounts, Radama admired European culture more than his own.

During a military campaign, Radama encountered a Protestant missionary school that had been set up by the London Missionary Society (LMS). Within a year, he had established 23 schools enrolling 2300 students across the country, and tasked the LMS missionaries to transcribe and teach the Malagasy language using the Latin alphabet.

When the Europeans arrived, they had Bibles and the Malagasy had land. By the time it was all over, the Malagasy had the Bibles and the Europeans would have the land.

The British were in a solid position to control the island. What they didnt count on was the premature death of their puppet Radama I.

When the monarch died of alcohol poisoning, his wife – Queen Ranavalona – ascended to power. Like most Malagasy, she was disgusted by the encroachment of Europeans on Malagasy land, commerce, and culture.

She cut back both economic and political ties with Europe and in 1835 she banned both Christianity and the London Missionary Society, writing the following in a royal decree:

“To the English or French strangers: I thank you for the good that you have done in my land and my kingdom, where you have made known European wisdom and knowledge. Do not worry yourselves—I will not change the customs and rites of our ancestors.

Nevertheless, whoever breaks the laws of my kingdom will be put to death—whoever he may be.

I welcome all wisdom and all knowledge which are good for this country. It would be a waste of time and effort to grab the customs and rites of my ancestors. Concerning religious practice—baptism or assemblies—it is forbidden for my people who inhabit this land to take part whether on Sunday or during the week.


Concerning you, foreigners, you can practice according to your own manners and customs. Nevertheless, if skilled handiwork and other practical skills exist, which can profit our people, exercise these skills that good will come. These are my instructions which I make known to you.”

— Queen Ranavalona I, February 26, 1835

Early on in the reign of Ranavalona, she made it perfectly clear that her country was self-sufficient. She had every intention of maintaining that self-sufficiency. She destroyed almost all trade agreements with Europe and hunted down anyone who would challenge her decisions.

How The French Came To Rule Madagascar

While Queen Ranavalona worked to protect Madagascar through self-sufficiency and anti-colonialism, her son had a treacherous progressive streak.

He secretly brokered an agreement behind the Queen’s back with a a low level Frenchman and slave trader named Joseph-François Lambert. While Radama II – who was only a Prince at the time – had no authority or legitimate power to broker charters.

It was an impossibly stupid move on the part of Radama II. Here is what the charter gave to the French:

The special privileges accorded to Joseph-François Lambert and his partners under the Lambert Charter [included] control over minting coinage, exclusive mining rights and …clauses in the agreement that would have permit Lambert’s company to become permanent owners of Malagasy lands. Until this point, land in Madagascar, which was viewed by the populace as the sacred ground of the ancestors, could only ever be temporarily possessed by foreigners until their death, at which point the land would revert to the crown. – Source

The so-called Lambert Charter was signed on 28 June 1855.

With this charter Lambert went to London and Paris to gather support to overthrow the ruling queen and have her replaced by her son.

France wanted no part of a coup attempt, so Lambert decided to overthrown Queen Ranavalona himself.

Clearly, this coup attempt failed and the Queen executed the locals who were involved and banished the Europeans implicated, including Lambert.

Ranavalona would stay in power until her death on August 16th, 1861. She would be succeeded by her traitorous son – Radama II – who would repeat the same mistakes his father had made.

The people familiar with the terms of the Lambert Charter saw it for what it was and promptly overthrew Radama II within 2 years of his coming to power in 1863.

And finally, they came with their militaries.

With the French puppet ruler gone, relations between Madagascar and France soured. For 20 years, both sides strained to advance their interests until the French lost their minds in an orgy of violence in 1883 under the reign of the last Queen of Madagascar – Ranavalona III.

The Dark And Beautiful History Of Madagascar's Malagasy People
The last Queen of Madagascar, Queen Ranavalona III

France terminated diplomacy and instead resorted to violence. They bombarded and captured coasts to establish a foothold on the island. Then, they began constructing roads that led directly to the inland capital.

While France bombarded and captured coasts, Queen Ranavalona turned to other Europeans to help. The United States, Germany, and Britain all refused, leaving Madagascar at the mercy of the French.

By September, 1895, the French reached the capital and laid siege to the palace until Ranavalona surrendered. For years, resistance movements fought on, but the French had dissolved the Merina monarchy by 1896 and declared the nation a colony.

The last Queen of Madagascar and her family were banished into exile and the island had fallen to the French.

For 50 years, France ruled and ruined Madagascar. Religion, education, economics, and every other area of life was dominated by the French. The Malagasy language and culture was subordinated to French.

What the Merina Kingdom had done to the original masters of the land had in turn been done to them.

The Malagasy Fight Back

Malagasy nationalists created think tanks, activist groups, and political parties in an attempt to at least gain rights under French rule that had been denied them.

It wasnt until Malagasy nationalists revolted against the French in 1947 that the winds of liberty started to sweep across the island. One third of the island rose up in revolt requiring the French to call for reinforcements directly from the mainland.

When those reinforcements did arrive, they slaughtered between 11,000 to 80,000 civilians. The French then outlawed most political parties that were not monitored by the French, and convicted 6,000 Malagasy for their participation in the uprising. Many of those convictions led to death.

While most Malagasy gave up their guerilla campaigns, nearly all of them remained engaged in the political process. Madagascar was finally liberated in 1960 – almost a century after the events that led to their colonization began.

Madagascar Today

The Dark And Beautiful History Of Madagascar's Malagasy People

Official Languages: French, Malagasy, English

A chart showing Madagascar population growth

Madagascar conversion rates

▶︎ Consumer Prices in Antananarivo are 91.55% lower than in Atlanta, GA
▶︎ Rent Prices in Antananarivo are 77.90% lower than in Atlanta, GA
▶︎ Restaurant Prices in Antananarivo are 76.82% lower than in Atlanta, GA
▶︎ Grocery Prices in Antananarivo are 59.94% lower than in Atlanta, GA

Last updated June 2018

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