- Identify some of the kingdoms that ruled on Madagascar before the arrival of Europeans
- Over the past 2,000 years, Madagascar has received waves of settlers of diverse origins, including Austronesian, Bantu, Arab, South Asian, Chinese, and European populations. Centuries of intermarriages created the Malagasy people that form nearly the entire population of Madagascar today.
- By the European Middle Ages, over a dozen predominant ethnic identities had emerged on the island, typified by rule under a local chieftain. Leaders of some communities, such as the Sakalava, Merina, and Betsimisaraka, seized the opportunity to unite these disparate groups and establish powerful kingdoms under their rule.
- According to local tradition, the founders of the Sakalava kingdom quickly subdued the neighboring princes, starting with the southern ones, in the Mahafaly area. The true founder of Sakalava dominance was Andriamisara. In the 17th century, the empire started to split, resulting in a southern kingdom (Menabe) and a northern kingdom (Boina). Further splits followed.
- A northern Betsimisaraka zana-malata named Ratsimilaho successfully united his compatriots, and around 1712 was elected king of all the Betsimisaraka. He established alliances with the southern Betsimisaraka and the neighboring Bezanozano, extending his authority over these areas by allowing local chiefs to maintain their power while offering tributes of rice, cattle, and slaves. By 1730, he was one of the most powerful kings of Madagascar. Around a century later, the fractured Betsimisaraka kingdom was easily colonized by Radama I, king of Merina.
- The Merina emerged as the politically dominant group in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the Merina kingdom reached the peak of its power in the early 19th century. Its economy was heavily based on slave labor. The absolute dominance of the Merina kingdom over all of Madagascar came to an end with the first Franco-Hova War of 1883 to 1885.
- In 1896, the French Parliament voted to annex Madagascar, forming the colony of French Madagascar in 1897.
An ethnic group of Madagascar that occupies the western edge of the island from Toliara in the south to Sambirano in the north. The term denominates a number of smaller ethnic groups that once comprised an empire, rather than an ethnic group in its own right. During the Middle Ages, their influence extended across the area that is now the provinces of Antsiranana, Mahajanga, and Toliara. However, with the domination of the Indian Ocean by the British fleet and the end of the Arab slave trade, they lost their power to the emerging Merina threat.
The dominant “highlander” Malagasy ethnic group in Madagascar, and one of the country’s eighteen official ethnic groups. Their core territory corresponds to the former Antananarivo Province in the center of the island. Beginning in the late 18th century, their sovereigns extended political domination over the rest of the island, ultimately uniting it under their rule.
A group that makes up approximately 15% of the Malagasy people and is the second largest ethnic group in Madagascar after the Merina. They occupy a large stretch of the eastern seaboard of Madagascar, from Mananjary in the south to Antalaha in the north. They have a long history of extensive interaction with European seafarers and traders that produced a significant subset with mixed European-Malagasy origins, termed the zana-malata.
The ethnic group that forms nearly the entire population of Madagascar. They are divided into two subgroups: the “Highlander” Merina, Sihanaka, and Betsileo of the central plateau around Antananarivo, Alaotra, and Fianarantsoa, and the “coastal dwellers” elsewhere in the country. This division has its roots in historical patterns of settlement.
Diverse Populations and the Rise of Great Kingdoms
Over the past 2,000 years, Madagascar has received waves of settlers of diverse origins, including Austronesian, Bantu, Arab, South Asian, Chinese, and European populations. Centuries of intermarriages created the Malagasy people, who primarily speak Malagasy, an Austronesian language with Bantu, Malay, Arabic, French, and English influences. Most of the genetic makeup of the average Malagasy, however, reflects an almost equal blend of Austronesian and Bantu influences, especially in coastal regions. Other populations often intermixed with the existent population to a more limited degree or have sought to preserve a separate community from the majority Malagasy.
By the European Middle Ages, over a dozen predominant ethnic identities had emerged on the island, typified by rule under a local chieftain. Leaders of some communities, such as the Sakalava, Merina, and Betsimisaraka, seized the opportunity to unite these disparate groups and establish powerful kingdoms under their rule. The kingdoms increased their wealth and power through exchanges with European, Arab, and other seafaring traders, whether they were legitimate vessels or pirates.
The island’s west clan chiefs began to extend their power through trade with their Indian Ocean neighbors, first with Arab, Persian, and Somali traders who connected Madagascar with East Africa, the Middle East, and India, and later with European slave traders. The wealth created in Madagascar through trade produced a state system ruled by powerful regional monarchs known as the Maroserana. These monarchs adopted the cultural traditions of subjects in their territories and expanded their kingdoms. They took on divine status, and new nobility and artisan classes were created. Madagascar functioned as a contact port for the other Swahili seaport city-states, such as Sofala, Kilwa, Mombasa, and Zanzibar. By the Middle Ages, large chiefdoms began to dominate considerable areas of the island. Among these were the Betsimisaraka alliance of the eastern coast and the Sakalava chiefdoms of the Menabe (centered in what is now the town of Morondava) and of Boina (centered in what is now the provincial capital of Mahajanga). The influence of the Sakalava extended across the area that is now the provinces of Antsiranana, Mahajanga, and Toliara.
According to local tradition, the founders of the Sakalava kingdom were Maroseraña (or Maroseranana, “those who owned many ports”) princes from the Fiherenana (now Toliara). They quickly subdued the neighboring princes, starting with the southern ones, in the Mahafaly area. The true founder of Sakalava dominance was Andriamisara. His son Andriandahifotsy (c. 1610–1658) extended his authority northwards, past the Mangoky River. His two sons, Andriamanetiarivo and Andriamandisoarivo, extended gains further up to the Tsongay region (now Mahajanga). At about that time, the empire started to split, resulting in a southern kingdom (Menabe) and a northern kingdom (Boina). Further splits followed, despite continued extension of the Boina princes’ reach into the extreme north, in Antankarana country.
Like the Sakalava to the west, today’s Betsimisaraka are composed of numerous ethnic sub-groups that formed a confederation in the early 18th century. Through the late 17th century, the various clans of the eastern seaboard were governed by chieftains who typically ruled over one or two villages. Around 1700, the Tsikoa clans began uniting around a series of powerful leaders. Ramanano, the chief of Vatomandry, was elected in 1710 as the leader of the Tsikoa (“those who are steadfast”) and initiated invasions of the northern ports. A northern Betsimisaraka zana-malata (a person of mixed native and European origin) named Ratsimilaho led a resistance to these invasions and successfully united his compatriots around this cause. In 1712, he forced the Tsikoa to flee, and was elected king of all the Betsimisaraka and given a new name, Ramaromanompo (“Lord Served by Many”) at his capital at Foulpointe. He established alliances with the southern Betsimisaraka and the neighboring Bezanozano, extending his authority over these areas by allowing local chiefs to maintain their power while offering tributes of rice, cattle, and slaves. By 1730, he was one of the most powerful kings of Madagascar. By the time of his death in 1754, his moderate and stabilizing rule had provided nearly forty years of unity among the diverse clans within the Betsimisaraka political union. He also allied the Betsimisaraka with the other most powerful kingdom of the time, the Sakalava of the west coast, through marriage with Matave, the only daughter of Iboina king Andrianbaba.
Ratsimilaho’s successors gradually weakened the union, leaving it vulnerable to the growing influence and presence of European and particularly French settlers, slave traders, missionaries, and merchants. The fractured Betsimisaraka kingdom was easily colonized in 1817 by Radama I, king of Merina. The subjugation of the Betsimisaraka in the 19th century left the population relatively impoverished. Under colonization by the French (1896–1960), a focused effort was made to increase access to education and paid employment on French plantations.
The Merina emerged as the politically dominant group in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. Oral history traces the emergence of a united kingdom in the central highlands of Madagascar—a region called Imerina—back to early 16th century king Andriamanelo. By 1824, sovereigns in his line had conquered nearly all of Madagascar, particularly through the military strategy and ambitious political policies of Andrianampoinimerina (c. 1785–1810) and his son Radama I (1792–1828). The kingdom’s contact with British and later French powers led local leaders to build schools and a modern army based on European models.
The Merina oral histories mention several attacks by Sakalava raiders against their villages as early as the 17th century and during the entire 18th century. However, it seems that the term was used generically to design all the nomadic peoples in the sparsely settled territories between the Merina country and the western coast of the island. The Merina king Radama I’s wars with the western coast of the island ended in a fragile peace sealed through his marriage with the daughter of a king of Menabe. Though the Merina were never to annex the two last Sakalava strongholds of Menabe and Boina (Mahajanga), the Sakalava never again posed a threat to the central plateau, which remained under Merina control until the French colonization of the island in 1896.
The Merina kingdom reached the peak of its power in the early 19th century. In a number of military expeditions, large numbers of non-Merina were captured and used for slave labor. By the 1850s, these slaves were replaced by imported slaves from East Africa, mostly of Makoa ethnicity. Until the 1820s, the imported slave labor benefited all classes of Merina society, but in the period of 1825 to 1861, a general impoverishment of small farmers led to the concentration of slave ownership in the hands of the ruling elite. The slave-based economy led to a constant danger of a slave revolt, and for a period in the 1820s all non-Merina males captured in military expeditions were killed rather than enslaved for fear of an armed uprising. There was a brief period of increased prosperity in the late 1870s, as slave import began to pick up again, but it was cut short with the abolishment of slavery under French administration in 1896.
Due to the influence of British missionaries, the Merina upper classes converted entirely to Protestantism in the mid-19th century, following the example of their queen, Ranavalona II.
The absolute dominance of the Merina kingdom over all of Madagascar came to an end with the first Franco-Hova War of 1883 to 1885, when a French flying column marched to the capital, Antananarivo, taking the city’s defenders by surprise. In 1896, the French Parliament voted to annex Madagascar, forming the colony of French Madagascar in 1897.