History of Madagascar

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The written history of Madagascar began in the seventh century A.D., when Arabs established trading posts along the northwest coast. However, the first people who came to Madagascar were from Southeast Asia, mostly from the Indonesian islands; they arrived in around the fourth century A.D., probably via East Africa. This explains the malagasy features which are a mixture of Asian (Austronesian) and African, as well as of the Arabs who came later. Because of tropical storms which commonly affect the coast, some early settlers left the coast and went to live in the centre of the island in the mountains where the weather is cooler and less windy. The people who live in the mountains today have preserved many of the Asian features.


European contact and pirates

European contact began in the 1500s, when Portuguese sea captain Diego Dias sighted the island after his ship became separated from a fleet bound for India. In the late 17th century, the French established trading posts along the east coast. From about 1774 to 1824, it was a favorite haunt for pirates, including Americans, one of whom brought Malagasy rice to South Carolina.

James Plaintain was a former pirate, who retired to Madagascar around 1715. He soon made himself King of Ranter Bay, the harbor where he resided. After a series of bloody wars, Plaintain managed to subjugate the entire island in 1725. He became corrupt and cruel, selling his own subjects into slavery. In 1728, he fled the island sensing the inevitable rebellion was near. There is no trace of Plaintain in history after then.

Merina and British influence

Beginning in the 1790s, Merina rulers succeeded in establishing hegemony over the major part of the island, including the coast. In 1817, the Merina ruler, King Radama I, and the British governor of Mauritius concluded a treaty abolishing the slave trade, which had been important in Madagascar's economy. In return, the island received British military and financial assistance. British influence remained strong for several decades, during which the Merina court was converted to Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, and Anglicanism.

French control

The British accepted the imposition of a French protectorate over Madagascar in 1885 in return for eventual control over Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) and as part of an overall definition of spheres of influence in the area. Absolute French control over Madagascar was established by military force in 1895-96, and the Merina monarchy was abolished.

Malagasy troops fought in France, Morocco, and Syria during World War II. After France fell to the Germans, Madagascar was administered first by the Vichy government and then in 1942 by the British, whose troops occupied the strategic island to preclude its seizure by the Japanese. The Free French received the island from the United Kingdom in 1943.


In 1947, with French prestige at low ebb, a nationalist uprising was suppressed after one year of bitter fighting, in which 90,000 to 100,000 Malagasy died. The French subsequently established reformed institutions in 1956 under the Loi Cadre (Overseas Reform Act), and Madagascar moved peacefully toward independence. The Malagasy Republic was proclaimed on October 14, 1958, as an autonomous state within the French Community. A period of provisional government ended with the adoption of a constitution in 1959 and full independence on June 26, 1960.

During 1992-1993, free presidential and National Assembly elections were held, ending 17 years of single-party rule.

The presidential election of 2001 had a disputed winner. President Ratsiraka and Marc Ravalomanana both claimed victory. The Crisis of 2002 resulted in Ravalomanana claiming the Presidency. He then moved to decentralize government power.

See also : Madagascar


  • Matthew E. Hules, et al (2005). The Dual Origin of the Malagasy in Island Southeast Asia and East Africa: Evidence from Maternal and Paternal Lineages. American Journal of Human Genetics, 76:894-901, 2005.

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