Twentieth Century Africa Travelogue - Madagascar

Volume 15, Issue 3  | 
Published 05/02/2019
Diana Lee-Smith

Diana Lee-Smith is a Kenyan who has lived and worked here for the last 50 years as architect, activist and international development consultant

‘Queen Ranavalona hated Christians and many were burned at the stake or thrown off the cliffs. Christianity was denounced among the various peoples throughout southern Madagascar. In 1835 missionaries left the country fleeing the rage of the Queen. The campaigns lasted until 1857, four years before the Queen died. She began her rule in 1780.’

 ‘That means she was Queen in Madagascar before and after the French Revolution in 1789?’

‘Yes as well as the popular revolution of the Paris Commune in 1848.’

It was Christmas 1984 and we were spending a family holiday in Madagascar. You could get a very cheap Indian Ocean islands round trip ticket from Nairobi then. Baffled by Tananarive’s urban landscape as we came down to land – the dense well-built houses and irrigated terraces did not look like the rest of Africa – I resolved to learn its history. But the shops were shut. Three and a half decades later, Madagascar’s history is still mostly unknown across the continent, but I am glad I persisted and finally found a book in French in a shop that was just closing.  Christmas was spent with me translating this aloud to the others when we were at the hotel, driving round with a guide who tried to answer questions, or wandering the steep cobblestone streets among traders of everything from food to precious stones.

All I knew at that time was colonial history: Madagascar got independence from France in 1960 and was an island with rich biodiversity, being separated from the rest of the Africa by the Mozambique Channel. As in Kenya, I thought everything was about what happened after the colonists left 20 years previously. So what did anyone in Africa know then? And how did they know it? The book was a revelation.

 ‘What did she have against Christians?’ Leafing through the book I found that the ancient Malagasy religion was based on faith in one God, and that death – like parenthood – was just a change of state. Death was like being promoted to the dignity of joining the Ancestors. ‘The body is like clothing for the soul, which is its double, and this is the condition of every being. Funerals are a very big deal.’

‘That all sounds similar to the rest of Africa.’ 

‘Yes, and the Queen and her subjects fought against the foreign religion. But the King who came after her caved in to all the demands of the Europeans in an effort to modernize. He did not last long. He was assassinated.’  

‘How did they escape colonisation so long when almost everywhere else in Africa was taken over by the colonists more or less on arrival?’

‘Well it seems they were pretty sophisticated. For example, royal family members went to the Court of Versailles in the 17th Century and later in the 19th Century. And they had a very clever Prime Minster from the mid-1850s to 1895. He outwitted them as well as dealing with all the Malagasy politics. For example, there were many kingdoms in different parts of the country, with different languages and peoples, and these became united in 1882 as a single country.’

‘So Madagascar was not so different from the countries trying to colonise it! It sounds just like Italy and Germany. They were only united as countries in 1871 after all.’

‘That’s right. And as for slavery, Madagascar got rid of it not so long after the USA, which fought a civil war over slavery in the 1860s. Several treaties were concluded with France, England and the USA, and in the early 1880s Madagascar sent a mission to all three countries.’

‘So, being pretty much of an equal with Western countries, how come it became a colony of France?’

‘Despite having defeated both Britain and France when they invaded, and trading with them, Madagascar finally succumbed to the French when they ganged up with Britain just for that purpose. Remember Britain and France were enemies and were fighting each other for much of the nineteenth century, including fighting for control of new colonies.  The French secretly invaded the North where they had allies and moved towards the capital, a bloody massacre forced the Queen to sign a document that Madagascar was now a French colony in 1895. It wasn’t easy for the French because Madagascar had set up its own system of laws, and had often defeated the French and British in legal arguments on jurisdiction. Even after colonisation, the battles continued with strong popular resistance.’

By this time our nine year old was getting fed up and thinking more about pirates and treasure than politics. It was time to meet the driver for our tour.

The pirates came to Madagascar in the 17th Century, not so much to raid the precious stones and other riches of the island, fabled since Roman times and on display from the street traders, but to hide their loot from raids elsewhere. The extensive coast of the huge island provided abundant landing and hiding places. At that time pirates roamed the seas from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean just like the adventurers sent out by European rulers to discover worlds they did not know, for trade and conquest. Captain Kidd and ‘Captain Avery, King of the Pirates’ (as he wrote in a book in 1720), hid all their treasures there. Fantasizing about finding the lost treasures, our son cooked up a project to send a message in a bottle out on the high seas. We assisted in the effort and he later projected its likely path and drew this in our atlas, which I found just the other day.

Over dinner we tried to find out what happened in Madagascar’s history earlier. It was only in the 18th Century that anyone from Western culture came across the Hova (who were they? African/Indian?) civilization in the centre of Madagascar, with its vast irrigation works, supplying livestock and rice to the coastal areas. It was the breadbasket of nearby islands like Mauritius and Reunion as well as Madagascar itself, not to mention all the European and other travellers who pitched up on its coast to trade, plunder and attempt to take over – starting of course with those on their way to ‘discover’ India. Now I had the answer to the mystery of the terraced agriculture we had seen on landing by air. As in many other places in Africa the Hova smelted iron and were reported to supply large quantities of iron implements to the coastal areas, exchanging them for silks and other items from India and later from industrialising Britain.  

The irrigation and food production systems can be traced back to the 16th century but matured in the late 18th century under a king who built impressive dykes and waterways as well as expanding his kingdom through arms and alliances. He also introduced a form of decentralised democracy based on village committees who decided their own affairs, following a civil and penal code he set up, along with organising trade and commerce through regular markets and fixed weights and measures. All this too, was contemporary with the period leading up to the French Revolution around 1789. The pirates never reached this far inland, and neither did the French or British adventurers and missionaries at first.

‘And he must have overlapped with the Queen who attacked the missionaries.’

‘Correct! He died in 1810 and she began her rule in 1780.’

‘Amazing! But where did these Malagasy people come from? How did they get to the island?’

‘Of course it is not really known but many were Polynesians or ‘Austronesians’, because they have the same words for numbers. They most likely came in small “pirogue” boats from South East Asia any time from a century or two BC or the 8th or 9th centuries of the modern era.’

‘But there are also African people here.’

‘Yes, and there is an Islamic culture in the South East, as well as customs of divination, circumcision and so on which may have come quite early. The language was first written down in Islamic script and later changed to Latin script. The real mystery is: by what process did all the different races on the island develop a single common language?’

It turns out even thirty five years later no-one knows the answer to this last question, even though you can now read all about Madagascar and its history on the internet. At the time of our visit, there had been a Marxist revolution here a decade earlier but that doctrine did not survive the fall of the Berlin Wall or the IMF. But the democratic structures named ‘fokonolona’ and ‘fokontany’ survived all these regimes. It originally meant a self-governing unit of all the people and clans in a place, with rights for women and children as well as men, under a common legal system. It is still the basis of social and political organisation in 2018.

One of the places we saw on our tour was the Tribunal, a large building like a classical Greek temple, the seat of Malagasy law and jurisprudence built in the nineteenth century.  Our nine-year-old skipped around it nonchalantly, but it must have made some impression as he later specialised in African post-colonial justice.

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