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The History of Madagascar

The History of Madagascar: Unraveling the Enigmatic Tapestry of Malagasy Heritage

Madagascar’s history revolves around its location in the western part of the Indian Ocean, southeast of Africa. The island is considered part of the African continent and a member of the African Union. The population has roots in African, Austronesian, and Semitic origins. This intertwining of cultures has contributed to the unique heritage of Madagascar.

The island’s history is closely tied to human settlement and migration. Over time, people from different backgrounds have shaped the identity and culture of Madagascar. Today, this rich blend of influences remains an integral part of the country’s character.

Geologically, Madagascar has its own story to tell. Its formation and natural features contribute to its distinctiveness within the region. Furthermore, its diverse wildlife adds another layer to the island’s compelling narrative.

Overall, Madagascar’s history is a tapestry woven from various threads, from ancient migrations to geological processes and ecological diversity, all coming together to form this captivating nation in the Indian Ocean.

Origins of the current Malagasy population

Archaeological discoveries indicate human presence in Madagascar around 8,000 years ago. Genetic and linguistic studies suggest that some of the Malagasy population has Austronesian origins from the Sunda Islands and another part has African roots. The Malagasy language is mainly composed of Austronesian vocabulary, and it evolved from proto-Malayo-Polynesian. Additionally, a significant part of Malagasy culture reflects Austronesian customs such as traditional burial practices, agricultural techniques, architecture, music, and dance.

Recent genetic research shows that Malagasy people have a genetic mix of about 68% African ancestry and 32% Asian ancestry, but the exact sources are still not fully understood. Furthermore, a unique “Polynesian motif” in the DNA has been identified among various Malagasy ethnic groups. This motif is common to geographically distant and historically endogamous populations like the Vezo and Andriana Merina.

Morphologically, characteristics common to most of the island’s population could be attributed to Southeast Asian influences. These include xanthodermic features described by Professor Nirinjanahary in 1940 and the epicanthic fold of many coastal or highland Malagasy individuals.

Prehistoric Era and Settlements

The first people to arrive in Madagascar likely used traditional outrigger canoes called va’a or waka. These boats were probably navigated by the Austronesian vahoaka ntaolo, or “seafaring people,” who took advantage of the southern monsoon winds in the Indian Ocean. There are different theories about who arrived on the island first, and it’s still a subject of scientific debate whether it was the Austronesians or Africans.

Some older theories suggested that African populations may have arrived late because they were thought to be less skilled at navigating to the island. However, we now know that ancient East African coastal communities also had advanced navigation knowledge, even before the arrival of Austronesian peoples. This challenges previous ideas about who reached Madagascar first and highlights the maritime expertise of both African and Austronesian seafarers.

The Vazimba

At the very start of Austronesian settlement in Madagascar, known as the “paleomalagasy period,” the Vahoaka Ntaolo newcomers divided into two main groups based on their subsistence strategies. The Vazimbas settled in the forests of the interior and were hunter-gatherers, while the Vezo chose to stay along the coast and were primarily fishermen. According to ancient Malagasy oral traditions, it is believed that the Vazimbas were the first inhabitants of the island. The word “Vazimba” referred to forest dwellers at that time.

There are speculations about other aboriginal Vazimba people who might have lived in Madagascar’s forests before the arrival of Austronesian Vazimbas, possibly giving rise to myths about “dwarf vazimbas.” However, none of these hypotheses have been confirmed through comparative phenology, genetics, or ethnology. While there are indications of different physical traits across populations in Madagascar, such as australoid and negrito phenotypes alongside a majority austronesian phenotype, there is no conclusive evidence suggesting their aboriginal origins.

In summary:
– At first Austronesians settled in Madagascar; they split into forest dwellers (Vazimbas) and coastal settlers (Vezo).
– Legends suggest that Vazimbas were likely the island’s original inhabitants.
– There are theories about pre-Austronesian aboriginal forest dwellers called “dwarf vazimbas.”
– No confirmed evidence supports these hypothetical ancestral populations’ existence or origin in Madagascar.

Society of the Vahoaka Ntaolo

The ancient Austronesian language, known as the Eastern Barito, includes Malagasy and languages spoken by the Dayaks along the Barito River in Borneo. The first Austronesians likely arrived in Madagascar about 2,000 years ago and were skilled navigators. They settled in villages with houses on stilts, similar to those found in Madagascar today.

It is believed that Madagascar played a significant role in trade during the early first millennium AD, particularly in the exchange of spices and rare wood between Southeast Asia and the Middle East or Africa.

The Austronesian villages, inhabited by groups known as Ntaolo, Vazimba, and Vezo, were likely similar across Madagascar during this period. This traditional village model can still be seen today along the island’s coasts and remote inland areas such as forests.

Overall, the arrival of Austronesians in Madagascar brought forth cultural influences that have persisted over time and left an indelible mark on the island’s history.

Immigrations from the late first millennium to the early second (from -700 to 1500)

From around the 1st millennium to 1500, new immigrant clans arrived in Madagascar and mixed with the Vazimba and Vezo people. These immigrants came from different places like the Middle East, East Africa, and the Indian Ocean region. They intermixed with and adapted to the Vézo and Vazimba societies.

The trade of slaves by Malayo-Javanese, Persian Shirazi, and Omani Arabs likely led to these new immigrations. Slavery was connected to these groups who traded near Madagascar. As a result, there were African slaves offered by Javanese merchants to China in the early 9th century.

Influenced by Islam, Persian and Arab traders replaced Indonesians on the African coasts quickly. At that time, they also extended control over parts of Madagascar’s northern coast.

During this period, there was a decline in Indonesian maritime power due to competition from Chinese and South Indian powers. However, even when Portuguese sailors arrived in Madagascar in the 16th century, they still found Javanese sailors present.

Around 1000 AD during the Middle Ages era saw interaction between Austronesian farmers/pastoralists from East Africa leading to many Swahili loanwords being incorporated into their language.

Historically speaking Hova (meaning “common folk” or “peasant” in old Bugis) refers generally to newcomers known as neo-Austronesians without specific referenceto which island they came from; it is believed that these groups started arriving at Northenand Eastern locations of Madgascar around 8th century or earlier according some oral traditions.

Feudal Period (1500s-1895s)

1500s-1817: Kingdoms of Madagascar

Radama I was the first king of a unified Madagascar. Immigrants from different parts of the world brought changes to Malagasy society, leading to major upheavals in the 16th century. Newcomers on the coasts created powerful kingdoms such as Antakarana, Boina, Menabe, Vezo, Mahafaly, and Tandroy. Inland struggles resulted in the emergence of influential kingdoms like Merina and Bara. These new groups altered the political landscape but preserved many aspects of traditional Malagasy life.

By the early 19th century, Radama I and his successor united several central kingdoms under their rule and opened Madagascar to European influence. With British support, they expanded their authority over most of the island. This led to the establishment of the Kingdom of Madagascar for external observers.

Early European Encounters with the Island (1500-1817)

In 1500, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to discover Madagascar. The island was later influenced by European presence in the 17th century through the introduction of firearms and the development of slave trade. In 1643, the French established a colony called Fort-Dauphin on the island. King Louis XIV aimed to make Madagascar a strategic base for the French East India Company in 1665. This led to increased unrest and the establishment of warrior kingdoms closely linked to Europeans, particularly pirates who settled in various regions.

One notable example is Libertalia, a utopian republic founded by Frenchman Olivier Misson, a former naval officer turned pirate, and an Italian defrocked priest named Carracioli. Another figure, Maurice Beniowski, is said to have created an ideal city called Fort Auguste at present-day Valambahoaka in northeastern Madagascar during the late 18th century.

These historical events demonstrate how Madagascar has been impacted by European influence through colonization attempts, piracy activities, and the emergence of utopian communities like Libertalia. The island’s history reflects complex interactions between local populations and foreign powers that shaped its destiny over time.

1817-1895: Kingdom of Madagascar (internationally recognized)

The kingdom of Madagascar went through significant changes during the 19th century, with King Radama I leading a transformation. He introduced the Latin alphabet to replace the Arabic one and kickstarted some industrialization efforts under French direction. The first Malagasy book written in Latin script was the Bible, published in 1830.

As European powers sought to expand their influence globally, France signed an alliance treaty with Madagascar in 1885. However, disagreements over its implementation led to a French invasion in 1895, resulting in the exile of Queen Ranavalona III.

Initially aiming for a protectorate status, France’s intentions shifted as resistance grew stronger. This ultimately led to the annexation of Madagascar and the queen’s exile to Algeria.

Despite initial attempts at cooperation, these events marked an important turning point in Madagascar’s history as it came under colonial rule by France.

1895-1960 French colonization and nationalist movement

The French colonization of Madagascar in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was marked by significant resistance from the local population, resulting in a brutal pacification campaign and widespread repression. The conquest led to about 100,000 casualties among the Malagasy people. Following the suppression of the insurrection, General Gallieni implemented a policy focusing on exploiting existing animosities among different ethnic groups for colonial benefit.

Under French rule, slavery was abolished but indigenous people were subjected to stringent restrictions under the indigénat system, losing their specific rights and representation. The education system underwent forced francization, causing a decline in enrollment. Additionally, the colonial authorities initiated efforts to develop the colony for the benefit of settlers and France itself through extensive concessions granted to large corporations and individuals.

The onset of World War I saw thousands of Malagasy soldiers enlisted by French authorities, with many succumbing to combat or inadvertently bringing back diseases such as the Spanish flu upon their return. This resulted in a substantial loss of life within Madagascar’s population. Subsequently, nationalist movements emerged in resistance to colonial rule, facing harsh suppression despite maintaining legalistic approaches.

Overall during this period, there was significant disruption and upheaval caused by French colonization efforts throughout Madagascar that continues to shape its history today.

1946-1960: Independence War

The 1947 insurrection in Madagascar was led by the Democratic Movement for Malagasy Renewal (MDRM) in their fight for independence from French colonial rule. The MDRM’s leaders, Joseph Raseta and Joseph Ravoahangy, along with Jacques Rabemananjara, played key roles in advocating for Malagasy representation in the French Constituent Assembly. In response to this movement, the French supported the Parti des déshérités de Madagascar (PADESM), an anti-independence party representing specific groups within Madagascar.

The insurrection of 1947 met brutal suppression by the French colonial authorities, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths and leading to the dissolution of the MDRM. The repression involved summary executions, torture, forced relocations, and village burnings. The French military also resorted to psychological warfare tactics such as throwing suspects from airplanes to instill fear among villagers.

Following a significant economic investment through FIDES from 1947 to 1960, Madagascar received substantial funds for agricultural production, infrastructure development, and social equipment. Despite these investments, trade remained primarily oriented towards France with regular trade deficits due to control exerted by French banks and shipping companies.

After their defeat in Indochina in 1954, the French began considering granting independence to their remaining colonies. This shift led to the implementation of the Defferre framework law in 1956 allowing executive power transfer to local authorities. Eventually, Philibert Tsiranana took office as Prime Minister followed by the establishment of a Malagasy Republic under colonial authority on October 14th, 1958 and full independence on June 26th, 1960.

1960- : Malagasy Republic

During Philibert Tsiranana’s presidency from 1959 to 1972, the French continued to dominate the administration, army, economy, and cultural life of the new republic. In 1972, a student uprising led to the regime’s downfall. General Ramanantsoa briefly took over but faced challenges and eventually handed power to Colonel Ratsimandrava who was assassinated after just one week. Following months of instability, Captain Ratsiraka became the head of state and declared a revolutionary regime close to the Eastern Bloc. This caused economic decline and widespread poverty.

Madagascar suffered as investors pulled out due to political unrest under Ratsiraka’s rule until Hery Velona movement successfully ousted him in February 1993. The new president, Albert Zafy, aimed for liberalization but instead faced further deterioration with paralyzed government and rampant corruption. Zafy was impeached in September 1996 with interim Prime Minister Norbert Ratsirahonana taking over before Didier Ratsiraka returned to power through a presidential election.

In 1998, Ratsiraka strengthened his presidential powers and established “autonomous provinces” under his direct control through a referendum. The December 2001 election resulted in a dispute between Ratsikara and Marc Ravalomanana, leading to a protracted political crisis that ended with Marc becoming president by mid-2002.

Notes and references

The Vazimbas, a group of people in Madagascar, brought the foundation of the Malagasy language and various techniques from Indonesia to the island. This included knowledge of balanced outrigger canoes, flooded rice fields, houses built on stilts or with squared wood, and villages on hilltops surrounded by ditches. These practices were influenced by exchanges between Africa and Madagascar through Arab navigation along the coasts of Arabia, East Africa, and Madagascar.

Some important figures in Malagasy history, such as Rafandrana and the queens Rafohy and Rangita, were known as Vazimbas. The tradition among the Ntaolo leaders (Vazimbas and Vezos) was to place their deceased in canoes and sink them into artificial lakes (for inland Vazimbas) or into the sea (for coastal Vezos).

The people of Madagascar have a complex and diverse heritage, with influences from various ethnic groups and cultures. Genetic evidence suggests that the Malagasy population has origins in both Asia and Africa, indicating a mix of Austronesian and Bantu ancestry. The island’s inhabitants speak an Austronesian language, which is linked to languages spoken in Southeast Asia. This connection supports the theory that the first settlers of Madagascar came from regions like Borneo or Indonesia.

It is also suggested by genomic studies that there was an early migration of people to Madagascar around 2000 years ago, long before European exploration in the region. The history of Madagascar is marked by colonialism, including French rule and resistance against colonial oppression. The Malagasy people have experienced significant turmoil as they fought for independence from foreign powers.

Madagascar’s rich history has contributed to its unique identity as a melting pot of different cultural influences. The island’s inhabitants have preserved their heritage through oral traditions, folklore, and artistic expressions. Despite facing historical challenges brought about by colonization, the Malagasy people continue to celebrate their cultural diversity with pride and resilience.

In conclusion, Madagascar’s population reflects a blend of Asian and African ancestries with a rich tapestry of culture shaped by centuries-old traditions, values, beliefs, music arts, all contributing factors to its distinctive identity on the world stage.


The migration of Indonesian people to Madagascar is a topic that involves various disciplines and evidence. This includes genetics, linguistics, archaeology, and cultural practices to understand the origins of the Malagasy population.

Evidence shows that the Malagasy people have roots in both Island Southeast Asia and East Africa, with genetic links found in mitochondrial DNA variation from Madagascar to Easter Islands.

Moreover, linguistic studies reveal connections between the Malagasy language and languages spoken in Borneo, supporting the idea of an Austronesian origin for the Malagasy people.

Archaeological findings point towards early human settlement on Madagascar around 2,000 years ago which might be linked to seafaring voyages originating from Indonesia.

Overall, this multidisciplinary evidence suggests a complex history of migration and cultural exchange between Indonesia and Madagascar.

Madagascar is an island country in the Indian Ocean. It has a diverse geography, with mountains, rainforests, and beaches. The population consists of various ethnic groups, each with its own customs and traditions. The economy is primarily based on agriculture and fishing. The culture of Madagascar is rich and vibrant, influenced by African, Asian, and European heritage.

The Malagasy language is widely spoken, along with French and English. There are several ethnic groups in Madagascar, such as the Vézos, Vazimbas, and Masombikas. These groups have unique cultural practices that contribute to the overall diversity of the country.

Madagascar has a complex history that includes periods of slavery and European exploration. This has shaped the identity of the Malagasy people and contributes to the cultural heritage of the country.

In terms of attractions, Madagascar boasts several museums showcasing its ethnology, paleontology, art, and archaeology. The country also features natural wonders such as national parks and wildlife reserves.

Colonial Period 

The history of Madagascar is rich and varied, with influences from various cultures and nations. The island was once under the rule of the French East India Company from 1664 to 1769. In 1810, it became a kingdom known as the Kingdom of Madagascar, with a line of monarchs reigning over Imerina. During this time, slavery and indentured servitude were prevalent on the island.

There have been significant migrations of Jewish people to Madagascar, adding to the diverse tapestry of its population. Over time, Madagascar has seen changes in leadership, with a list of rulers dating back to 1787. The island eventually came under French protection in 1882 until it became a colony and its dependencies from 1897 to 1946.

Madagascar also experienced a coffee boom due to coffee cultivation on the island. However, it also faced challenges such as the Malagasy uprising in 1947 during its struggle for independence from colonial rule.

In more recent times, Madagascar went through decolonization along with other African nations seeking autonomy and self-governance. This history demonstrates how Madagascar’s past has shaped its present identity as a unique and diverse nation in Africa.


– Madagascar had four republics: First Republic (1958-1960 and 1960-1975), Democratic Republic of Madagascar (1975-1992), Third Republic (1992-2010), and Fourth Republic since 2010.
– The relationship between France and Madagascar has evolved since 1960.
– There was a political crisis in Madagascar in 2009.
– There is a Malagasy diaspora in France.


– 19th-century travelers: Joseph Lambert, Ida Pfeiffer, Jean Laborde
– Ethnologists: Alfred Grandidier, Jacques Faublée, Paul Ottino, Fauroux, Engelvin
– History of the Comoros archipelago including Mayotte, Mauritius and La Réunion.

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