Madagascar, the eighth continent! Biologically speaking, this 1000 mile-long island, fourth largest in the world, is another continent. Some 160 million years ago the island broke from Gondwana, the ancient megacontinent that was comprised of Australia, India, Africa and Antarctica. This long separation has fostered the evolution of thousands of endemic species of plants and animals.
The first people who came to Madagascar were from South East Asia, mostly from Indonesia and Malaysia; they arrived around the fourth century, the Indonesian immigration continuied until the 15th century; but people came from eastern Africa as well. African slaves, Arabs, Indians and Portuguese traders, European pirates and French colonists all mixed with the population to eventually create the 18 official 'tribes' or clans inhabiting the island today. The first Malagasy brought the food crops that they'd grown in South-East Asia, and the agricultural regions with their endless rice paddies which today look as if they belong in Asia rather than Africa. The Malagasy language is of Malayo-Polynesian origin and is generally spoken throughout the island.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive, in a fleet under the command of Diego Diaz in 1500. When the Portuguese found no gold, ivory or spices, they lost interest in the territory. By this time the Europeans had introduced firearms to the island in exchange for slaves. In the centuries that followed, the Portuguese, Dutch and British all failed to establish permanent bases on the island, but from the 17th century, bands of outlaws succeeded where their governments had failed. Pirates contributed booty, buried treasure, and genes to the island's population, especially around Île Sainte Marie. At one stage when they were just saying no to piracy in the Caribbean, more than 1000 English, French, Portuguese, Dutch, American and other pirates were based on Madagascar's east coast. They used it as a convenient base to attack ship rounding the Cape of Good Hope.
By the beginning of the 17th century there were a number of small Malagasy kingdoms, including those of the Antemoro, Antaisaka, Betsileo, and Merina. Later in the century the Sakalava, under Andriandahifotsy, conquered west and north Madagascar, but the kingdom disintegrated in the 18th century
At the end of the 18th century the Merina people of the interior were united under King Andrianampoinimerina (reigned 1787–1810), who also subjugated the Betsileo. Radama I (reigned 1810–28), in return for agreeing to end the slave trade, received British aid in modernizing and equipping his army, which helped him to conquer the Betsimisaraka kingdom. The Protestant London Missionary Society was welcomed, and it gained many converts, opened schools, and helped to transcribe the Merina language. Merina culture began to spread over Madagascar. Increasing trade in arms and slaves with Europeans brought about the rise of Malagasy kingdoms, and small, rival states eventually emerged. By the late 18th century, the Merina clan had begun to dominate. The British signed a treaty in 1820 recognizing Madagascar as an independent state under Merina rule, and British influence remained strong into the 20th century.
Radama was succeeded by his wife Ranavalona I (reigned 1828–1861), who was suspicious of foreigners, declared (1835) Christianity illegal and halted most foreign trade. During her rule the Merina kingdom was wracked by intermittent civil war. Under Radama II (reigned 1861–63) and his widow and successor Rasoherina (reigned 1863–68) the anti-European policy was reversed and missionaries (including Roman Catholics) and traders were welcomed again. Rainilaiarivony, the prime minister, controlled the government during the reigns of Ranavalona II (1868–83) and Ranavalona III (1883–96); by then the Merina kingdom included all Madagascar except the south and part of the west. Ranavalona II publicly recognized Christianity, and she and her husband were baptized.
But by 1883, the British had gone cold and France had become the recognised and sole European power in Madagascar (in exchange for French recognition of British sovereignty in Zanzibar)..In 1883 the French bombarded and occupied Toamasina , and in 1885 they established a protectorate over Madagascar, which was recognized by Great Britain in 1890. Rainilaiarivony organized resistance to the French, and there was heavy fighting from 1894 to 1896. In 1896, French troops under J. S. Gallieni defeated the Merina and abolished the monarchy.
The French invaded from the west coast in 1895, surprising Merina defenses and setting up a colonial administration with General Joseph Galliéni as the first governor general. He sent Queen Ranavalona III into exile in Algeria in 1897, effectively abolishing the monarchy. He attempted to suppress all British influence and crush the Malagasy language, declaring French the official language. Although the French abolished slavery in name on the island, in practice they introduced such a repressive tax regime that anyone who couldn't pay went into forced labor. Land was expropriated by foreign settlers and companies, and an import and export economy developed based on coffee plantations.
During WWII the French administration turned coats over to the Vichy French quislings, so Britain invaded, ostensibly to prevent Japan from using Madagascar as an Indian Ocean base. The British handed it back to de Gaulle's free French in 1943. Post-war, Madagascar underwent a nationalist backlash; many Malagasy had been trained to French standards and schooled on notions of liberté, égalité and fraternité, and were no longer willing to be second class citizens in their own country. The 1947 revolt was crushed at the cost of many thousands of Malagasy lives (possibly as many as 80,000), but the rot had set in.
Several indigenous political parties were born in the 1950s, and when General de Gaulle returned to power in France in 1958, the Malagasy voted to become an autonomous republic within the French community of overseas nations. Madagascar underwent a peaceful transition to independence in 1960, although the colons, as the French settlers were called, still pulled the strings. Philibert Tsiranana, the first president, gradually became more oppressive, and although he was a Merina (and they generally leaned toward the Soviet camp), he refused to establish a dialogue with any communist nations. He ferociously repressed a revolt in the country's south in 1972, which was the beginning of his undoing. He resigned soon after and handed power to his army commander, General Gabriel Ramanantsoa. An attempt at restoring unity, Ramanantsoa, on February 5, 1975, turned over power to Colonel Richard Ratsimandrava. Five days later, Ratsimandrava was assassinated while driving from the presidential palace to his home., and a National Military Directorate was formed to restore order by declaring martial law, strictly censoring political expression, and suspending all political parties. The political transition crisis was resolved on June 15, 1975, when the National Military Directorate selected Lieutenant Commander Didier Ratsiraka as head of state and president of a new ruling body, the Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC). A new group of officers led by Admiral Didier Ratsiraka had a shot at the top job, nationalising banks and other major businesses without compensation. The remaining French packed up their money and skills and went home.
By the late 1970s Madagascar had severed all ties with France and the government was seriously courting communist nations; Ratsiraka even produced his own 'red book' of government policies and theories. A mounting debt crisis in 1981-82 prodded the government to slow its reforms, and to trot out the standard austerity measures the IMF demanded as terms of a loan. The economy improved marginally with the IMF's programs, but quickly slumped again. Ratsiraka won the election in March 1989 under dubious circumstances, which led to riots. More came in 1991 when peaceful demonstrators were killed by North Korean-trained presidential guards in front of Ratsiraka's opulent new palace (built with North Korean aid). The early 90s was plagued by civil unrest. After a four year rule by Professor Albert Zafy that failed to unite the country or overcome years of bureaucratic misrule, Ratsiraka was voted back into power in 1996, to almost universal surprise. That less than 50% of the 6.5 million registered voters bothered to cast a ballot indicates that the Malagasy had little enthusiasm for any of the candidates.
Since his 1996 reelection, Ratsiraka helped put together a deal with the IMF and World Bank that led to the privatisation of several important economic sectors, resulting in both a greater expansion of the economy and higher inflation. Growing opposition to Ratsiraka led to the popularity of Marc Ravalomanana, the mayor of Antananarivo. Presidential elections in December 2001 were inconclusive, with both Ratsiraka and Ravalomanana claiming victory.
Marc Ravalomanana declared himself president in February 2002 and set up shop in the capital of Antananarivo, while Ratsiraka and his forces moved to the port city of Tamatave. Ratsiraka fled to Paris several months later although forces loyal to him still operate, sometimes preventing supplies from reaching the capital. Ravalomanana soundly defeated the fragmented opposition in elections in December 2002, thus securing the legitimacy he claimed at the outset of the trouble. The new president set about reforming the country’s ruined economy, and announced salary increases for politicians in an effort to stamp out corruption. He generally made the right noises to the World Bank which, along with France and the US, pledged a total of US$2.3 billion in aid. They, like millions of Malagasy, are hoping that Ravalomanana, a self-made millionaire, can help to finally fulfil Madagascar’s huge economic potential.
In December 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami hit the east coast of Madagascar, destroying infrastructure and leaving close to 1000 people homeless. Ravalomanana has moved to privatize state-owned companies and has successfully sought international aid and foreign investment. His government has, however, sometimes limited freedom of the press and other political freedoms. In 2005 the government banned the New Protestant Church (FPVM), a growing charimatic church that had split (2002) from the mainline Reformed Protestant Church of Jesus Christ (FJKM). The president, a lay leader in the FJKM, was accused of favoring one church over another in violation of the constitution, but the courts refused to overturn the decision. The FPVM appealed, and on April 19, 2006, the Supreme Court issued an order requiring the Government to provide proof of the basis for the ban by May 19, 2006. As of June 15, 2006, the Government had not replied to the Supreme Court's order.
The president was reelected in Dec., 2006, but the election was marred by the exclusion of a major opposition candidate, Pierrot Rajaonarivelo, who was in exile and was not allowed to return and register for the election. In addition, in November, there was an attempted coup against the president by a retired army general who was also not allowed to run; although it was unsuccessful, many of the presidential candidates called his a coup a move in defense of the constitution. In late 2006 and early 2007 Madagascar suffered its worst cyclone (hurricane) season in memory, with six storms hitting the country, affecting some 450,000 inhabitants.
Ravalomanana dissolved the National Assembly in July 2007, prior to the end of its term, following a constitutional referendum earlier in the year. Ravalomanana said that a new election needed to be held so that the National Assembly would reflect the changes made in this referendum. Legislative elections in Sept., 2007, again gave the president’s party a majority of the seats.