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Madagascar is an enormous island country off the eastern coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. It covers 226,000 square miles (587,000 sq. km), making it about twice the size of the state of Arizona. It is across a strait from the African nation of Mozambique.
The first people to settle this island were almost certainly from Borneo, in the Indonesian Archipelago, nearly 4,000 miles away. This settlement occurred sometime after 200 AD, making it one of the last major landmasses in the world to be settled by humans. In the 7th century some Arabs began establishing temporary trading posts along the northern part of the island, but never worked their way south or into the interior. It was not until the end of the 15th century that Europeans made contact with Madagascar.
For the next two centuries both the French and English attempted, and failed, multiple times to establish settlements on the island. Diseases such as dysentery and fever played a part in this difficulty, but the greater cause was the hostility of the various tribes on Madagascar, who put up with very little from the European colonists before turning on them.
Because of this lack of European settlement and the island's proximity to the shipping routes of the Mughal in the Indian Ocean, pirates found Madagascar to be an ideal base of operations. These pirates settled primarily in the northern section of the island, and allied themselves particularly with one tribe, the Betsimisaraka. This tribe, as a result of their newfound access to muskets and powder, were able to overpower most of their neighbors and conquer much of the northeast of the island. On the west coast, another tribe, the Sakalava, was able to turn their connections with European slavers into firearms as well, helping them to conquer the western side of the island.
In the early part of the 1800s a small kingdom in the highlands of Madagascar, the Merina kingdom, began a series of conquests that would eventually lead to the unification and subjugation of virtually all the island. One king of this dynasty, King Radama I, entered into formal negotiations with the British, who recognized him as the sole sovereign of the island. For the next century this dynasty would continue to rule the island, with the fates of British missionaries and colonists resting on the whims of the current leader.
This state of affairs lasted until the end of the 19th century, when the French, angry at the confiscation of French property by the government, invaded Madagascar. The French took the capital, and soon had control of the island — a situation recognized by the British in exchange for rights to Zanzibar. French rule would continue until the late 1950s, when the island gained autonomy, and eventually independence in 1960.
It avoided the normal move towards communism for the first years of its independence, but by 1975 was forging strong ties with the Soviet Union and implementing socialist reforms throughout the country. This lasted until the late 1980s, when the country began shifting in the other direction, eventually accepting a democratic constitution in 1992. Madagascar continues to remain democratic, and although violence does occasionally break out, the country is relatively stable.
Tourists often find the greatest allure of Madagascar to be the nearly unlimited species that inhabit its amazing forests. It houses an incredible number of animals which cannot be found anywhere else on Earth — the most famous being the many species of lemur found only on the island. Although rampant deforestation is a serious problem, the forests will still seem infinite to most visitors. The beaches along the coast, particularly in Ifaty, are some of the most pristine on the planet, and in July and August whales can be seen off the coast. The ideal time to visit is during the winter months, when the appalling temperatures of summer have settled down.
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