What is the History of Madagascar?

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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 18 September 2019
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Madagascar, an island nation off the southeast coast of Africa, is the fourth-largest island in the world, about 40% larger than the US state of California. Because of its huge number of endemic plant and animal species, including all 93 species of lemur and six species of the boabab tree, Madagascar is sometimes called "the Eighth Continent." Its current population is over 20 million.

The history of Madagascar begins between 200 and 500 CE, when seafarers on outrigger canoes arrived all the way from southeast Asia, probably originating from Borneo or the South Celebes. This is a huge distance, similar to that between Jerusalem and Bejing. Around the same time, Mikea and Bantu settlers from Africa crossed the Mozambique strait from Africa to Madagascar.

The written history of Madagascar begins around 700 BCE, when Arab seafaring merchants established trading posts on the northeast coast of Madagascar. At the time, the island was still populated by the 10 ft (3 m) tall Elephant Bird and giant lemurs. The appearance and huge eggs of the Elephant Bird probably contributed to the rocs in the legends of Sinbad the Sailor, part of the Arabian Nights compilation. These sailors brought eggs of the Elephant Bird to Baghdad to prove its existence.


Around the same time the Arabs arrived and in the centuries after, the native chiefdoms of the island began to rise to prominence, with some chiefdoms eventually coming to control large areas. From the European perspective, the history of Madagascar began in 1500, when Portuguese sailor Diogo Dias sighted the island after his ship got separated from a fleet on the way to India. He named the island St. Lawrence, a moniker that never stuck.

In 1666, the French introduced themselves into the history of Madagascar when Francois Caron, the Director General of the French East India Company, arrived on the island. He attempted to establish a colony there but failed, instead colonizing the nearby Mauritus islands and Reunion Island. The French would play a role in the history of Madagascar in the next few centuries.

In the 1790s, the native rulers of the island succeeded in establishing hegemony. In 1817, the island abolished slavery, which had been important for the economy, and received benefits from Britain in exchange, which was just as well, as the Royal Navy dominated the Indian Ocean. Over the next century, Britain had significant influence over Madagascar, and converted much of the ruling classes to Christianity.

In 1883, the French invaded Madagascar, starting the first Franco-Hova War, which continued with a series of hostilities until 1896, when France toppled the ruling Merina Kingdom and made Madagascar a French colony. The royal family, whose dynasty had ruled for 103 years, was sent to exile in Algeria. The French ruled Madagascar as a colony for 64 years. In 1947, a popular uprising led to 90,000 deaths, but the French still held on. It wasn't until 1956 that the French began to relinquish Madagascar back to its native people, and the island became an independent nation within the French Community in 1960. Today, Madagascar is a representative democratic republic. The island speaks the languages of Malagasy and French.


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