Antananarivo, called “Tana” by nearly everyone, is the capital of Madagascar, and it is a big city. It houses a population of about 1.275 million people on its hills. Streets twist and turn across the hills and the houses on the streets are packed tightly. The houses frequently have corrugated metal roofs and need painting. Window glass is optional for older houses, but, window glass or not, almost all have wooden-slatted shutters for privacy and to protect against the winter rains.
The Vazimba, ancestors to the Malagasy, occupied the Tana area prior to the 1600s, but not much is known about them. The island was covered by tribal groups, each with their own king or queen. In 1610, King Andrianjaka of the Marina tribe conquered the Tana area. He gave the name Antananarivo, “place of a thousand warriors,” to the area when he stationed a substantial number of troops there. In the late 1700s, King Andranampoinimerina, a descendant of Andrianiaka, moved the Marina capital to Tana. This was his base as he unified more of the island, and Tana remained the capital.
Tana was still the capital in 1896, when France forcibly annexed Madagascar as a French colony, exerting total control. Madagascar remained a French colony until 1960, when the Malagasy regained their independence. Independence didn’t come easily – Madagascar has had several republics, each a new iteration of self-government, and a military take-over. However, in 2013 and 2019, leaders have been elected according to law.
It’s an extremely poor country. Madagascar as a whole has about 29 million people. Of that number, about 80% live on the equivalent of U.S. $2.50 per day, or roughly $75 per month, according to the World Bank, or 71%, according to the CIA Fact Sheet. Either way, serious poverty dominates and malnutrition is an ongoing problem.
The Malagasy have a traditional religion that believes in one god, Zanahary, who created the universe. Their religion believed in ancestor worship, a relationship between the dead and the living.
Michel, who was my guide outside of Tana, said that Malagasy people still observe some of the customs and rituals of the traditional religion. In the old days, the remains of the ancestors were buried repeatedly – it was known as famadihana, or turning of the bones, and was done periodically.
The climate in Madagascar is hot, so bodies decompose pretty quickly. In the 21st century, people who die are still buried in cemeteries, and a while later, the living family comes back together, unearths the bones, clean them, and re-bury them.
The “while later” is not a definite length of time, but rather, one or more descendants simply “know” when the right time arrives, and they all gather. They may or may not repeat the process. It is a ritual that demonstrates respect for the ancestors.
Needless to say, when Christian missionaries arrived in Madagascar in the early 1800s, they disapproved.
It was Radama I who opened the country to English missionaries during his reign, 1810 – 1828. The London Missionary Society (LMS) spread Christianity through out the island, and, in the process, transcribed the Malagasy language into a written language. Industry was brought to the island. Radama I died in 1828, and was succeeded by his widow, Queen Ranavalona I.
Queen Ranavalona reigned for thirty-three years, during which she persecuted Christians, banished foreigners, executed political rivals, and attempted to re-establish the traditional religion, including the practice of killing babies born on unlucky days. Anyone caught holding a Bible would be executed by strangling.
The Queen was reacting not only to concerns about eroding the traditional religion, but also to Christianity, which preached equality before God. Madagascar royalty and other elites depended on slavery for their status and wealth, so the new preaching was clearly a problem.
In 1861, the Queen died. (Surely everyone across the island must have exhaled audibly.) She was succeeded by Radama II (1861 – 1863), who was assassinated, and then Rasoherina (1863 – 1868). It was a whiplash moment as Radama granted religious freedom, which may have prompted his assassination. Rasoherina went further by becoming Christian himself, and made Christianity the state religion.
Rasoherina signed treaties with the British and the French, but it was an uneasy coexistence. In 1890, in typically colonial fashion, Britain recognized a French “protectorate” over Madagascar in exchange for dominance in Zanzibar. By 1896, France had invaded Madagascar and annexed it as a colony.
The only good thing that could be said about the French occupation of Madagascar is that they abolished slavery, which freed about 500,000 people, according to local sources. But it was problematic. Slave labor was replaced with “corvee,” a French concept that was not very different from slavery: it was forced, unpaid labor on the French plantations, seemingly limited only by length of time, although that is not specifically stated. The plantations generated large revenues for the colonial administration.
In 1897, a Malagasy rebellion was crushed by the French. The native monarchy was dissolved and the queen was exiled to Reunion (a small island in the Indian Ocean, and then to Algeria, where she died in 1917.
Malagasy were conscripted to fight for France in WWI, and, in an interesting development, the Malagasy began protesting French rule in 1918, but were unable to make much headway. Malagasy were forced to fight in WWII also. France gave Madagascar the right to be represented in the French National Assembly in 1944.
Independence was finally granted to Madagascar in 1960, after sixty-four years of colonial rule and intermittent rebellions by the Malagasy, some more violent than others. Madagascar has had several iterations of self-government, but is currently under a constitutional format.
After the arrival of Europeans, a European-style palace was built for Ranavalona I, designed by a Scottish missionary, James Cameron. A stone structure was built for Ranavalona II in 1867, but the wooden interior remained, which burned in 1995. When I was there, the building was mostly a shell, with a small display, but my current reading sounds as if more has been restored since my visit.
I have to mention Ambohimanga, which means “blue hill,” although I did not visit the site, which is a short drive north of Tana. It is one of Madagascar’s three UNESCO World Heritage sites, and is well worth visiting. I regret that I missed it. It is a large, fortified site known as “Manjakamiadana,” or “a fine place to rule,” that contains the tombs of kings and queens, as well as a couple of palaces and the ruins of others. King Andrianampoinimerina moved the capital from Ambohimanga to Tana in the late 1700s, so much pre-European history is centered in Ambohimanga.
Learning more about Malagasy history and seeing Antananarivo, was interesting, but I was looking forward to seeing more of Madagascar and their wildlife. I asked the hotel staff where I could find a guide or tour around Madagascar, and that was how I found Michel, who came highly recommended. We arranged to meet at the Buffet du Jardin at the Place de l’Independence. Michel drew up a program to show off the different areas of Madagascar. I had imagined Madagascar as entirely tropical – and it mostly is – but there are distinctive areas. And two days later, we were on our way.