Madagascar is more than just a movie. It is a real place, populated by real people. What is more, it has a fascinating and telling history, one that greatly illuminates the present struggles of the country.
In “A People’s History of the World,” Madagascar is mentioned once, among a long list of French colonies. This fact is pretty indicative of the nation’s importance in the larger geo-political scheme of things. Madagascar is an out-of-the-way place off an undeveloped continent. It is neither a political, military, nor economic force to be reckoned with; it is a non-factor on the RISK board, an occasional blurb in the Times, just another vote at the UN.
Yet, its history matters, not because it is varied and colorful (though trust this amateur historian won’t steer away from its more exciting and entertaining anecdotes), but rather because it speaks to the injustice of colonialism, the missteps of young democracy, the struggle to keep up in a breakneck world economy. It is the untold story of a third world nation.
Scan through the chapter titles: this is NOT a scholarly work and makes no claims to be. It was written with limited sources and condensed to a readable form, which is to say the essential facts, the interesting facts, and the facts that Katie deemed to be the best foundation for humor and insight. That being said, it is as accurate as possible given the circumstances.
I. How the F did you get here?
Approximately a hundred million years ago, as the continents were going their separate ways, a land mass peeled off from India and Africa and, sticking close to the latter, drifted down into the Indian Ocean, coming to rest off the coast of modern-day Mozambique. Madagascar was born; nobody was around to notice.
Fast forward 999,998,000 years, somebody in Indonesia gets a hankering to do some discovering. Not content with the island next door, or down the block, this ambitious soul sets his sights beyond the horizon. Four thousand miles across the open Indian Ocean there is a big, empty island awaiting. Accompanied by the most adventurous folks to be found, off they go in their outrigger canoes. Just as a certain carpenter walked the earth, these Indonesians crossed the water.
What is amazing about this journey is not necessarily that it was completed: whether hopscotching the Indian and African coasts or proceeding directly across, without the aid of maps or compasses, navigating purely by the stars, both routes have been proven possible by modern expeditions under matched conditions. No, what is amazing is that- much like the settlement of Australia or Hawaii- such a journey was even conceived, that propelled by the belief that such a landmass was out there the leap of faith was taken at all.
Whether the first people stumbled upon it or were looking for it, Madagascar was quite the place to find. Early separation and prolonged isolation from the rest of the world had produced some odd branches on the evolutionary tree, most notably an array of megafauna: giant tortoises, dwarf hippos, lemurs the size of gorillas, and a bird species that grew to a height of ten feet and over six hundred pounds.
Tragically, for animated movies and the tree of life alike, the megafauna were quickly driven to extinction by hunting and indirect competition with their newest neighbors, but not before Marco Polo could introduce Madagascar to the world as home to a ‘giant roc’ capable of carrying an elephant in flight. Ever the reliable source, Marco Polo is also credited with naming the island, possibly mistaking it for Mogadishu in Somalia. [Insert lost in the swimming pool joke here].
II. Europeans Wade into the Swimming Pool (and Drown)
For a millennium and a half the Malagasy population grew and integrated in relative peace and obscurity. Coastal Bantu and Swahili migrations were absorbed in the north; short-lived Arab settlements exerted some limited influence in the south. Twenty distinct tribes gradually emerged, speaking markedly different dialects of the Malagasy language. Yet despite these variations and the mixing-pot effect of racial diversity, lingual and cultural homogeneity was maintained.
In 1500, the Portuguese established first European contact in a manner befitting their high level of civilization. Diego Suarez, a captain, waded ashore, raped, pillaged, and murdered his way through the northern portion of the island, found himself surprisingly not the winner of local popularity contests and hastily departed, leaving behind only his name (as anyone who has ever caught me on the phone on a banking weekend knows: “yea man, I’m in Diiiiiiiiiiiego!”). The French and British, eager to display their own cultural refinement, tried their hands at colonies as well, all of which failed in similarly spectacular style, due to disease and hostile local inhabitants. Thus- for a bit of a honeymoon period- Madagascar developed with a remarkable degree of autonomy and a fair amount of prosperity under its own rulers.
Not that contact with the outside world was shunned; on the contrary, Madagascar thrived off of it, becoming the snack bar of the Indian Ocean, re-supplying the many ships that traversed the Indo-European trade routes of old. In the 1700’s, the island was a haven for pirates and slave-holders, who traded with and fought the local kings. Ile St. Marie, on the island’s east coast, briefly claimed independence as the world’s first and only pirate nation, Libertaria, at its peak boasting a population of over a thousand. Where’s our movie about that?
III. The Badass King
While the world snacked and stole on the coast, a powerful king was uniting the interior under the island-friendly motto “the sea is my boundary.” His name was, seriously, andiranampoinimerinadriantsimititoviaminandriampanjaka (which translates roughly to “the biggest, baddest mother on your block”) and by 1808 he had established rule over all the highland tribes by sheer badass force.
Andriablahblahblah, who was believed to have divine powers, actually enacted a fairly humane and far-sighted ruling policy: each family had enough land to provide for their needs (rice), large-scale irrigation projects were sponsored (rice), and burning of the forest was forbidden (might get out of control and threaten the rice). If there was still any doubt who the big, bad dude on the block was, the treaties he signed with the British in 1817 and 1820, recognizing Madagascar as an independent state, sealed the deal; not that it meant anyone would say his whole name.
In keeping the general nineteenth century vibe of Euro-African trade relations, in exchange for slaves the British provided arms and advisors that allowed the King and his heir to conquer most of the rest of the island. On the strength of this happy exchange, British influence grew and in 1818 a group of missionaries arrived at the King’s request. Of course, all but one immediately died of fever, but being persevering folk the London Missionary sent another batch who presumably took their mefloquine and spread out across the land to preach the dual gospels of Christianity and malaria prophylaxis.
IV. The Wicked Queen (or, how to rid oneself of irksome Christians in a lionless land)
With the death of Andriablahblahblah’s son, his widow Queen Ranovalona I came to power and quickly set out to rid Madagascar of all European influence, Christianity a partciular pet peeve. During her long reign she drove the missionaries out more effectively than any fever and many a Malagasy Christian was martyred as well. As Madagascar is devoid of lions (myth busted!), the Queen was forced to resort to more creative methods, namely tossing more than a hundred and fifty of them off a cliff. Still other Christians were subjected to the infamous ordeal of Tangena, which demanded as proof of innocence the successful regurgitation of chicken skin after forced consumption of a poisoned meal.
Ranovalona did, however, endeavor to improve her country, or at least force others to do so. In 1831, she put a shipwrecked Briton, one Jean Laborde, to work manufacturing muskets and gunpowder. Laborde turned out to be quite the fortunate wash up on the rocks, for within two decades he had overseen the construction (by forced labor) of a massive industrial complex and sparked a mini-industrial revolution that allowed Madagascar a surprising degree of self-sufficiency.
Alas, it was not to last; Laborde was doomed to go the way of all the other foreigners, his alleged role in a plot to against the Queen overriding his usefulness (as we will see, that may not have been the only thing he was up to with the wicked witch). The true tragedy of this treachery, however, is that not long after his hurried departure, the unpaid workmen who had labored to build and operate his complex destroyed it in a an uprising. Thus, Madagascar’s short-lived industrial revolution came to a dramatic close.
V. The Wimpy Son
After Queen Ranovalona’s reign of creative terror, her son Radama II assumed the throne. Being of a peace-loving and pro-European inclination, he quickly reversed his mother's policies (history whiplash!) and invited all the missionaries to return. No sooner had they determined that they would not be chucked off a cliff or forced to vomit chicken skin then they were squabbling over royal influence.
Radama- who must have appeared a bit of a softy following his mother- was apparently a tad too malleable to foreign influence and internal concerns over this led to his assassination; he was strangled with a silken cord so that the fady (taboo) against shedding royal blood was not transgressed. It is widely believed to this day, however, that Radama, exercising unforetold dexterity, managed to escape to the north and live out the rest of his days. As it is my duty to report the historical facts, I am obligated to mention the parallel belief that he was assasinated because he was the illegitimate son of Jean Laborde. Oh the intrigue!
VI. The French Play RISK
Following the dramatic assasination and possible escape, the Malagasy monarchy slipped into decline and power shifted to the prime minister. This was rather unfortunate timing as in 1883, the French- who has maintained a long-standing claim to Madagascar despite the period of British influence- attacked and occupied the island's main ports. The resulting three-year Franco-Malagasy war concluded with the designation of Madagascar as a French Protectorate.
In 1890, the Suez Canal opened and the geopolitical implications of an Indian Ocean snack bar were instantly nullified. Consequently, the interests and unselfish intentions of the British Empire were signed away at the Convention of Zanzibar (where, presumably, the imperialists didn't cook but ordered out).
French rule was imposed by invasion in 1895 and the island officially became a French colony the following year; the monarchy was abolished and (was that really necessary?) the Queen exiled to Algeria. The French colonists were of a radical conservative breed and their rule was correspondingly harsh. A Senagalese police force was imported and "volunteer labor"(not like Peace Corps volunteer, like 'volunteer or die') was enacted to build infrastructure. Revolts were brutally supressed; a 1947 uprising resulted in more than 80,000 casualties; the French threw its opposition leaders from airplanes.
VII. WWII (or, why small Malagasy children burst into tears when they see me)
46,000 Malagasy fought in WWII and over two thousand were killed for the Allied cause. The surviving 44,000 returned to Madagascar to describe the horrors of what white people will do to one another, including (and who am I to question the veracity of this claim?) eat each other. These tales of cannabalism filtered heavily into Malagasy folklore, particularly in the department of parental threats (as in, if you don't quit misbehaving I will feed you to that white person over there). Hence the terror that is written all over a small child's face when my presence catches them by surprise...
In 1942, Madagascar fell under control of the Vichy French regime and, after a fifty year hiatus, suddenly reappeared on the RISK board. Fearing that the Japanese Navy would utilize the deepwater harbor of Diego to threaten crucial supply routes through the Mozambique Channel, the British invaded. The next year, however, rule was returned to the free French government; the Malagasy, believing that their contribution to the war effort would earn them post-war independence, accept the transfer of power. They are- how to put this delicately- tragically mistaken: just a few years later their opposition leaders are falling from the sky.
VIII. I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-T (Do you know what dat mean?)
No, it doesn't mean that the Malagasy got their own house and their own car in 1960, when trends of liberalism and anti-colonialism in France led to the granting of independence. But, Madagascar was a surprisingly prosperous nation at this juncture: a net exporter of goods with a population of only five million and 90% access to primary school.
For a decade or so- a period known as the First Republic- things proceeded if not swimmingly then satisfactorily, but in 1972, facing protests over neo-French colonialism, the president was forced to step down. Following a period of turmoil, a military directorate handed power to a naval officer, Didier Ratsiraka. (If this blog was equipped with sound effects, you would be hearing right now: DUH DUH DUUUUH).
IX. Christian Marxism (or, are we sure there are no lions?)
Ratsiraka quickly implemented a personal brand of Christian Marxism, guided by his own manifesto, or "little red book." This manifesto included socialist policies of nationalization and centralization, which, coupled with a worsening of the terms of trade, rapidly ran the economy into a cement wall. Famine ensued, cash crops were destroyed, infrastructure crumbled. Despite this complete economic collapse, Ratsiraka was twice reelected, though accusations abound of ballot-rigging and intimidation.
After a series of strikes and demonstrations in 1991, Ratsiraka resigned and a transitional government- headed by opposition leader Albert Zafy- established the Third Republic (allowing for a pretty generous interpretation of the second). This experiment in parliamentary democracy quickly went the way of the others though as Zafy refused to accept the limitations on his presidential power and was promptly impeached by the National Assembly.
Ratsiraka (maybe nobody else was running?) was reelected in his stead and hastily restored most of his previous dictatorial powers. And why not? During the decades of his rule and his years to come, Madagascar's GNP growth held steady...at 0%. With a doubling of the population the standard of living halved. A once moderately prosperous nation was now among the poorest in the world.
X. Heavyweight Chaos (The Boy Mayor vs. The Stagnant Dictator)
2001 brought disputed presidential election and chaos to Madagascar. Marc Ravolomanana, mayor of the capital city won 52% of the popular vote but Ratsiraka refused to step down and declared martial law. Ravolomanana in turn declared himself president. Ratsiraka, ever the hardy dictator, retreated to his home town on the coast as supporters isolated the capital, blocking off roads and dynamiting bridges.
Within a few months, fuel and food became exorbitantly expensive then extremely scarce. The impoverished of the capital succumbed to malnutrition and death. An infant manufacturing industry was choked off and 150,000 jobs are lost. Warfare in the streets not being conducive to visitors, tourism plummeted. After nine months, a court-monitored recount confirmed Ravolomanana's victory, the support of the army shifted and the blockade was dismantled, but only long after considerable damage had been inflicted on an already struggling economy. In the breakneck pace of the modern world, Madagascar fell even further behind.
X and 1/2. I am not at Liberty to Say
It seemed that Ravolomanana had a good thing going. The economy was rapidly expanding. He had enunciated his Durbin Vision, a commitment to expansion and conservation of protected areas. Tourism was steadily on the rise. He was, all in all, a fairly popular leader.
Which is why it is somewhat inexplicable (especially if one is not already initiated into the complete illogic of all things Madagascar) that in 2008 when the newly elected mayor of the capital, incensed over the closure of his radio station, marched on the presidential palace, waves of supporters joined him and chaos again filled the streets; that when he stood on the steps and declared himself president of Madagascar, it...well...somehow...worked.
But now the realm of history is merging into that of modern politics, a pool into which PCVs cqnnot permissibly wade. So I will leave it at what it is, murky and somewhet tantalizing, comic and yet tragic too. That is the history of Madagascar for you.