The earliest of Madagascar's history is shrouded in the mists of time. Written records on Madagascar are almost non-existant, while archiological evidence places human arrival on the island between 200 - 500 BCE (Before Common Era, traditionally refered to as AD or Anno Domini).

Primary forest near the town of Ranomena. Possible habitat for the Vazimba?

One mythological story of the earliest inhabitants of Madagascar involves the Vazimba. The Vazimba were a tribe of pale, dwarf-like people who were the first people to live on the Grande Ile. Some modern Malagasy still believe that the Vazimba inhabit the deepest recesses of rainforest, venerating them as the most ancient of ancestors. During the times of Monarchy in Madagascar some kings claimed a blood kinship to the Vazimba.

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Pre-History of Madagascar

As mentioned above, archeologists place the first human arrival on Madagascar between 200 and 500 BCE. These people most likely arrived from Borneo or the South Celebes in outrigger canoes as part of the "Great Austronesian Expansion". This expansion eventually saw the population of the Malay Peninsula, Java, Sumatra, Micronesia, and all of the Polynesian islands (Hawaii, New Zealand and Eastern Island).

As there has never been found any evidence that Indonesian seafarers ever colonized the East coast of Africa it would appear that Madagascar's first inhabitants came directly across the Indian Ocean, a journey of some 3,700 miles (5,955 kilometers).

Rice paddies near the town of Ambodinodrio in North central Madagascar.

Madagascar, along with Iceland and New Zealand, proved to be one of the last major landmasses to become permanently occupied by humans. The link between Indonesia and Madagascar is further supported by the observations of Jared Diamond. Outrigger canoes and the techniques used to cultivate rice are both shared between the Malagasy and Indonesians, while huts style (rectangular vs. round) and clothing types (vegetable fiber based vs. animal skin based) differ significantly from mainland Africa.

Although the arrival of the Indonesians pre-dates that of mainland Africans, and facets of Indonesian culture are evident in various ethnic groups (primarily the Merina and Betsileo), the influence of Africa cannot be discounted. Bantu (a label used for over 400 ethnic groups in Sub-Saharan Africa based mainly on lingusitic similarities) are thought to have crossed the Mozambique channel to Madagascar shortly after the arrival of the Indonesian settlers. A number of words in the Malagasy lexicon stem from Bantu words, such as -omby (ox), -ondry (sheep) while the majority have Malayan-Polynesian affinities. Musical instruments such as the jejolava and multistringed valiha also have Bantu origins.

The Bantu also brought with them a strong affinity for cattle, specifically Zebu. This obsession is most noticable in the southern savannah regions where African cultural influences contiue to hold the greatest sway and zebu can outnumber people three to one.

Zebu are a sign of wealth and social status throughout much of Madagascar. This reverence for Zebu is thought to have been instilled by Bantu settlers from mainland Africa.

The use of zebu as a sign of wealth and social status, although generally applicable to the whole of Madagascar, is especially entrenched in the South. In modern times this has led to a dangerous preponderance of cattle rustlers, some of whom the author met in 2006 (They were fairly heavily armed, although very nice, most likely because we possessed no cattle).

Arabian influences arrived later to Madagascar. Medieval Arab navigators and cartographers knew of Madagascar which they labelled Phebol, Cernea, Menuthias, Medruthis, Sherbezat and, more poetically, Island of the Moon. Whether this knowledge was based or first-hand knowledge, or on reports for other travelers/traders, is unclear. Some Malagasy traditions speak of the first Arab settlers arriving in Madagascar following the civil wars that erupted after the death of Mohammed in 632 BCE.

Arabic and Zanzibari slaved-traders begin working down the East coast of Africa in the late 10th or early 11th century. Crossing the Mozambique channel in their dhows they established settlements on the West coast of Madagascar including Zafiraminia (the traditional ancestors of the Antemoro, Antanosy as well as other east coast ethnicities) and the area around present day Majunga. The Majunga area settlers were known as the Antalaotra and are considered the last of the large Arabian immigrations to Madagascar, coming from their colonies on the east African coast. It was from these settlers that Islam was introduced to the Malagasy.

The linguistic origins for season names, months, days and coins stem from Arabic roots and culturally the Arabs provided communal grain-pools, variety in salutations and cultural circumcision. Ombiasy, magicians from Arabia, often established themselves in the courts of tribal kingdoms, extending their cultural influence across Madagascar.

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European arrival in Madagascar

The intrepid Venetian explorer Marco Polo brought the name Madagascar into common usage in his memoirs (penned 1298-1320 BCE).

Antique Italian map showing Madagascar

In them he described an African island of untold wealth called Madeigascar; although most scholars now believe he was describing the Ethiopian port city of Mogadishu having heard about the island second hand. Following Marco Polo's lead, and regardless of its provenance, Italian cartographers attached the name Madagascar to the large island off the coast of Africa during the Renaissance.

By the fifteenth century Europe was looking for a means to wrest control of the spice trade from the Muslims. Sailing around the Cape of Good Hope in cargo-ships allowed them to bypass the Middle East and at the same time put them on a collision course with Madagascar. The Portuguese navigator Diogo Dias is credited with being the fist European to set foot on Madagascar when his Indian bound ship was blown off course in 1500. So would begin Europe's troubled history with Madagascar.

Cloves dry in the sun in Southern Madagascar near Matanga.  Europeans first encountered Madagascar while looking for a way to bypass the Middle East and exploit spices from India.

Over the next 200 years the Portuguese, English and French attempted, unsuccessfully, to establish colonies on Madagascar. The years 1600 to 1619 saw Roman Catholic missionaries from Portugal attempt to convert the Malagasy without success. English settlements near Toliary (formerly Tuléar) in 1646 and Nosy Be in 1649 where abandoned due to fever, dysentery and hostile tribes people. In 1665 the Director General of the French East Indian Company, a trading company designed to compete with the English and Dutch companies exploiting trade from India, a Mr. François Caron, sailed to Madagascar to establish a trading post. Once again Madagascar rejected settlement by Europe, and Mr. Caron instead established ports on Bourbon and Île-de-France (present day Réunion and Mauritius respectively).

A French colony at Taolañaro (Ft. Dauphin) lasted thirty years until 1674. The local Malagash from Antanosy massacred fourteen grooms and thirteen brides after the grooms abandoned their Malagasy wives for newly arrived French women. An eighteen month siege ended with the French East Indian company evacuating the remaining thirty men and one woman.

During the late 17th and early 18th century Madagascar, and especially Ile Ste. Maire, became a pirate stronghold. Shipwreck survivors often "settled" with natives, as did Robert Drury who provides one of the few descriptions of southern Madagascar during the 18th century in his book "Madagascar; or Robert Drury's Journal During Fifteen Years' Captivity on that Island". Some survivors found French or English colonies or made their way to pirate havens to become pirates themselves.

Waves lap against the shore of Ste Marie's southern tip.  Ile Ste. Marie was a pirate haven during the late 171th and early 18th century and many pirate graveyards still exist on the island.

William the Kidd, Henry Every, John Bown and Thomas Tew, pirate luminaries of the day, made Antongil Bay and Nosy Boraha (Ile Ste. Marie) their base of operation. Merchant ships sailing the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, or Persian Gulf all fell victim to the marauding pirates sailing from Madagascar.

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References used for this page

I've gathered the history information found in the appropriate pages from a variety of sources. Not being an expert in Malagasy history I can not vouch for the veracity of all information. I've done my best to cross-check information using multiple sources, and have left out some information either because it was painfully specific or it seemed speculation on the part of the original author. Sources for this page include:

If you find something on these pages with which you disagree, or think I've got my facts wrong please let me know. All information and images are copyright of Aleksei Saunders, 2007, unless otherwise noted. If you'd like to use an image from this website please drop me a line and I'm sure we can work something out.

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