Madagascar's population is predominantly of mixed Asian and African
origin. Recent research suggests that the island was uninhabited until
Indonesian seafarers arrived in roughly the first century A.D.,
probably by way of southern India and East Africa, where they acquired
African wives and slaves. Subsequent migrations from both the Pacific
and Africa further consolidated this original mixture, and 18 separate
tribal groups emerged. Asian features are most predominant in the
central highlands people, the Merina (2 million) and the Betsileo (1
million); the coastal people are of African origin. The largest coastal
groups are the Betsimisaraka (1 million) and the Tsimihety and Sakalava
The Malagasy language is of Malayo-Polynesian origin and is generally
spoken throughout the island. French also is spoken among the
educated of this former French colony.
Most people practice traditional religions, which tend to emphasize
links between the living and the dead. They believe that the dead join
their ancestors in the ranks of divinity and that ancestors are
intensely concerned with the fate of their living descendants. This
spiritual communion is celebrated by the Merina and Betsileo reburial
practice of famadihana, or "turning over the dead." In this ritual,
relatives' remains are exhumed, rewrapped in new silk shrouds, and
reburied following festive ceremonies in their honor.
About 40% of the Malagasy are Christian, divided almost evenly between
Roman Catholic and Protestant. Many incorporate the cult of the dead
with their religious beliefs and bless their dead at church before
proceeding with the traditional burial rites. They also may invite a
pastor to attend a famadihana.
An historical rivalry exists between the predominantly Catholic coastal
people (cotiers), considered to be underprivileged, and the
predominantly Protestant Merina, who tend to prevail in the civil
service, business, and professions. A new policy of decentralizing
resources and authority is intended to enhance the development potential
of all Madagascar's provinces.
The written history of Madagascar began in the seventh century A.D.,
when Arabs established trading posts along the northwest coast.
European contact began in the 1500s, when Portuguese sea captain Diego
Dias sighted the island after his ship became separated from a fleet
bound for India. In the late 17th century, the French established
trading posts along the east coast. From about 1774 to 1824, it was a
favorite haunt for pirates, including Americans, one of whom brought
Malagasy rice to South Carolina.
Beginning in the 1790s, Merina rulers succeeded in establishing hegemony
over the major part of the island, including the coast. In 1817, the
Merina ruler and the British governor of Mauritius concluded a treaty
abolishing the slave trade, which had been important in Madagascar's
economy. In return, the island received British military and financial
assistance. British influence remained strong for several decades,
during which the Merina court was converted to Presbyterianism,
Congregationalism, and Anglicanism.
The British accepted the imposition of a French protectorate over
Madagascar in 1885 in return for eventual control over Zanzibar (now
part of Tanzania) and as part of an overall definition of spheres of
influence in the area. Absolute French control over Madagascar was
established by military force in 1895-96, and the Merina monarchy was abolished.
Malagasy troops fought in France, Morocco, and Syria during World War I.
After France fell to the Germans in 1942, Madagascar was administered
first by the Vichy Government and then by the British, whose troops
occupied the strategic island to preclude its seizure by the Japanese.
The Free French received the island from the United Kingdom in 1943.
In 1947, with French prestige at low ebb, a nationalist uprising was
suppressed only after several months of bitter fighting. The French
subsequently established reformed institutions in 1956 under the Loi
Cadre (Overseas Reform Act), and Madagascar moved peacefully toward
independence. The Malagasy Republic was proclaimed on October 14, 1958, as an
autonomous state within the French Community. A period of provisional
government ended with the adoption of a constitution in 1959 and full
independence on June 26, 1960.
source: U.S. State Department Background Notes 1994
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