History & Politics
Seafarers and migrants
The first people to arrive in Madagascar were most likely seafarers from Indonesia/Malaysia. Working their way around the coastline of the Indian ocean, they may have established small colonies here from around 2000 years ago.
Madagascar was mentioned by the Venetian merchant, Marco Polo, who wrote an account of his travels to Asia in the 13th century. Arab map-makers also knew of its existence and there is evidence of early Arab settlers along the coast.
In later centuries, other groups came, some from mainland Africa. Waves of migration gave rise to different Malagasy clans and kingdoms on the island – see People & Culture.
The first Europeans to arrive were the Portuguese in 1500. But since the island lacked gold, ivory and spices, they didn’t stay. The French and British also failed to gain a foothold here, driven away by hostile locals and disease.
Establishing a kingdom
The Malagasy were therefore left alone for nearly four centuries to shape their country. During that time, the Merina people of the highlands conquered many other clans and established a powerful kingdom. The king was believed to have almost divine powers and forests were protected. By 1820, the Merina King Radama I ruled over much of Madagascar.
British missionaries came to the island during the 19th century and Christianity became the official religion of the Merina Kingdom in 1869. British influence was lost when the French invaded Madagascar from 1883.
Resistance to French rule
An uprising in 1947 led to some political rights and improvements for the Malagasy people, but at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.
The island was declared a French colony in 1896, despite much local resistance. Under French rule, wide-scale deforestation took place as trees were cleared to plant sugar cane, cotton and coffee. The French took over the most fertile land and locals worked for them in slave-like conditions.
A new but unsettled nation
Eventually, France granted Madagascar its independence in 1960. Under various regimes and socialist-led policies, the economy declined and the country was ruled by leaders of a one-party state.
Democratic reforms and a new constitution were approved in 1992, but political upheavals continued.
The latest happened in 2009, when a bloodless coup ousted the elected president. The mayor of Antananarivo, Andry Rajoelina, took charge of the country. His takeover caused the country’s major partners – the US and EU – to freeze aid to Madagascar. The nation was also suspended from the African Union and the southern African Development Community.
Lack of outside funding has crippled government spending and development efforts. Many are hoping fresh elections will provide a legitimate government, allowing external finance and aid to return.