IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Re gions | Insular Southwest Asia

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The First Malagasy

The Netherlands has occupied a niche in the history of Madagascar since Frederik de Houtman, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, wrote the first-ever dictionary of the Malagasy language, listing about two thousand words which he compared with their Malay equivalents to demonstrate the connection between the two languages. Subsequent research has served to confirm De Houtman's view that the Malagasy language may be classed as part of the Austronesian language family. The view generally accepted among modern scholars is that the closest relative of Malagasy is the Maanjan language of southeast Borneo.

By Stephen Ellis and Solofo Randrianja


The analysis of language, together with archaeology, anthropology, and such specialized skills as historical botany, is one of the techniques which, in the absence of documents, may be used to determine the earliest history of human settlement in Madagasc ar, and most notably the question of where the first Malagasy came from. There is agreement among scholars that the great Indian Ocean Island, in spite of its size - bigger than France, Belgium, and the Netherlands combined - was uninhabited until some tw o thousand years ago. The first sites that can be determined through archaeological analysis date from the fifth century AD, and suggest that the first known human settlements were close to estuaries, strengthening the generally held view that the island was settled by parties of seafarers who, to judge from the language, had a strong connection with Indonesia. Who were these speakers of an Austronesian language who settled in Madagascar? How did they arrive, and when?
Some twenty per cent of the vocabulary of modern Malagasy is said to be of non-Austronesian origin, including not only Bantu words, but also others derived from Arabic and, much later, from French, English, and Dutch. Perhaps the most difficult of all que stions facing historians who try to use language to determine some sort of chronology of the settlement of Madagascar concerns the exact circumstances under which Bantu words in particular became incorporated into the language of the proto-Malagasy. Altho ugh there have been all sorts of theories about this, there is a consensus among modern scholars that navigators from Indonesia settled along the coast of East Africa, acquired some Bantu vocabulary, and then sailed to Madagascar already speaking a langua ge which contained a considerable admixture of Bantu words. This process probably took place over a period of centuries, as traders of Indonesian origin shuttled between a number of points along the western shores of the Indian Ocean, only gradually found ing permanent settlements in Madagascar from perhaps the fifth century.
Clues may be found in the categories of words in modern Malagasy which are of Bantu origin and in the presence in Malagasy of words of other origin, particularly Sanskrit, which appear to have been acquired by the ancestors of the first Malagasy before th eir departure from Indonesia. The ancestors of the Maanjan, the Indonesian language closest to modern Malagasy, are said to have formed part of a Barito group of Borneo who travelled to Sumatra and Java in the first five centuries of the present era. Ther e, they acquired new skills and also new words under the influence of the Hinduized states, which existed in Java in those centuries. The presence in the Zambezi basin in east Africa of modern peoples with legends and funerary rites which appear to be of Indonesian origin, and which also exist in Madagascar, suggests indeed that the proto-Malagasy, probably being Barito navigators, touched the coast of East Africa before settling permanently in Madagascar. The presence of a small number of Sanskrit words in the vocabulary of the proto-Malagasy suggests that the proto-Malagasy left Indonesia at a period fairly shortly after the earliest Sanskrit influence on Borneo, in about the fourth century AD. Barito navigators appear to have left Indonesia shortly aft er that time, trading and settling on the coast of east Africa and founding their first settlements in Madagascar. It is likely that there was a considerable fusion of Indonesian and Bantu culture on the coast of East Africa which survived in Madagascar b ut which disappeared in east Africa with the large scale immigration of Bantu, perhaps in the period AD 800-1000.
Further research on the Malagasy language may provide further clues to dating the arrival of the proto-Malagasy and may also lend material to the analysis of the history of other Austronesian languages.

Stephen Ellis and Solofo Randrianja are preparing to write a general history of Madagascar from the period of the proto-Malagasy to the present. They would welcome communication with specialists of Indonesia particularly who may be interested in the co nnection with Madagascar. They can be reached at: Afrika-studiecentrum, PO Box 9555, 2300 RB Leiden, The Netherlands, tel.: +31-71-527 3372, fax: (31) 71-527 3344, e-mail: Ellis@rulfsw.fsw.LeidenUniv.nl, Solofo@rulfsw.fsw.LeidenUniv.nl.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Re gions | Insular Southwest Asia