By Stephen Ellis
The difficulty which Western social scientists have had in deciding how to classify
Madagascar, other than as a part of what until recently was called the Third World, causes
no similar confusion among the 12 million people who live in Madagascar. They have a
strong sense of their own identity. Scholarly doubts over how to classify Malagasy society,
while they do not bother the Malagasy themselves, and only occasionally disturb the small
group of professional Madagascar specialists, have nevertheless had a considerable effect on
the literature. Quite simply Madagascar does not fit easily into either the African or the
Asian category used in area studies, and only occasionally does an individual social scientist,
typically an anthropologist or a historian, stumble across the world's fourth-biggest island.
The study of Madagascaržs human culture has become the monopoly of a rather small group
of specialists. Like all specialist groups they have a tendency to talk among themselves in
ways which are difficult for non-initiates to penetrate.
This is all the more a pity in that Madagascar presents raw materials of exceptional quality for social science, particularly in the field of history. Madagascar is one of fairly few parts of Africa (that is, if we consider it African at all; it is a member-state of the Organisation of African Unity) where there existed a pre-colonial state governed by a literate bureaucracy which has left abundant archives. These are quite well catalogued and, until recently at least, were open for use by historians. 70 Years before the country was colonized by France, the central highlands were the home of the Merina kingdom which has left behind diplomatic and administrative correspondence, memoirs, tax and judicial records and many of the documents which are the staple diet of Western historiography. In addition, the British and French diplomatic and missionary archives covering Madagascar are particularly good from the early 19th century onwards. It is partly because of the richness of its historical materials that Madagascar has also been a fruitful area for anthropological research. Some of the classical anthropological studies which have taken Madagascar, or parts of it, as their theme have gained in value from being able to trace the evolution of cultural patterns over time, sometimes over quite considerable time.
Inasmuch as malgachisants - as academic specialists are known - have had a background in area studies, it has tended to be a grounding in Africa rather than Asia. This is rather paradoxical, for not only is the Malagasy language of the Malayo-Polynesian group, but it is generally believed that Madagascaržs earliest immigrants were probably of Indonesian origin, and subsequent influences have been assimilated into what is still sometimes recognizable as an Indonesian-related culture. Despite the existence of a number of excellent works on the Malagasy language, it has been relatively little studied by specialists of Asia who may find in Malagasy culture, and in the language especially, clues as to the history of some Asian languages which have developed from common roots.
Just as Madagascar has been the preserve of specialists in the academic world, so it has also in the business and commercial world. Madagascaržs economy has stagnated since the early 1970s, and it is rarely the subject of international attention for this reason. Periodic attempts to build a tourist industry have not led to the development of mass tourism, and, in general, those outsiders who have personal knowledge of the island remain rather few in number.
Until the publication of Sir Mervyn Brown's recent History of Madagascar, there did not exist an English-language history of the island from earliest times until today. Sir Mervyn Brown came to know the island when he was accredited as the British ambassador there some 20 years ago. He invested time and energy to the study of things Malagasy to the extent of learning the language and reading extensively on its history. In 1978 he published a history of Madagascar up to the end of the colonial period which he called Madagascar Rediscovered, based partly on original research in archives and on manuscript sources. He has now produced a second edition so substantially altered and updated as to warrant a new title. It is a good read, and can be recommended as a starting-point for anyone interested to know more about Madagascar, whether because they are travelling there, or contemplating doing research, or are simply curious.
This new book, A History of Madagascar, is divided into five parts. The first part, which actually occupies less than a tenth of the book's total length, describes briefly the physical geography of the island and discusses its first inhabitants. As with much early African history, much of this is based on the analysis of modern language and culture, supplemented by a few precious archaeological records. Specialists have tended to divide into those emphasizing the Indonesian or Asian-Indonesian origin of the Malagasy, and those emphasizing the African or at least the creole aspect of Madagascaržs first inhabitants. Sir Mervyn Brown sides with the majority point of view in suggesting that the first inhabitants of Madagascar were groups of Indonesian origin who had gradually migrated around the Indian Ocean rim, touching the East African coast before settling in Madagascar, a process which probably took place over a considerable period of time, beginning in the earliest centuries of the Christian era.
From then on, the division of the book reveals a good deal about the author's personal interests and his infectious enthusiasm for a good story. Much of part two is taken up with accounts of the first Europeans to trade with Madagascar, from the 16th to the early 19th centuries. The adventures of the European pirates who infested Madagascar's coasts at this period are described at length, and provide some entertaining passages. There is a serious case to be made for devoting quite a large part of the book to the activities of what, after all, were relatively small numbers of Europeans, on the grounds of the importance of their activities for local commercial and political affairs. Here, Sir Mervyn Brown implies, the pirates and the other European adventurers of the period were of such importance in determining the later course of events that it is worth devoting as much as one-fifth of the book to their story. But much more needs to be said precisely on the assessment of the Europeans' importance. We need to know how important in Malagasy history were the networks of import-export trade which these Europeans established or maintained. In particular, we need to know what their role was in the construction of recognizable states among the Sakalava and the Merina, for example.
The Merina Kingdom
Of all the various pre-colonial states or other political entities, it is the Merina kingdom which most fully engages Sir Mervyn Brown's attention, no doubt for the same reason that it has engrossed so many historians. It offers by far the richest documentary sources of any pre-colonial state in Madagascar, and this makes it an obvious attraction. It is also the case that the Merina state played a crucial role in the modern history of Madagascar as a result of its attempt in the 19th century to dominate the whole island, and by the subsequent development of a Merina nationalist elite which exercised disproportionate influence during the colonial period. Sir Mervyn Brown quotes approvingly Guy Jacob's observation that 'La colonisation française...ne doit constituer finalement qu'un accident dans l'évolution de Madagascar. En revanche la domination merina...s'inscrit au coeur de l'histoire malgache'. There is, then, some justification for devoting so many pages to a description of the Merina monarchy, as Sir Mervyn Brown does. However the analysis in A History of Madagascar, apart from the fact that it allows little attention for events in other parts of the island outside the central highlands, remains highly coloured by the 19th century British view of Imerina as a Christian state. This view, by concentrating for example on the martyrdom of a relatively small number of Christians during the bloody reign of Ranavalona I (1828-61), fails to account for the massive purges of other opponents of the government, which were on a far greater scale. It does not illuminate the real political workings of Merina oligarchy and, thus, explains little of the weaknesses of the Merina kingdom which later made it so vulnerable to French colonialism. This section of the book remains largely the same as the 1978 edition, so it is not surprising that it incorporates little of the important work published since that time, most notably by Franoise Raison-Jourde. But the vision of Merina history presented here was outdated even in 1978.
The final part of A History of Madagascar is the only part to consist of entirely new material introduced since the 1978 forerunner of the book, and it is this which provides new data for Madagascar specialists. As Sir Mervyn Brown points out in his introduction, contemporary history of this kind is full of pitfalls. But it is here, in this little charted territory, that he is at his most useful. His personal memories of the government of President Didier Ratsiraka, allied to his own professional skills as a diplomat, provide us with a reliable guide through the main lines of the post-independence period.
Here then is a thoroughly readable, enjoyable, general history of Madagascar, the only one in English. Perhaps it will inspire Dutch scholars to venture into the study of Madagascar, despite the warning sounded by Cornelius van Houtman, almost four centuries ago, when he called it 'Coemiterium Batavorum', 'the graveyard of the Dutch'.
A History of Madagascar
(Damien Tunacliffe, Cambridge, 1995).
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Stephen Ellis is a historian and works currently as a senior researcher at the African Studies Centre in Leiden.