History of Madagascar

Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > Madagascar > Map Economy History

A VAST REGION, the Indian Ocean encompasses an area of about 73.4 million square kilometers, or roughly 14 percent of the earth's surface. The region has been defined variously, depending on whether the Antarctic Sea is included. Commonly, the Indian Ocean is thought to stretch from East Africa (or specifically from the southern tip of Africa at Cape Agulhas where it meets the Atlantic) to Tasmania (where it meets the Pacific), and from Asia to Antarctica.

Historically, the region has played a prominent commercial role in East-West trade since early times. For the colonial powers, particularly the United Kingdom and France, in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and the nineteenth century until the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869, the islands of the Indian Ocean provided trading posts and refueling locations en route to their colonies in the East. More recently, the Indian Ocean was a focal point of East-West tension because it served as a route through which much oil from the Persian Gulf states passed in shipment to markets elsewhere.

By the mid-1990s, as a result of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the growing participation in international affairs of a number of Indian Ocean littoral states, such as India and South Africa, the balance of power and external influences in the region had altered markedly. In addition, the island nations that constitute the subject of this volume--Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoros, Seychelles, and Maldives--have experienced a growth in democratic institutions and economic development that has changed their relationships to outside powers. For example, the island states have tended to follow a nonaligned policy in their foreign relations and, reflecting their lack of defense capabilities, have sought to promote the Indian Ocean Zone of Peace, in which they include littoral states.

Despite their unique aspects, these island nations have certain features in common. For example, all have been colonies or protectorates of either the United Kingdom or France. All have gained their independence since 1965 (1960 in the case of Madagascar) and have been inclined (with the possible exception of Comoros) to institute rule based on the dominance of executive leadership, specifically based on the personality of one man. This has been true even though in several instances such rule may be under the guise of socialism. Those islands that adopted socialism are now moving toward greater privatization and a free-market system.

Traditionally, agriculture has been the economic basis of all these nations despite the limited land area available for this pursuit. As of the early 1990s, however, the nations were seeking to diversify their economies, stressing fisheries development, tourism, the establishment of export processing zones (EPZs) where raw materials are processed and textiles manufactured, and industrial development, or the creation of international commercial centers. Of these island states, only Madagascar has significant mineral and energy resources, although offshore exploration is taking place near several of the islands.

These island countries consist of multiethnic societies, often with several religious faiths, but some are more homogeneous than others. Notwithstanding this ethnic diversity, in a number of the countries human rights have tended to be limited, particularly with respect to the rights of women, workers, and opposition elements. As democratic institutions are strengthened and public opinion makes itself felt, most of the states are making progress in this regard.


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, Madagascar was administered first by the Vichy government and then in 1942 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.

SOURCES: Country Studies/Area Handbook by the US Library of Congress, U.S. Department of State

Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > Madagascar > Map Economy History