Madagascar - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


AD 0 Approximate date for the first significant settlement of the island. (Recent evidence suggests there may have been some human habitation as far back as BC 2500.)
800–900 Dates of the first identifiable village sites in the north of the island. Penetration of the interior begins in the south.
1200 Establishment of Arab settlements. First mosques built.
1500 ‘Discovery’ of Madagascar by the Portuguese Diego Dias. Unsuccessful attempts to establish permanent European bases on the island followed.
1650s Emergence of Sakalava kingdoms.
Early 1700s           Eastern Madagascar is increasingly used as a base by pirates.
1716 Fénérive captured by Ratsimilaho. The beginnings of the Betsimisaraka confederacy.
1750 Death of Ratsimilaho.
1787 The future Andrianampoinimerina declared King of Ambohimanga.

Andrianampoinimerina established his capital at Antananarivo.

1810–28 Reign of Radama I, Merina king.

First mission school opened in Tamatave (Toamasina).

1820 First mission school opened in Antananarivo.
1828–61 Reign of Ranavalona I, Merina queen.

Publication of the Bible in Malagasy, but profession of the Christian faith declared illegal.

1836 Most Europeans and missionaries leave the island.
1861–63 Reign of Radama II, Merina king.
1861 Missionaries re-admitted. Freedom of religion proclaimed.
1863–68 Queen Rasoherina succeeds after Radama II assassinated.
1868–83 Reign of Queen Ranavalona II.
1883  Coronation of Queen Ranavalona III.
1883–85 Franco-Malagasy War.
1895 Establishment of full French protectorate; Madagascar became a full colony the following year.
1897 Ranavalona III exiled first to Réunion and later to Algiers. Merina monarchy abolished.
1917 Death of Ranavalona III in exile.
1942 British troops occupy Madagascar.
1946 Madagascar becomes an Overseas Territory of France.
1947 Nationalist rebellion suppressed with thousands killed.
1958 Autonomy achieved within the French community.
1960  June 26. Madagascar achieves full independence with Philibert Tsiranana as president, following conservative, pro-French, anti-Communist policies.
1972 Tsiranana dissolves parliament and hands power to General Ramanantsoa who ends France’s special position and establishes relations with Communist countries.
1975  Lieutenant-Commander Didier Ratsiraka is named head of state after a coup. The country is renamed the Democratic Republic of Madagascar and Ratsiraka is elected president for a seven-year term. 
1976  Ratsiraka nationalises large parts of the economy and forms the AREMA party. 
1980 The economy collapses and the IMF is called in. A market economy is gradually introduced. 
1991  Demonstrations and strikes. Ratsiraka orders security forces to open fire on the crowds outside the presidential palace demanding his resignation. About 130 people are killed.
1992 Under pressure of demonstrations, Ratsiraka introduces democratic reforms replacing the socialist system, but is forced to resign.
1993  Albert Zafy elected president under a new parliamentary constitution. The birth of the Third Republic.
1996 Albert Zafy impeached. 
1997  Didier Ratsiraka re-elected president.
2000  December. AREMA wins in most of the cities, apart from Antananarivo, in provincial elections. 70% of voters boycott the elections. 
2001  May. Senate reopens after 29 years, completing the government framework provided for in the 1992 constitution.
2001  December. First round of presidential elections. Marc Ravalomanana claims the election was rigged and refuses to take part in a run-off. This leads to six months of turmoil with two parallel governments.
2002  July. La Crise Politique ends and Marc Ravalomanana becomes president. 
2003  At the 5th World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa, President Ravalomanana announces his intention to triple the protected areas of Madagascar by 2008.
2006 December. Marc Ravalomanana wins a second term in office. He announces the Madagascar Action Plan (MAP).
2009  March. Marc Ravalomanana toppled from power in a coup. Andry Rajoelina appoints himself President of the ‘High Transitional Authority’.

Andry Rajoelina announces plans to hold elections, but repeatedly stalls the process and finds excuses to delay the date of proposed elections each time it approaches.


Presidential elections finally go ahead after years of stalling.

2014 Former Minister of Finance Hery Rajaonarimampianina becomes president.

Natural history

Isolated for 65 million years, Madagascar is the oldest island on earth. As a result its natural history is unique. There are over 200,000 species on the island, living in habitats ranging from rainforests to deserts and from mountain tops to mangrove swamps. The residents are as unique as they are diverse – a list of Malagasy species reads like a hurried appendix tagged on to the end of a catalogue of the world’s wildlife. Eight whole plant families exist only on Madagascar, as do more than a thousand orchid species, many thousands of succulents, countless insects, hundreds of species of frog, around 420 kinds of reptile, five families of birds and 220 different terrestrial mammals, including an entire branch of the primate family tree, the order to which we ourselves belong.

Boophis frog Madagascar Africa by Daniel AustinBoophis frog © Daniel Austin

This magnificent menagerie is the product of a spectacular geological past. About 167 million years ago Madagascar was a land-locked plateau at the centre of the largest continent the Earth has ever seen: Gondwana. This was during the age of the reptiles at about the time when flowering plants were beginning to blossom and primitive mammals and birds were finding a niche among their giant dinosaur cohabitants. With a combination of sea-level rises and plate movements Gondwana subsequently broke apart. Madagascar, still attached to present-day India, drifted away from Africa. Then, around the time of the mass dinosaur extinction, Madagascar broke completely free, setting itself adrift as one of the earth’s great experiments in evolution.

Some of the plants and animals present on the island today are the results of adaptation from the original, marooned Gondwana stock. Ancient groups such as the ferns, cycads, palms and screw pines, and primitive reptiles such as the boas and iguanids, are descendants of this relic community. Yet the magic of Madagascar is that a select band of species has enriched the community by arriving since the break-up. Flying, swimming, journeying as seeds or riding the floodwaters of the east African rivers in hollow trunks, wave after wave of more recent plants and animals came from over the horizon during a period of 100 million years, bringing with them the latest adaptations from the big world beyond. Colonisers, such as the lemurs and carnivores, may have had a helping hand from a partial land-bridge which is thought to have appeared from beneath the waves of the Mozambique Channel about 40 million years ago.

Yet, whatever their mode of transport, upon landfall each species spread outwards in every direction, through the tremendous range of habitats, changing subtly as they encountered new environments, frequently to the extent that new species were formed. This evolutionary process is termed ‘adaptive radiation’ and it results in the creation of an array of new species found nowhere else.

The patterns in the island’s diversity tell us something of the timing of these colonisations. A large number of unique succulent plants indicates an early arrival from Africa in the dry west, followed by a radiation eastwards ending in the rainforests. On the other hand, the two Malagasy pitcher plants found in the east probably arrived at about the same time as people, and from the same direction.

From this great evolutionary melting pot has emerged the bewildering array of animals and plants that bless Madagascar today; most are unique to the island and countless still await discovery.

In recognition of its massive wealth of endemic flora and fauna, Madagascar has been designated a Biodiversity Hotspot by Conservation International – and as hotspots go, Madagascar is considered one of the hottest. Biodiversity Hotspots cover less than 1% of the earth’s surface, yet are home to well over half of its plant and animal species. Although it is not entirely understood why Madagascar has so many species, two factors have helped: it is near to the Equator and it contains an astonishing array of habitats. The tropical climate is a perfect host to the processes of life – far more living things survive within the tropics than in cooler regions – and the habitat variety provides greater opportunity for animal and plant variation.

People and culture

The consensus is that the first people arrived in Madagascar some 1,500–2,000 years ago (although one recent archaeological study found evidence supporting a possible human presence around 4,000 years ago). This is quite remarkable when you consider that modern man is thought to have originated just across the water in West Africa nearly a quarter of a million years previously and to have spread across all continents by ten millennia ago.

Tea picker Sahambavy Madagascar Africa by Daniel AustinTea picker, Sahambavy © Daniel Austin

What is more surprising still is that the Malagasy people’s origins are believed to be in Indonesia. Could it really be that the first settlers arrived not from the west across the 420km-wide Mozambique Channel but from the east across 7,300km of ocean? The idea seems preposterous yet the evidence overwhelmingly supports it. 

Researchers have only recently developed the tools to analyse historical migrations through genetics. A fascinating paper based on studies of mitochondrial DNA and published in 2012 showed that the most likely scenario was that Madagascar was founded 1,200 years ago by a group of southeast Asians that included approximately 30 women. This backed up the findings of a linguistic study the year before that had looked at variations in speaking across the island and concluded that the earliest dialect was that spoken around Farafangana on the southeast coast some 1,350 years ago. The location of the landing site lends more weight to the theory that the colonisers came across the Indian Ocean rather than from the African direction.

Later arrivals, mainly on the east coast, from Arabia and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean, were also absorbed into the Malagasy-speaking population, while leaving their mark in certain local customs clearly derived from Islam. The two-continent origin of the Malagasy is easily observed, from the highland tribes who most resemble Indonesians, to the African type characterised by the Bara or Makoa in the south. In between are the elements of both races which make the Malagasy so varied and attractive in appearance. Thus there is racial diversity yet considerable cultural uniformity.

Beliefs and customs

The Afro-Asian origin of the Malagasy has produced a people with complicated and fascinating beliefs and customs. Despite the various tribes or clans, the country shares not only a common language but a belief in the power of dead ancestors – razana. This cult of the dead, far from being a morbid preoccupation, is a celebration of life since the dead ancestors are considered to be potent forces that continue to share in family life. If the razana are remembered by the living, the Malagasy believe, they thrive in the spirit world and can be relied on to look after their descendants in a host of different ways. These ancestors wield considerable power, their ‘wishes’ dictating the behaviour of the family or community. Their property is respected, so a great-grandfather’s field may not be sold or changed to a different crop. Calamities are usually blamed on the anger of razana, and a zebu bull may be sacrificed in appeasement. Large herds of zebu cattle are kept as a ‘bank’ of potential sacrificial offerings.

Belief in tradition, in the accumulated wisdom of the ancestors, has shaped the Malagasy culture. Respect for their elders and courtesy to all fellow humans is part of the tradition. But so is resistance to change.

Ethnic groups

The different clans of Madagascar are based more upon old kingdoms than upon ethnic grouping. The groups may differ but a Malagasy proverb shows their feeling of unity: Ny olombelona toy ny molo-bilany, ka iray mihodidina ihany; ‘Men are like the lip of the cooking pot which forms just one circle’. There are traditionally said to be 18 ethnic groups but some subgroups, such as the Vezo and Zafimaniry (officially belonging to the Sakalava and Betsileo respectively) are often treated as distinct groups.

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