Pirates, Slavery and Kings in Madagascar: Interview With Pier Larson
Pier Larson is a professor of African history at Johns Hopkins University, with teaching specializations in east and southern Africa, slavery and the slave trades, and early modern European empire. His research focuses on Madagascar and the western Indian Ocean with an emphasis on cultural and intellectual history in the early modern period, up to 1850. Larson grew up in Madagascar, so his connection there is personal. His most recent book, Ocean of Letters (Cambridge University Press), is a study of imperialism, language and creolization in the largest African diaspora of the Indian Ocean in the early modern period. The book sheds new light on the roles of slavery, emancipation, oceanic travel, Christian missions and colonial linguistics in the making of Malagasy. Before traveling to do research for Hip Deep in Madagascar, Banning Eyre spoke with Professor Larson. Here is their conversation.
Banning Eyre: So to start off, introduce yourself and tell us about your past in Madagascar and why you decided to study it.
Pier Larson: My name is Pier Larson, and I arrived in Madagascar at age… I guess I was less than a year. I was nine months old. My parents took me to Madagascar. They were on their way to be teachers in a school in southeast Madagascar. I spent my first 18 years in southeast Madagascar in the town of Fort Dauphin, or Fort Dolphins as we used to call it in English. The Malagasy term for the town is Tôlan Pieraro, and there we spent a lot of time running around, swimming in the Indian Ocean and climbing the mountains and had a wonderful time as a child.
Why were your parents there? What brought your father there?
It was a job as the principal of an American school in Madagascar. It had begun as a school for missionary children, then extended into an international school with an American curriculum. So there were children of diplomats and U.N. personnel and alike who came to the school. So it was a real mix of children.
Madagascar must have grabbed you from the start, because you didn’t let go.
No, I didn’t. Madagascar has a way of keeping a hold of you, and it certainly captured my imagination as a college student because as I began to reflect on my childhood I had realized that I had lived in Madagascar but I didn’t know that much about it. I suppose there’s often that revelation in children about where they grew up. So I decided I better make my experience into something useful and study Malagasy history. And of course then I had the advantage of knowing the Malagasy language, and that helped a great deal.
You learned it when you were young.
I did, yes. We learned both French and Malagasy. My Malagasy as a child was a spoken Malagasy, so as graduate student I did have to put some time into vocabulary and grammar to learn better. There also are regional dialects in Madagascar. So that area that I was going to study was the central highlands of Madagascar and I had grown up on the southeast coast and there are some differences in language that I had to learn—differences in vocabulary, a bit, and also in pronunciation of words. So that took some adjusting, but it didn’t take too long.
As a graduate student, you made the central highlands the focus of your study. Why did you pick that area?
I chose the highlands in part because when you are a graduate student, there is a tendency to want to study the thing that you’re most interested in. But often the thing that you’re most interested in does not have sufficient documentation. So as a historian I was looking at Madagascar, I certainly wanted to study the area where I grew up, but the area that had the most documentation in terms of archives for the 19th century was highland Madagascar, the region around Antananarivo. So, as a very pragmatic decision, I determined that I would have to go and study that particular region, as it would be the most practical since I was interested in the 19th century.
And is that what led to your book, History and Memory in the Age of Enslavement?
It did yes. That book came out of both archival research and the study of compilations of oral traditions from the region around Antananarivo during the 19th century. There were several different kinds of information that I dug through and excavated in order to write that book.
Sure. I was in Madagascar during the ’70s and growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. And I came to the U.S. in 1980, giving away my age, to start college. I received my Ph.D. in 1992 and I was teaching at Penn State University in Pennsylvania, not so far from Baltimore where Johns Hopkins is. I arrived in Baltimore in 1998, so I’ve been teaching at Johns Hopkins now for 15 years.
Let’s dive into the history here, starting with the earliest human inhabitants, as best we know. I understand that this is something of a moving target these days, but maybe you can talk about what we know from different sources: archeology, documentation, linguistics, genetics. I’m sure they all contribute in some way.
They do, particularly archeology, linguistics, and genetics. We don’t have documentation for the earliest settlers of Madagascar. Written documents we find more from the 18th century or so. We have relatively few documents that date from earlier. But the earliest inhabitants of Madagascar we know in general came from east Africa and southeast Asia. Who arrived first in Madagascar is a bit difficult to know. I don’t think we have an answer to that question yet. Historians and archeologists thought that the earliest inhabitants in Madagascar stretched back no more than 1700-2000 years or so. But recently there have been some archeological findings suggesting that there have been people in the island for a significant amount of time before that. The difficulty really is in knowing who came at what time since there were people coming from two different directions in the Indian Ocean. The peopling of Madagascar is the result of two different dispersions, that of the Austronesian-speaking people and that of Bantu-speaking people from East Africa and they met in Madagascar.
I understand there is some speculation regarding the route that the people from Southeast Asia might have taken. I also gather that their presence in Madagascar is unique. We don’t find this population in the surrounding islands or the East African coast. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Sure. There are two theories about how Southeast Asians arrived in Madagascar. They may well have come across the prevailing trade routes of the Indian Ocean so that probably would have been across the Bay of Bengal and coasting around the southern tip of south Asia of the Indian subcontinent and cross to the southern Arabia and the Horn of Africa and down of what’s now Kenya and now Tanzania and the Comoros Islands to Madagascar. That was the prevailing direction of trade along the rim of the Indian Ocean. There also is a theory that perhaps they may have sailed directly from Indonesia to Madagascar. That’s probably a little less likely. Its quite likely perhaps individual ships had done that but probably on the whole it would be more likely that Indonesians would have said along the prevailing sailing routes and trade routes of the Indian Ocean.
And is that because it would be so difficult, given the kinds of vessels that we think they had at that time, to actually cross that much ocean?
The Southeast Asians, the Austronesian speakers did have the technology and the ability on their ships to travel long distance across the open ocean. The problem was that there weren’t likely people with the experience of how you would sail directly from the East Asian islands to Madagascar, and this is why the trade routes are more likely.
But Austronesian speakers in the Pacific, for example, set sail across vast distances from island to island so they certainly were capable to doing that. I think that it comes down more to probabilities.
All right. And what about the question of their uniqueness of their presence in Madagascar?
Well in Madagascar, Southeast Asians came and populated the island and remained there. There were no indigenous inhabitants of Madagascar prior to the arrival of Southeast Asians and Africans. And what’s unique about Southeast Asians in Madagascar is that their language came to predominate as the language of Madagascar. So the language has many loan words from the Bantu languages of East Africa, which is one of the reasons that we know that East Africans were an important element of the population in Madagascar. It tends to be the Austronesian element that received more attention, perhaps because they’re farther away and perhaps because the languages that Malagasies speak today is an Austronesian language. But the genetic studies of Madagascar do suggest that the population of the island came in relatively equal numbers, both from Indonesia and Africa.
And what do we make of the fact that you don’t find that Austronesian presence on the surround islands or the coast of East Africa?
Well, that would be one of the arguments for the Indonesians not taking the prevailing trade routes. For example, in the languages of the East African coast, Swahili for example, are Mijikenda languages. There do not appear to be lexical elements, that is vocabulary from Austronesian languages that one might expect if, say, these Austronesian speakers had actually put up on the East African coast, or married there, or placed settlements there. But it could be they were doing a hop, skip and a jump and ended up in Madagascar, which didn’t have previous population whereas other places were likely populated with Africans by that time. It’s a bit hard to know. This is the mystery of Malagasy history. There is significantly more work needed in archeology, linguistics and genetics. We know who came and some of the timing, but we won’t know many of the details until we have a lot more scholars working on this issue.
But you do feel there is a lot more that can be learned. I spoke with this one archeologist and she told me about new evidence found last year that suggests a much older presence of hunter-gatherers. I think it was in the north.
She said these findings could be 5,000 years old. But maybe you can confirm this: the thinking that people had only been present for 1500-2000 years was because that’s where we find evidence of actual settlements. Is that correct?
That’s correct. Yes.
How unusual is it, if you look at world history, that you would have such a large piece of territory that has such a relatively brief presence of human beings?
Well, I would think it’s fairly unusual to have a large island like Madagascar, which is the fourth-largest island in the world, have no population before 1500-2000 years ago. So I’m frankly not surprised that there has been found evidence of humans in Madagascar at an earlier period and ones who were probably hunters and gathers. We know that for most of our existence as humans we have been hunters and gathers so it’s not surprising. The question is who were these people and where did they come from? That of course the archeological site has not been able to tell us as of yet.
Fascinating. In the meantime, maybe you can give us a brief tour through the groups we do know who came in the period of known history. If we imagine that there are starting to be settlements something like 1500 years ago with a mix of Austronesian and Bantu-East African people, what happens between then and now? In brief.
Well, the major populations of Madagascar were on the island at the time the Europeans arrived in the Indian Ocean at the end of the 15th century, so most of the people in Madagascar are descendants of people who had been there for quite some time. Since then there have been immigrants to Madagascar from South Asians, Indians and some from the Comoros Islands that lie between Madagascar and East Africa, also some East African, and certainly a great deal of Europeans over the years. Some came as pirates, English pirates and later many French people part of the presence of the French empire in the Indian Ocean.
What about Arabs?
Certainly, yes. There are also Arab immigrants to Madagascar. Some of them settled along the east coast of Madagascar. Probably not long before the arrival of Europeans in the Indian Ocean, and others in the northwest part of the coast of Madagascar due to trade in the Indian Ocean. Arab navigators were famous in the Indian Ocean.
But you say that all of these populations since the end of the 15th century are a relatively minor part of the total that we have today which maybe gives a number as compare to the people who were there before.
That’s correct, yes.
So the total population of Madagascar today is about what?
The population today is around 20 million, I believe. I think it’s a bit more than 20 million. I don’t have the exact figure. A census is done from time to time, but its relatively difficult to do a census in a country like Madagascar where the government is not strong and people live out in the countryside where often they can’t be counted. So those counts are somewhat approximate.
I gather that the population has increased quite dramatically in recent decades. Someone told me that not that long ago, it was only about half or maybe two-thirds of what it is today.
That’s correct. Madagascar, like other parts of the developing world, and particularly Africa, which is close, have a very high population growth rate, which means that both the population is increasing dramatically and that a very large proportions of the population are youth—people under 20 years old, which brings a real dynamism to the society with youth bouncing off the walls and coming up with different kinds of ideas and various kinds of music, which will be the subject of your program.
Yes, you’re right that this dynamic dramatically affects music and it will be very interesting to see how that’s playing out. Let’s talk a little bit about the ethnicities of Madagascar. It’s an interesting, paradoxical situation because as you say you have more or less one language—different dialects, but pretty much one language. I wonder if there’s a link between that linguistic uniformity and the relatively short history. Maybe there has not been that much time for language to differentiate. For example, on the African continent we have all these very distinctly different language as you move geographically. That’s an effect of a longer human history, perhaps. Here, you have this generally mixed population that goes back only 1500-2000 years, and they’re all speaking one language. And yet you do have these distinct ethnicities. How should we think about these ethnicities?
Scholars think about language in Madagascar and other places in two different ways. There are the “lumpers,” those who see variations in language as variations around a common theme. These would be the people who would say that Madagascar has a single language. And then there are the “splitters,” who say there are such differences among the dialects in Madagascar that they begin to amount to different languages. And frankly, you will hear scholars taking both of these lines about Malagasy and their language. I tend to be more of a lumper, but it is important to realize that if you take very different places in Madagascar and you put people together for the first time, they may have some difficulty understanding each other. However, Malagasy are people who move about the island a great deal and they’re used to hearing each other speak. In that respect, the dialects are close enough, and generally we speak about one Malagasy language. There’s certainly only one standard written language in Madagascar sometimes called standard Malagasy, but that’s based upon the dialect of Antananarivo.
As for the ethnicities, ethnic groups tend to wax and wane over time. During the colonial era, the French decided there were exactly 18 ethnic groups in Madagascar and if you went about the island and asked people how many ethnic groups there are—which would be a very interesting question to ask—you will get different answers to that questions. So the ethnic groups of Madagascar are often a matter of perceptions that can change over time. Certainly we’ve seen the names of these groups change over time. That includes the people of Highland, Madagascar who today are commonly known as the Merina people, but the term Merina is a pretty 20th century term. We early don’t find the term as an ethnonym, a name for an ethnic group in Madagascar, before the 20th century. I work with documents, archives, relating to Madagascar and a kingdom in Madagascar during the 19th century, but that term does not appear in them at all as an ethnic name.
It is a part of the name of that famous king, the one who’s name is terrifying long…
That is correct. Andrianampoinimerina.
There you go.
Yes. It is in his name. The region around Antananarivo is called Imerina and it is Imerina that one finds in the king’s name: Andrianampoinimerina, a king in the heart of Imernina. It’s quite clear that the ethnonym “Merina” derives from the region in which the people live which is called Imerina. So the name of the area does not drive from the ethnicity; the ethnic name drives from what you would call the geonym, the name of the territory.
O.K. Interesting. Well, I am interested in the idea that different ethnicities in Madagascar are not clear and fixed. And, again, it goes to the fact of this relatively short human history where things are still in flux, and perhaps we’re witnessing an ongoing process of differentiation.
Yes, its quite possible. In terms of the language it is likely that the language will continue to diversify so that you get different regional variations that over time will become less and less similar. That’s a typical process that you find around the world. So one of the theories is that Malagasy dialects from different parts of the island are similar to each other because people have not been living on the island for that long and so there hasn’t been sufficient time for those dialects to diversify in a fundamental sense.
I also wonder what the role of technology—television, radio and things like that—has in terms in interrupting that process, because people are always hearing broadcasts that come from the capital, or watching entertainment that’s filmed there. Does that slow down the process of differentiation or does it not?
That would be a good question for a linguist. I’m not quite sure about that. National broadcasts, if they are solely in a particular dialect, might have that effect but I think it’s more likely that people around the island understand that dialect fairly well. But there is regional differentiation, and regional ways of speaking probably remain strong and continue. The other development, of course, with media is that media can be localized, and this is certainly more and more the case in Madagascar where local radio stations would have people speaking the linguistic varieties of the particular city. So media can help create a standardized language, but it can also celebrate the speech-ways of people in particular regions. So it can really go in both directions, I think.
All right, lets move to a subject that is closer to your area of expertise, which is slavery and its role in Madagascar. Give us a broad picture: who were the actors, what was the time frame, whats are the legacies of slavery in Madagascar today?
Within Madagascar, there’s both slavery within the island and also a slave trade, historically speaking, departing the island. In fact the two are linked. Typically when individuals are being enslaved in a region for export, for an external slave trade, some of them are retained in that region as captives. This certainly was the case in African history where external slave trades are linked to slavery within the continent. In Madagascar, the external slave trades have also been linked to slavery within the island itself. In the 15th, 16th, 17th centuries, we know that there was a slave trade out of Madagascar up the East African coast. This was fairly well documented by Portuguese in the Indian Ocean, the first Europeans in that region, and this has been the subject of some interesting research. More recently, Malagasy captives have been taken to South Africa, and to the French Mascarene Islands—that is, the plantation islands now La Reunion and Mauritius. At the time, these were called Isle de France and Île Bourbon, so those were European colonies east of Madagascar.
These are the Mascarenes.
Yes. And so there were Malagasy trades up the East African coast to southern Africa, the Cape Town region. About a quarter of the slaves at the Cape during the 18th and 19th centuries were Malagasy and there actually were Malagasy-speaking communities in Cape Town as there were in the Mascarene Islands. Within Madagascar, there were also slaves. So it tended to be regions where there were large political formations or kingdoms where there tended to be slaves concentrated. Early on, those were regions such as the Sakalava in western Madagascar and Betsimisaraka in the east. And then during the 19th century, we get the kingdom of Madagascar, sometimes called the Merina kingdom—although that’s an anachronism for the 19th century. I sometimes call it the kingdom of Antananarivo, because that was its capital. It tended to concentrate its slaves in and around Antananarivo, the capital city during the 19th century.
O.K, let’s just talk about that period for a minute. These captives in the kingdom of Antananarivo where are they coming from? One ethnomusicologist I spoke with talked about slaves being taken from Africa, from Mozambique, and brought to Madagascar.
Correct. There was a slave trade in both directions across the Mozambique Channel, on the basic principle that a captive became more valuable as a slave the further they are taken away from their homes and their point of capture. So Malagasy were taken as slaves up the East African coast, and East African captives were traded to Madagascar during the 19th century in quite significant numbers. In Madagascar they were called Mozambican typically. They were not necessarily from what we know now as Mozambique, although some of them were. Other captives from within Madagascar itself during the 19th century came into the Antananarivo region, many of them probably from south of Antananarivo, particularly from the heavily populated Betsileo regions around the city of Fianaratsoa in Madagascar today. Some also came from the southeast coast of Madagascar, which is heavily populated and resisted the expansion of the empire of Antananarivo. As a result, this region lost a number of wars and had men, women, and children taken captive and marched to Antananarivo. So those were the major sources of captives in the 19th century for the Antananarivo region.
That’s an interesting point about slaves’ value being increased depending on how far they’re taken, and that leads to another question I have. I understand that at least a few slaves from Madagascar actually made it to the United States. We are going to talk at some point with Wendy Wilson Fall, who has researched this. But what do we know about the numbers? When the came? Where they went? And what became of them?
Well, the numbers of Malagasy who were taken as slaves into the Atlantic region, the western Atlantic and the Americas generally is somewhere upward of 12,000, so it’s not a great number. And the numbers coming into what became the United States, into the Chesapeake Bay region were probably only a couple thousand. My colleague Wendy Wilson Fall will have details on that, because she has studied this and has made it known to other scholars. But there is a significant number of African-Americans today, especially in the state of Virginia who do trace their origins to Madagascar, and professor Wilson Fall happens to be one of those. These stories run in her family. So the numbers were not large, but the impact in the United States seems to be greater than those numbers would suggest.
Fascinating. And this is known, not just through genetic analysis, but actual family lore? There’s an awareness passed down so that descendants have grown up actually knowing about this origin. They didn’t need DNA testing to learn about it.
That’s correct yes. It’s a case of oral family traditions matching up with documentation, indicating that some Malagasy slaves were brought up into the Chesapeake Bay.
Well, I look forward to getting into this more with Wendy, but I wonder if this connects with our earlier discussion about the uniformity of the Malagasy language. In one of your books, you note that Malagasy slaves had a unique experience because they were one of the largest groups who all spoke one language. That might account for the surviving memory throughout the whole ordeal of slavery in America. Maybe there was more of a sense of cultural coherence and memory through the shared language. Does that make any sense?
That could very well be. I think also that Malagasy people found themselves just extremely different from everyone else, because their language was so different from the languages spoken by the other captives, mainly coming from West African. And that may have helped them to preserve their traditions of being quite distinct.
Before we leave the subject of slavery, are there other things we should talk about regarding how that legacy plays out in Madagascar today? Is this history remembered; is it something that people talk about? Is it something groups identify with one way or another?
Ah, yes. Well, slavery is absolutely fundamental to understanding the society of the region around Antananarivo today, and perhaps more broadly Malagasy society and certainly Malagasy politics. This is very similar to the impact of slavery in other parts of the world, whether it be in parts of Africa or in the Americas. Slavery is both a taboo subject because one does not speak about it openly in public, but it also is a topic that is a frequent topic of discussion within the family and behind closed doors, because there is a very significant percentage of the population of central Madagascar that is from slave origin and these are people who are often discriminated against. Sometimes they are felt to be darker in skin color. They tend to be some of the poorer people of the region. And certainly people, particularly in highland Madagascar, are very attentive to people’s origins, and to skin colors and hair types. These are topics of conversation, not public. In fact, it’s illegal in Malagasy law to be talking about slavery publicly, or to name peoples’ origins as having been in slavery.
Really? When did that law come about?
Well it really it’s both customary and, I believe, also a national law that I think dates back to the ’80s or so—sometime after 1972.
That’s very interesting. They actually put that into law. And how does that get worded? Is it that you can’t identify an individual in terms of slavery, or that you can’t talk about it at all?
Well, especially not identifying people’s origins as having been in slavery. It would be something that they would have to self-identify as, but in Madagascar, origins in slavery are not something that people are typically proud of or would take pride in. It’s mainly a slur in Madagascar.
Slavery was eventually abolished in Madagascar, and there is an interesting back and forth that happens during the time of the Antananarivo kingdom. There are influential outsiders, particularly English, who try to end it, but there is also resistance on all sides of the equation. Abolition doesn’t happen in one fell swoop. It’s more a question of trickling off. But I have a question about the beginning of the practice. Was it just always there from the start of organized civilization, or can we point to a time when it began? Was it something introduced by Europeans?
No. Slavery would have existed before Europeans arrived in Madagascar. That’s definitely the case. We know that there was a slave trade out of Madagascar up along the Swahili coast that was fairly active when the Portuguese arrived in the Indian Ocean. So enslavement and an export trade all predate European arrival. It would have been tied into the wider Indian Ocean themes of trade over the last 2000 years or so. But it also would have been approximately the time frame when Madagascar was integrated into the circuits of Indian Ocean trade.
O.K. But it was certain Europeans, maybe Christian missionaries in the 19th century, who introduced the idea that slavery was bad, something that should be stopped. I understand that they tried to use financial and other inducements to get Merina rulers to stop the practice. Maybe this leads to the idea that you shouldn’t talk about peoples’ slave origins.
Well, that’s a pretty big sweep. Certainly abolition movements were European in origin, but this of course is after Europe is involved in the largest slave trade that we know about, which is the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in which some Malagasy were also taken as captives. Politics in Madagascar, particularly since the French colonial period beginning in the late 19th century, were really organized to some extent around the politics of slavery. Because the French allied themselves during the course of the 19th century with the people from the coastal areas of Madagascar, who were opposed to the empire of Antananarivo, which was originating from the center of the island. Most of the captives taken to the Antananarivo region were also taken from the coasts. And so French power always allied itself strongly with the coastal regions against the kingdom of Antananarivo, which is what the French sought to defeat, and they did so successfully in 1895.
They subsequently abolished slavery in Madagascar in a way that was different from the French African territories. It was simply an abolition of slavery, and a lot of slaves simply picked up and left their masters as they did in other parts of the world when slavery was abolished. Others stayed, however. But in Madagascar’s politics today, it is quite frequent that politicians from coastal regions remind politicians from highland Madagascar that their forefathers were slave owners as a way of challenging them on the political scene. So one finds that kind of a dynamic in Madagascar, and it’s probably for those reasons that laws have been passed to try and limit the speech about slavery, because often it comes up in a fairly ugly context.
Well, slavery is a tricky subject, but it’s fascinating to see how it unfolds in different places. I have one more question about the terminology of slavery in Madagascar. Can you explain these terms: andriano, hove and andevo?
In the context of highland Madagascar, these are the three terms for the major social categories of people around the Antananarivo region. Most people are hove [OOve], as they would say in highland Madagascar. These are free people, commoners in a sense. Andevo is a term used for slaves who became a significant minority of the population. And the andriano are the functional equivalent of royalty in European history. The rulers of Madagascar were drawn from the andriano. In fact the term for a king of a queen is the andria or the andriamanzak. So the andriano, hove and andevo were the main social categories during the 19th century and probably earlier and also have lasted into the 20th and 21st centuries.
So people still use these terms? Are they still thinking these terms to some degree?
Yes, they do. Most highland Malagasy will tell you whether they are andriano or hove although we know that a significant part of the population was also andevo. People would not tend to self-identify in that fashion, however. They might say they were hove or just come up with some other categorization of themselves. It’s not polite to ask someone if they are of andevo origin, or if their origins were in slavery. It’s actually something that I’ve never done, and that really isn’t done.
Good to know. Let’s move on to the specifically European legacy in Madagascar. Maybe you could give us an overview of the dynamic between the Malagasy rulers and the French and English interlopers of the 19th century.
Well, in the course of the 19th century, there were a fair number of British missionaries in and around Antananrivo. They had been invited early in the century by the king, a fellow named Radama, who was interested in creating a bureaucracy. He wanted scribes, and in order to have scribes he first tried some people from eastern Madagascar who did know how to write Malagasy with an Arabic alphabet. So he first tried to create a literacy in the Arabic alphabet, but the teachers from the east coast of Madagascar were not interested in having a lot of people share their knowledge of literacy and the Arabic alphabet. So then Radama happened upon British evangelical missionaries of the London Missionary Society, and he invited them up to Antananarivo, where they began to operate a whole system of schools that taught young boys and girls to read write and do arithmetic. And as a a result of the relationship between the London Missionary Society and the king Radama of the expanding empire of Antananarivo, there was a fairly close relationship between Britain and Madagascar during the 19th century. There was a period, following king Radama’s death, when Europeans were not welcome much in the kingdom and the diplomatic relationship was broken off, but later that queen died and the relationship was renewed in the second half of the 19th century, after 1961.
So there’s a pretty close relationship with Britain across the 19th century. That was British aid to and association with the Malagasy in a time of Malagasy independence. But in the high colonial era of Africa, Madagascar was colonized by France in the late 19th century, and then France became the colonial power with much immigration to Madagascar and much French cultural influence. So today in Madagascar, probably the French cultural influence is the strongest, but there are still elements of the 19th century association with Britain.
I read in Mervyn Brown’s classic book, Madagascar Rediscovered, that there was some debate among Malagasy authorities about how wise it was to be giving so much license to these foreigners, letting them operate so freely in the country. There was a sense that if the Malagasy ruler could be friendly with both the French and the English, that they would be able to play them off each other and neither would get the upper hand. But then, the French came out on top in the context of the Scramble for Africa. The British decided to focus elsewhere and this gave the French an unobstructed path to taking over the country. How would you describe what happened?
That’s essentially correct. There were a series of tensions during the late 19th century between the empire of Antananarivo and France. There was a war between 1883 and 1885, and tensions were never really resolved until the French finally invaded in 1895. At that time, Britain had never really developed strong plans for colonizing Madagascar, so they worked out a deal with the French whereby the French would recognize the British protectorate of, and then the colonization of Zanzibar, and Britain in turn would recognize that France would colonize Madagascar. This was kind of a side deal between the two imperial powers in the era of the Scramble for Africa. France then became the colonial power in Madagascar, and in the context of East Africa, this became really the only Francophone holding. You have the Francophone islands of the western Indian Ocean, but they sit in a kind of zone of British influence, which the Indian Ocean certainly was after the Napoleonic wars, especially in the 20th century.
So you have to sympathize with the plight of those Malagasy rulers trying to figure out how to get the edge on the French and the English in that context. They were up against a lot.
It was tough in the late 19th century, because the imbalance in weaponry was such that a fight against the Europeans was a losing battle. The army of the empire of Antananarivo did have 30,000 or more soldiers, and they were armed, but they were armed with rifles that were not particularly good, and they did not have significant artillery. So they really were bound to lose as most African armies did against invading Europeans.
Our three programs are going to be organized somewhat geographically. So I’d like you to give us a brief historian’s overview of the three zones. We’ve been talking about the central highlands, around Antananarivo, so let’s begin there.
Well, this one of the very densely populated pars of Madagascar. People historically were rice farmers and cattle keepers, what anthropologists historically called agro-pastoralists. Both farming and herding cattle are very important in Madagascar. These are people who have a consciousness of having been a kingdom prior to the French conquest of Madagascar. And then they were people who were surrounding the colonial capital, which had been the capital of the empire of Antananarivo. So they were people who were close to the colonial power, and who were often the best beneficiaries of the best education and who came to a significant extent to prevail in the colonial civil service that gave them a political foothold in independent Madagascar. And these are people who have a pretty wide outlook onto the world, as most Malagasy people do. Even though they were landlocked, they had had many visitors for quite some time both from Europe, particularly Britain and France, but also other visitors from Europe and from other parts of the world, such as south Asians and Arabs who did come from time to time to Antananarivo and its region, whether on trading business, or sometimes on religious missions of various kinds.
O.K. Now by contrast, lets talk about the north. We’re going to visit Diego Suarez. What should we know about this area and the people and culture we might find there?
Well, in the far north, you have Antsiranana, also called Diego Suarez—that was the Portuguese and French term for the city. It lies at the conjunction of several cultural influences. It’s close to the east African coast, so there’s a history of trade and diplomatic interaction between Swahili people of the East African coast and the Comoros. This is a region in which there was the Ankarana kingdom in the 19th century. It was a relatively small kingdom, but had a well-defined set of rituals and a conflictual relationship with Antananarivo during the 19th century. And during the 20th century, when Madagascar was a colony, Ansiranana, Diego Suarez, was a important military base and naval base for the French, so there’s a very strong French influence, particularly a lot of sailors coming in and out of that city. Diego Suarez sits at a kind of cultural crossroads that is particular, and in its own way quite different from Antananarivo.
While we’re in this area, we’ve touched a bit on this subject of piracy, but I’d like to ask you to talk about it in general terms. Piracy is a subtext that runs through a lot of the early history in Madagascar, and I think it’s especially relevant to this region. Who were these pirates? Where did they come from? And why were they so attracted to northern Madagascar as a place to operate?
Well, the history of European pirates around Madagascar is really a history of the late 17th century and the early 18th century. This was a time in which security in the Caribbean, where pirates had been operating, had increased. Many of them actually decamped from the Caribbean to Madagascar. One of the ideas was because European navies did not have much sway in the Indian Ocean, and therefore pirates had the full sweep of the Indian Ocean so to speak. There were a number of forms of commerce operating in the Indian Ocean that they could prey upon–the commerce of Indian merchants, for example, particularly between Arabia and India. Then there were the ships of the various East India Companies that were coming into and out of the Indian Ocean, and they often carried very precious cargos. Many of them were carrying silver, sometimes gold. So this ocean was a place where pirates could operate. There were local pirates from around the Indian Ocean, so the Europeans coming in the late 17th and early 18th century were coming into a region where there were various types of pirates. But there hadn’t been so many around Madagascar so these Caribbean pirates put up around Madagascar, and were able to prey on some of the commerce coming by the island.
A lot of European ships had to pass by relatively close by Madagascar so whether they were taking what was called the inside passage through the Mozambique channel, or the outside passage around the eastern and southern side of Madagascar avoiding the Mozambique channel, ships tended to navigate fairly close to Madagascar. On the other hand, if the pirates went further north, they could intercept trade by indigenous traders around the Indian Ocean, so it was kind of a happy midway station from which they could head out in various directions and prey on the commerce of different kind of ships.
And the pirate ships were small, right? Smaller than they ships they were attacking. I read that because there were so many small harbors in the north of the island, pirate ships had lots of places to hide along that coast once they had made their hit. Pirates could quickly get away and be impossible to find because they knew these little bays very well, and could go places the ships they were attacking could not.
That’s definitely the case. The west coast of Madagascar, as well as the northeast coast, is well provisioned with bays of various kids so it is fairly easy to escape. Also some of those bays have reefs around them, so if they pirates got to know the system of reefs and how to get in and out fairly efficiently, that was a significant deterrent from someone who would potentially pursue them. Now the southeast coast of Madagascar is pretty straight and sandy, so it doesn’t offer much in the way of protection or hiding for pirates. But the northeast coasts and much of the west coast does. It tended to be the northern parts of Madagascar that the pirates operated out of, although some of them did operate out to Fort Dauphin, in the far southeast of Madagascar.
O.K., let’s head down to the south and talk about the Tulear region, another place we’re going to explore musically. What should we know about the history there?
Tulear is both a region that was part of the kingdom of Fiarenana in Madagascar in the 18th and 19th century with a whole series of kings. Many parts of Madagascar have various kingdoms and was also an important region of trade particularly with South Africa. The Bay of St. Augustine, which lies just south of Tulear, was a region in which many Europeans put in seeking provisions: fresh water, fruit, food, of course fresh beef, because there are many cattle in that region. Tulear also sits at a trade crossroads in the Mozambique Channel and so its various international influences stretch back quite some time, and it was also the center of a political kingdom prior to the rise of the empire of Madagascar. And so it’s a region where there are a significant number of influences. There were Norwegian missionaries there in the late 19th century, and of course during the colonization of Madagascar, the significant French population also about the city. So it has some particular influences and like other cities in Madagascar was a place in which there were a lot of people coming in and out and in which there were a lot of interactions. Looking at music, influences from various parts of the world could wash through Tulear.
We visited there 13 years ago. Going inland a little bit from the city, there was a fascinating dynamic of unfolding history going on involving this discovery of precious stones, mostly sapphires It felt like the Wild West with these little mining towns popping up. We were drawn to it because bands from Tulear were going out to play for these miners in these very rough and ready, even militarized situations. Talk about that a little bit.
Well, Madagascar is blessed with a lot of precious stones and fortunately or unfortunately those have been particularly discovered within the last couple decades. So there’s a significant amount of mining, and it’s definitely the case that a lot of these little towns do take on Wild West features with relatively light government presence and people coming from various parts of Madagascar to strike their fortune, as well as rock buyers coming from around the world and it does create quite an interesting mix of people. And of course there’s income washing around in these towns, because people are finding precious stones. There is certainly a demand for entertainment, and I’m not surprised at all that mining towns are avid consumers of music.
It’s an interesting scenario because the musicians who play this very popular music, tsapiky, have traditionally been controlled by producers in Tulear. Bands get farmed out for these events, and its kind of an extension of the funeral business which is their bread-and-butter work. Of course, there’s more money in the mines. People are coming in from the outside and trying to control the industry, and I understand that it’s even more lawless these days, as the government has become weaker and weaker. Let’s talk a little bit about the politics of Madagascar today. How should an outsider understand this succession of standoffs, and the resulting inertia? How does history help us make sense of this?
Probably the easiest frame to think about the politics of Madagascar is in terms of the argument between the centralization of power and on the on hand, and on other hand, greater regional power—basically a play between centralization and federation. Do people want a very strong central government, a federal system of government with fairly strong powers over the various regions, states or provinces of Madagascar? I think that much of Malagasy politics can be understood in that basic frame, and it tends to be the case that people from highland Madagascar on the whole tend to prefer a strong central power. That’s in part because the capital Antananarivo is smack dab in the middle of their province, and therefore, they are likely to have a significant influence over a central government. Whereas politicians from the various coastal regions tend to favor a more federated form of government where there would be stronger powers for their provinces and the regions, more like on the United States model. This tends to be opposed by the people from the center of the island, and much of the politics in Madagascar can be understood within this fairly simple dynamic. A centralized form of government for people from highland Madagascar symbolically resembles the kingdom of Antananarivo in the 19th century.
To a degree, this sounds like a natural regional power struggle, found in American history or in many other national histories. But in Madagascar, does it also have to do with the questions of ethnicity we were talking about earlier? In other words, is this an ethnic thing or just about regional control of resources and power?
I think its much more about regional control of resources and power. But the way of making those claims is to speak ethnically. So one of the claims for people in regions outside of Antananarivo is to say that we have a very distinct language and culture that are not well reflected in a government that is strongly centralized because we have a distinct ethnic history. And so ethnicity becomes a way of staking claims on a power at the regional level. We are the people from this particular region, and therefore we ought to have a fair amount of political control of our region. It’s a fairly well-known dynamic, I would say well beyond Madagascar and well beyond Africa, although one can certainly see that tension between centralization and regionalization in African history.
Sure. It’s the splitters and the lumpers all over again.
One of the musicians we are working with, Hanitra of the group Tarika Bé, ran for parliament in the last election, and lost. But she, and also the anthropologist Margaret Lou Brown, talk about the inordinate power of corporations in Madagascar. In the past 15 years in particular, no one has had firm control over the politics. That gives a lot of room for corporations who are interested in resources—minerals or whatever—to have free rein and manipulate things, even down to the cultural conversation. Professor Brown noted that powerful players promote a narrative that says: The environment is being destroyed because the people are burning the land. But there’s a deeper analysis. Many of those people have been displaced from the land that they used to live on, which is why they don’t have the same attachment to it, and they don’t have the kinds of cultural ties that would make them feel more responsible for the land. She says it is in the interest of corporations and politicians to villainize peasant farmers, to take the heat off their own activities.
Well, politicians and corporations are linked certainly in a situation of stalemate where a party or a president has a weak hold on power and, whereas there might be international sanctions, it is very easy for politicians to have relationships with corporations that can generate income and can provide then with a stream of income by expiating the resources of Madagascar. So I think that the political crisis of Madagascar is closely linked to a fairly free rein of corporations. It’s not entirely free, but there’s a lot of economic activity in Madagascar that’s destroying the forests, and a lot of use of other resources that don’t bring benefit to most of the people. I think the crisis helps create the environment for free rein of corporations whether they be extractive corporations, mining of various kinds—there are some very large companies at the moment who’ve been involved in extraction of things like titanium dioxide and some other minerals. And also there’s a lot of illegal logging money going to politicians of various sorts. A climate of standoff and stalemate is very productive for rogue activities of corporations, unfortunately.
Where do these corporations tend to come from?
They really come from all directions. Many serve markets in the East whether they be in China or other places such as Southeast Asia and also European makers of various kinds. Some of Madagascar’s precious woods are ending up in China for furniture. A rapidly growing middle class and wealthy folks there like things made out of fine woods. And certainly, corporations exploiting minerals also come from the West. Titanium dioxide, which is being mined in southeast Madagascar, is used for making white paint, and one of the very large and growing markets for white paint is China with its rapidly growing economy. And frankly, many African economies are starting to take off now too, so I wouldn’t be surprised it we started to see some African corporations of various kinds coming into Madagascar.
Wow. That’s quite a scenario. The final question I wanted to ask is actually about cultural figures. I mentioned one musician who ran for parliament and another, Rossy, a big pop singer since the ’90s, also ran, and won, in the last election. You have long experience in Madagascar. I’m curious to know your impression of how powerful, influential, or important cultural figures are in the national dialogue there. I don’t just mean musicians, but also writers, actors, poets, whoever it might be. Have any of them risen to a point where they become iconic, larger than life?
I would point to a group of the 1970s, Mahaleo. I believe it was a trio and I think some of the member are still alive…
Yes, Dama Mahaleo, the leader. He is still active.
Mahaleo, the group, is very well known around highland Madagascar and perhaps more broadly for their music making in around 1972, with the fall of the Tsiranana government. There were large demonstrations and protests and they were out there playing for these protests. To my knowledge—and I’m not real strong on contemporary popular culture—but I have no knowledge of any other group rising to that iconic status. Certainly Malagasy love music and they love hearing music, not only from their own region but from other regions of the island, which they are very curious about. So they’re real consumers of music but whether there actually have been musicians that have risen to that kind of iconic status, I don’t really think so.
There’s no Fela Kuti in Madagascar’s history.
I think Mahaleo is probably the only real example that I know of. They really were the Peter, Paul and Mary of Madagascar during the 1970s, when the Malagasy were having their own revolution. This was a real transformation of government from a sort of neocolonial state, really close to the French government, to one that people hoped would be more reflective of local aspirations, and more frankly Malagasy in its composition. Like many revolutions of that age, it didn’t turn out so well in the end. But at the time, Mahaleo really captured the imagination of a generation of people. They were especially popular with university students.
Thank you so much, Pier. This has been a wonderful conversation.
Thank you, and I hope it goes well.