Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world. It is situated in the Indian Ocean off the south eastern coast of Africa. Though Madagascar is separated from Africa by a mere 400 km stretch of the Mozambique Channel, the people, their language, culture and traditions are quite distinct from those of their African neighbours. They share greater ties with Indonesia, 4,800 km away.
The island is comparatively new in human history. Human habitation dates back only 1,300 years. Historians and other academics concur that the Indonesians were the first settlers on the island. However how they came to be there and why is a matter still under dispute.
Afro Arab wanderers settled on the coasts of Madagascar a little before 1000 BCE and the Europeans came 500 years later.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, the island was a peaceful conglomeration of independent kingdoms, ruled either by a king or a group of elders and priests. Each kingdom established their main city by a river. Economic disparity was marginal and territorial disputes were settled swiftly with very little bloodshed.
Marco Polo was the first European to mention the island in his writings. Diogo Dias, a Portuguese navigator was the first European to set foot on the island in 1500. It was named the Isle of St Lawrence. Thereafter the island was subject to a series of plundering European invasions.
In 1642 the French established Fort Dauphin and maintained it till 1674. One of the governors of the Fort, Etienne de Flacourt, provided the first detailed description of the island. In the late 17th century and early 18th century the coasts of Madagascar were plagued by pirates, including the notorious Captain William Kidd.
Ramada I (1810 to 1828) allied himself to the British Governor of Mauritius. In return for complying with the British diktat of abolishing slavery, he received arms and advisors. This helped him to annex the neighbouring kingdoms and he was crowned King of Madagascar. French influence was restricted to the tiny island of Saint Marie.
Ramada I absorbed British culture and adopted Christianity and the Latin script for the Malagasy language. However he died early and his Queen Ranavalona 1 expelled Christian missionaries. She ordered everyone to return to their traditional worship and persecuted those who disobeyed. Her son Ramada II later reversed her policies. After he was overthrown the head of his military became Prime Minister and in 1869 he introduced Protestantism. He suppressed traditional religious practices. He created provinces and ministries styled on Western governance patterns. He introduced laws that combined tradition with European customs such as monogamy. Education was made compulsory and was entrusted to the Christian missionaries.
From 1896, after a series of battles, Madagascar became a French Colony. On October 14, 1958 the autonomous state the Malagasy Republic was born. The capital city is Antananarivo, formerly called Tananarive
The People of Madagascar are called the Malagasy. The official languages are Malagasy and French. Madagascar is called Repoblikani Madagasikara in Malagasy and Republique de Madagascar in French.
The island has been isolated through the ages and has developed a unique flora and fauna. Much of the deciduous and evergreen forests have been destroyed to make land available for rice cultivation. Insatiable demand for wood to feed the fuel and housing needs of the population and the export value of the ebony, rosewood and sandalwood have also been contributing factors to the loss of forest land. Soil erosion is severe.
In the arid south of the island xerophytes (plants adapted to extreme aridity) peculiar to the island are found. These include giant cacti and dwarf baobab trees.
Primates have evolved on the island with little outside interference. Forty species of lemur are found. Madagascar also has unique insectivores like the tenvec, many chameleons, moths, butterflies and spiders. The only known snake the do is harmless. The crocodile is the only dangerous creature.