The Malagasy population is composed of several major groups: the Malayo-Indonesians, whose main groups are the Merina (27%) and the Betsileo (13%), who together make up 40% of the total population; and the Malayo-Indonesian, Arab, and African mix called Coˆ tiers, who make up the largest number of the of the people on the island of Madagascar today.
In addition to the Merina and Betsileo, there are the Betisimiraka (15%), Sakalava (6%), and the Mehafaly or Mahafaly, who are also Malayo-Indo-nesians. The Malagasy language belongs to the Malayo-Polynesian group of the Austronesian language phylum and is spoken by about 17 million people on Madagascar. The standard/ofﬁcial form of the language is based on the Merina dialect.
Madagascar was ﬁrst settled between 200 and 500 CE by migrants from what is today Indonesia, though it may have been as early as the sixth century BCE. From linguistic evidence in the Malagasy lan-guage, they apparently ﬁrst settled on the East African coast, where they borrowed a number of terms from the Mashariki Bantu before moving on to settle on the island of Madagascar.
The Malagasy brought with them Asian food crops that were well suited to the East African coast, such as Asian yams, taro, bananas, and sugar cane, which impacted Bantu agriculture. In addition they also brought with them the xylophone, which spread rapidly across the region and became associated with kings and chiefs.
In the seventh century, Arab traders set up stations on the island, and their geographies began to indicate the island and describe its people. Between the 10th and 13th centuries, Muslims began to settle on the northern end of the island, and in 1500, the ﬁrst European, the Portuguese Diego Dias, visited it.
By the 18th century, there were three kingdoms on the island: the Merina domi-nated the central part of the island, the Sakalava on the west, and Betsimisaraka on the east. The Merina kings Andrianam-poinimerina and his son Radama I brought all of Madagascar under one kingdom for the ﬁrst time at the start of the 19th cen-tury.
King Radama I was able to secure recognition of his control of the whole island in 1817 from Great Britain. Ini-tially, the Malagasy were able to keep from falling under European control, but in 1883, France invaded and tried to estab-lish a protectorate over the whole island. The French fought two wars with the Mer-ina Kingdom, in 1883–1885 and in 1895, before the Malagasy were defeated. In 1896, France declared Madagascar to be a colony open for French settlement, and in 1897, they deposed Queen Ranavalona III, the last Malagasy monarch.
Originally the major populations of the Malagasy lived in different parts of the country and had different economic sys-tems. The Merina are the largest of the groups on Madagascar and number over 3 million. Merina society was divided between the free or fotsy, descendants of free Merina, and the mainty, descendants of slaves.
The Merina are among the best educated of the people on Madagascar and tend to the social and political elite. The Betsileo are very similar to the Merina. The Betsileo were mainly farmers and developed skills in rice production. They number over 1.3 million people and, like the Merina, are well represented in the professions and in the civil service.
The Betsimisaraka are the second-largest population on the island, numbering over 1.5 million people. The Betsimisaraka were concentrated along the eastern shores of Madagascar and engaged in commercial crops of cloves, coffee, and vanilla. They are divided into two main groups; the Bet-simisaraka proper, and the Betanmena.
The Sakalava live on the western coast and have been open to Muslim settlers from the Comoros Islands. As a result, Islam has inﬂuenced them perhaps more than other Malagasy people. The Sakalava are both seminomadic pastoralists as well as agriculturalists. The Mahafaly or Mehafaly are also pastoralists and are of Sakalava origin. They inhabit the region between the Menarandra and Onilahy rivers, moving their ﬂocks and herds according to the seasons.
The Malagasy groups are all joined in a cultural practice of funerary traditions. Nearly all of the Malagasy groups practice some form of what is called secondary inhumation; that is, the body of the deceased is either temporarily buried or is allowed to dry in the sun to purify before its bones are placed in an ancestral com-munal tomb.
The tombs are marked with wooden carvings in human form, which have become collectors’ items. Though each of the Malagasy peoples has slightly different customs and the wooden carvings have different representations, they share the same tradition. The current government is trying to get many of the tomb statuary back from foreign private and public collections and museums.
Around 50 percent of all Malagasy belong to their traditional religion, which focuses on spirits and the ancestors. Much of the worship is held at the communal tombs where funerary objects are used. Christianity was introduced by the Euro-peans in the 19th century, both by British Protestants and by French Roman Catho-lics. Around 10 percent of Malagasy are Muslims. Islam has had a much longer presence in Madagascar than Christianity and was brought by Arab and Swahili traders. The form of Islam practiced on Madagascar is Sunni Islam, the same as that on the East African coast.
During World War II, the British occu-pied Madagascar when it fell under Vichy French control, and in 1943, the British turned it over to the Free French. In 1946, the French bestowed French citizenship on the Malagasy, but this did not stop their drive for independence, which erupted in a pro-independence rebellion in 1947–1948. The rebellion was defeated after some 80,000 Malagasy were killed. In 1958, the French allowed a referendum in which the Malagasy people declared for an autonomous republic within the French Community.
It became fully independent in 1960 and was renamed the Republic of Madagascar in 1975.In the subsequent years, Madagascar has had a difﬁcult time. There have been two additional constitutions, a time of military control, and disputed presidential elections. One president was convicted of corruption—in absentia—all of which has made the Malagasy skeptical about their country’s political processes.
John A. Shoup
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