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Madagascar’s population is of mixed Asian and African origin. Research suggests that the island was uninhabited until Indonesian seafarers arrived in roughly the first century A.D., probably by way of southern India and East Africa, where they acquired African wives and slaves. Subsequent migrations from both the Pacific and Africa further consolidated this original mixture, and 18 separate tribal groups emerged. Those of Asian ancestry are most predominant in the central highlands, the Merina and the Betsileo; the coastal people are of African origin. The largest coastal groups are the Betsimisarakua, the Tsimihety, and the Sakalava.
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 seventeenth century, the French established trading posts along the east coast. From about 1774 to 1824, it was the 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. 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 in 1942, Madagascar was administered first by the Vichy Government and then 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.
Alfred Grandidier and Guillaume Grandidier, Collection du Ouvrage Ancients Concernant Madagascar 5 vols. Paris: Comité de Madagascar, 1907. Digital versions at Internet Archive: Vol. 1 | Vol. 2 | Vol. 3 | Vol. 4 | Vol. 5 - free.
W. Foster, "An English Settlement in Madagascar in 1645-1646," The English Historical Review, Vol. 27 (1912):239-50. Digital version at Internet Archive - free.
- The Family History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Family History Record Profile: Madagascar,” Word document, private files of the FamilySearch Content Strategy Team, 2001.