IIASNewsletterNo 13Regions

Insular SW Asia


Formation and Development of the State in Madagascar


At the time of the French conquest (1895), Madagascar was already a well-organized political state. When and how was this state born? What follows is an attempt to answer this question.

Madagascar was thought originally to have been uninhabited by human beings. The island was gradually populated by people of both African and Asian origin. The Afro-Indonesians, who originally came from southeast Borneo (7th-9th century), had probably spent considerable time on the East African coast, thereby initiating the perfect symbiosis of Austronesian and East African cultures now visible on Malagasy soil. More Indonesians came in the centuries that followed, and they too were influenced in varying degrees by Bantu civilization. From the 9th to the 13th centuries Islamized groups from the African continent also settled in Madagascar. The most important of these groups were the 'Antemoro-Anakara' ('People of the Coast') who knew the Sorabe (Arabic) script and used it to transcribe the Malagasy language in Arabic letters before the adoption of the Latin alphabet by King Radama 1 (1810-28) in 1820.

The newly established groups brought with them their own perceptions on social and political organization, but despite this did not develop an elaborate system of socio-political organization, choosing mainly to live in small household units. It was only in the 12th and 13th centuries when the size of these groups had expanded to such an extent that it was necessary to adopt an organized political system and a supra-ethnic authority. The concept of the state was probably introduced by the Islamized migrants and by Indonesians. This supra-ethnic organization of the different groups first became visible in the city-states of the northern coast and in some of the early kingdoms.


What could be called the period of kingdoms in Madagascar occurred between the 12th century and the end of the 18th century. It was the period of the formation of stratified societies concomitant with the emergence of hierarchies. In the course of time, a group would settle down in a territory which it made its own, giving rise to an individual ethnos and ethnicity. The self-identification of each group was stimulated by their claim to having a specific descent and living area, this was underlined in their group names which referred to the environment they lived in: 'those-of-rocks' (Antakarana), 'those-of-thorns' (Antandroy), 'those-of-the-coast' (Antemoro) etc. We can concur with P.-C. Timbal (1979) who stated that the idea of a nation appears first in an ethnic group of which the members are conscious that they belong to the same group: so the ethnos evolves into an 'ethnico-national group' with certain manifestations of unity, cultural features, institutions, and specific areas. At this level - and it is still visible among the Malagasy today - the most important link is the place of residence i.e. one's native soil. First and foremost, people claim to come from a particular region, the regional identity, before being Malagasy, the national identity. This enshrines the antique concept of 'patria', that is their father's land, the territorial community which the Malagasy identify as their native region, their ancestor's land: the 'Tanindrazana'.

In the next stage of which the origins can already be traced in the 11th century, state structures including a defined ethnic group began to appear in Madagascar. This was represented by the Malagasy kingdoms and the city-states of Antalaotse. A very good introduction to the problem of the Malagasy kingdoms is that by F.V. Esoavelomandroso (1985): some families benefitting from a stratified society with a hierarchy, seizing the opportunity to monopolize power and authority. Such families have left their traces and many archaeological sites, particularly in the Central Highlands.

In the northeast and northwest city-states, which were firmly founded on trading and which shared many similarities with the Swahili-speaking cultures of the East African coast and the Comoros Islands, power was exercised by a 'king', assisted by a diviner and a council (Vérin 1992). The political situation in the kingdoms was not radically different, except that the area administered was far greater.

This change in political organization, i.e. the adoption of an elaborated system and structured power extending beyond the narrow confines of the group, did not occur simultaneously in all regions of Madagascar:

  • the 11th-12th centuries were characterized by the rise of Islamized city-states in the northeast and northwest;
  • the 12th century saw the emergence of small kingdoms in the southeast. In the other regions of the country diviners founded powerful dynasties (descended from the 'Zafiraminia') in many of the regions of Madagascar, particularly in the south and the west;
  • in the 13th-14th centuries small kingdoms appeared on the Highlands;
  • in the 15th-18th centuries the Betsileo, Sihanaka, and Tanosy kingdoms emerged.

Structured royal complexes and geographically vast kingdoms began to emerge in the 16th century. Some even undertook attempts to achieve territorial unification on a regional scale (the 'Betsimisaraka Confederation', 18th century) or at the national level (Sakalava kingdoms, 16th-18th cs.; Merina kingdom, 18th-19th c.).

When the French arrived in Madagascar in 1895, only a few regions had not reached this stage of a politically structured organization in the form of a kingdom, e.g. the areas of Tsimihety or Tandroy.

State formation in Madagascar was the work of kings and their closest advisors. From the second decade of the 19th century, one of these many Malagasy kingdoms, the Merina kingdom, which began in the region of Antananarivo, acquired a national character and little by little a structured state emerged capable of sustaining the nation.

A Structured Modern State

The expression 'the Kingdom of Madagascar' was one which began to be used in the second half of the 19th century. It was established in the French-Malagasy treaty of 12 September 1862 and the English-Malagasy treaty of 5 December of the same year, which brought recognition of the Malagasy state by foreign countries. But the embryonic form of this state had already begun to take shape in the first decade of the 18th century under Andriamasinavalona, the first king, the unifier and organizer of Imerina (1675-1710?).

It was Andriamasinavalona who achieved the territorial unity of the different regions around Antananarivo and forged them into a viable kingdom; he organized the kingdom into the royal domain (the Menabe) and fiefs (the Menakely); he initiated a far-reaching restructuring of the society by ordering a reclassification of the nobility and instituting the 'fokonolona', i.e. assembly of citizens managing their own domestic affairs, not as members of the clan as in former days but as inhabitants of the same area. According to P. Boiteau (1958) this organization of the nationals of the country is one of the first characteristics of a state. Finally King Andriamasinavalona organized and developed economic exchanges by creating 'fihaonana', i.e. markets.

The second stage of state construction was accomplished under Andrianampoinimerina (1787-1810), who strengthened state power particularly by:

  • dividing up the inhabitants of his kingdom according to the territory occupied, spread over six areas;
  • establishing one system of policing by organizing the army, the law courts, and jails, and the instigation of an administration of unpaid civil servants: the 'vadin-tany' and 'andriambaventy' who were both governors and judges, transforming into military chiefs in wartime;
  • establishing systems of taxation and levies on capital and manpower, subjugating the inhabitants, forming them into citizens. His reforms gave rise to the 'hasina/vola tsy vaky', a kind of poll tax paid in homage to the ruler; the 'isampangady', land tax; the 'fadin-tseranana', customs dues; the 'haba', trade tax; the 'vola amidy basy', national defence tax to enable the state to buy weapons.

The periods which followed saw the consolidation of the 'Kingdom of Madagascar' strengthened by experience and reinforced by the state machinery, due to:

  • international recognition of the kingdom of Antananarivo (English-Merina Treaty of 1817 with Radama I [1810-1828], designated king of Madagascar),
  • adoption of the Latin alphabet and the use of printing press ensuring a well-read administration, at once more powerful and more efficient (printed edicts, correspondence, transcript of rules...),
  • the establishment of a professional army with uniforms, bands, and instructors,
  • territorial inspection and supervision by means of regional garrisons and military posts.

Under Ranavalona I (1828-1861), the Malagasy State and its structure was brought up-to-date. It consisted of the ruler (the queen) and the territory (two-thirds of Madagascar) and its inhabitants (the Malagasy). There also was a prime minister (first Rainiharo, died in 1852, then his sons, Rainivoninahitriniony [1852-1864] and Rainilaiarivony [July 1864-September 1895]), a commander-in-chief, ministers, governors, a law court with judges, an army, taxes, an administration run by civil servants, maintenance of law and order by a corps composed of former soldiers: the 'Sakaizam-bohitra' in 1878 and the 'Antily' (army veterans reformed to control of the territory) in 1880 and, finally, the introduction of public utilities such as hospitals and health-centres, and free education after June 1876. Under Rasoherina (1863-1868), until the French annexation of August 1896, real power was exercised by the prime minister and by the commander in chief. In fact, the country was already a constitutional monarchy by then. From this period, Madagascar can be said to have already had something in common with the nation-state which we find again with the return of independence in 1961.

Today the state form is well and truly entrenched (the Republic of Madagascar), but the island is experiencing quite a number of difficulties, coping with political disintegration and the growing number of inhabitants living under the poverty line. The origins of these complex problems can be traced in both past and present, and merits future scientific attention.

Dr R. Andrianaivoarivony is attached to the University of Antananarivo, Madagascar