Madagascar was first settled by humans about 2000 years ago. Madagascar's settlers were either Indonesians or people of mixed Indonesian/African descent. Arab traders arrived on the scene around 800-900 A.D. when merchants begin trading along the northern coast.

The first known European to see Madagascar was a Portuguese sea captain, Diogo Dias, who spotted the island August 10, 1500, after he was blown off course on the way to India. He named the island St. Lawrence. Later in the 1500s the Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English all attempted to establish trading settlements in Madagascar. All of these failed due to hostile conditions and fierce fighting by local Malagasy warriors.

Europeans first got a foothold on Madagascar in the late 1600s when pirates ruled the eastern coast of the island. These pirates used Madagascar as a base for attacking ships bringing goods back to Europe from India. In the 1700s, the French attempted to establish military positions on the east coast but again failed. By the early 19th century the only settlement the French could claim was the island of Sainte Marie.

Meanwhile, during the 1700s, the Sakalavas of the western coast established the first kingdom of Madagascar. In 1810, their rivals, the Merina, established a kingdom over most of the rest of the island. Their king, Radama I, established relations with the British and opened the country to English missionaries who spread Christianity throughout the island and transcribed Malagasy into a written language. Under Radama's reign, a miniature Industrial revolution brought industry to the island. After Radama's death, he was succeeded by his widow, Ranavalona I, who terrorized the country for 33 years by persecuting Christians, evicting foreigners, executing political rivals, and reviving the custom of killing babies born on unlucky days. After her death, relations with Europe were restored.

In 1883, France invaded Madagascar and by 1896 had established rule over the island, which became a French colony. France used Madagascar as a source for timber and exotic spices, like vanilla. The Malagasy had two major uprisings against the French, in 1918 and 1947, but the country did not gain independence until June 26, 1960.

In 1975, Didier Ratsiraka took control of the country. He ruled Madagascar as a dictator until he was overthrown in 1991 amid an economic collapse. He regained the presidency shortly thereafter and ruled until losing a contested election in 2001. The new president, Marc Ravalomanana, promised to bring democracy to the country. Having gotten his start selling yogurt on the streets from the back of his bicycle, Ravalomanana built a business empire and became Madagascar's richest man. As of 2005, he is still president and the economy continues to improve.

Malagasy villagers walking in a rice paddy.

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