Madagascar, an island nation located off the coast of southeast Africa, stands out because of its people, as well as its unique eco-system. The local population is a mix of African and Asian descent (mainly from Malaysia and Indonesia, who were said to have migrated to Madagascar via canoe as far back as 200 BC).
The disparate communities that existed for centuries initially had limited contact with European powers, including the Portuguese (who started colonizing Mozambique – which faces Madagascar, back in 1498), and later on the British and the French. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, there was European pirate activity on Madagascar’s coastal areas. For a time, a pirate colony called “Libertatia” was set up on Île Sainte-Marie (an island off the country’s northeast coast), reportedly led by French pirate, Captain James Misson, and cohorts from various European countries, as well as former African slaves.
By the early 19th century, the pre-existing Kingdom of Merina (located in the island’s central highlands, whose population was the Asiatic Merina people) united the rest of the island, and formed a kingdom that ruled over all of Madagascar. The island’s rulers began a process of modernization through close diplomatic ties to Great Britain that led to the establishment of European-style schools, government institutions and infrastructure. That process was interrupted during the reign of Queen Ranavalona I (who ruled over the island from 1828 to 1861), when she banned the practice of Christianity and any missionary activities that promoted it. She also stopped commercial activities with European powers, including the French. Nicknamed the “Mad Queen of Madagascar”, Ranavalona I imposed autocratic rule during her reign, which resulted in the deaths of many locals, including her own relatives. A subsequent monarch, Queen Ranavalona II (1868-1883), made Christianity the state’s religion (with encouragement from British missionaries).
By 1882, Britain and France reached an agreement, where the British recognized French claims to Madagascar, in return for their recognition of British claims over the East African island of Zanzibar. After the country’s monarch rejected French demands to control the island’s trade and foreign affairs, the French invaded the capital (Antananarivo) in 1895 – capturing the island’s queen (Ranavalona III) and prime minister. By 1897, Madagascar officially became a French colony. Slavery in Madagascar was abolished by then – with nearly 500,000 slaves being freed. The capital went through another process of modernization – with basic services like schools and clinics extending to isolated coastal areas for the first time.
Madagascar was caught up in World War II, when the island was under control of the pro-Nazi Vichy French government. The “Battle of Madagascar”, a series of British forays into the island in 1942, with battles against Vichy French forces, resulted in the latter’s loss over the territory, and with it the possible use of Madagascar as a base for the Japanese Navy and its submarines.
By the early 1960s, amidst a wave of decolonization happening elsewhere in Africa, the French granted Madagascar independence in 1960, with the island’s first president, Philibert Tsiranana, setting up a French style democratic system and economic relations with Paris under a post-colonial model of “Françafrique” (with French corporate presence in the country). Still, a peasant & student led rebellion in the 1970s resulted in the establishment of the socialist “Democratic Republic of Madagascar” under the rule of Admiral Didier Ratsiraka (1975-1992), where the country followed a policy of economic isolationism and fostering relations with pro-Soviet countries. With such policies resulted in more local uprisings, the Ratsiraka regime collapsed and a pro-democratic Third Republic was established after the island’s 1992 multiparty elections were held. Since then, the country has gone through a series of political and economic ups and downs (complete with occasional coup attempts and protests over the government’s failure to stem poverty and corruption).
For these reasons, foreigners who have visited Madagascar speak of its potential –especially in terms of tourism and overall business development, referring to progress made by geographically smaller Indian Ocean countries, such as Mauritius (1.3 million tourists in 2018), the Seychelles (361,844 visitors in 2018), and even Reunion (574,000 visitors in 2018) – which is still under French control). In 2016, Madagascar received just 293,000 tourists, a number that can be far higher, if its government invested more in tourism infrastructure, international marketing, and most of all, a better highway system that could connect the various parts of the island. Ironically, the island got an unintended international marketing boost when the Hollywood film company Dreamworks released a commercially successful animated film “Madagascar” in 2005 involving the island’s legendary wilderness (with Dreamworks releasing other “Madagascar” movie spinoffs since then).
Hollywood’s promotion of the very name Madagascar touches upon the main reason why foreigners consider visiting the island: its reputation as an eco-tourist paradise. The country is not only geographically isolated from mainland Africa and the rest of the world, but culturally as well. It has a unique and gorgeous eco system, in which 85% of the flora is typical to Madagascar, including more than 1,000 varieties of orchids, and seven species of baobab trees (while there is only one baobab species in all of continental Africa). The island’s fauna is rich in endemic species, and 3/4 of all the world’s chameleons live here as well as more than 30 species of lemurs (now extinct in the rest of the world).
This continent-island is set, like a precious stone, in the Indian Ocean, surrounded by Mauritius and la Réunion island to the east, the Comoro Islands and the Seychelles to the north, and to the west the African continent (which is separated by the narrow Mozambique Channel, only 400 km wide). To the south, there is an open ocean, all the way to Antarctica. According to geologists, Madagascar broke off from the African continent 150 million years ago. Since then this new continent-island has developed
Madagascar is the world’s fourth largest island (a little bigger than Kenya) but, more than a big island, it should be considered a micro-continent. Its territory has a wide range of different climatic and physical features and includes a great variety of regions, ecosystems and people. All that drives continued curiosity among globetrotters, including the American TV chef Anthony Bourdain, who visited the island’s capital and isolated parts of the country a few years ago for his famed CNN show “Parts Unknown”.