Who was the first to inhabit Madagascar?
The gray prehistory of the red island
Madagascar is an "old island" as geologists say. Madagascar broke off the African continent more than 150 million years ago. Isolated from the rest of the world, other animal species developed here than on the African continent.
Originally Madagascar was a green island - almost the entire area was covered with forest. Today the forests have shrunk and are surrounded by arable land or steppe.
In the center of the island is a high plateau with mountains that tower over 2000 meters. The rest of the country is rather flat. Where there is no forest, the nutrient-poor soil comes to the fore. In many places it is bright red, which is why Madagascar is also called the "Red Island" today.
People of Madagascar
Madagascar was one of the last places in the world to be settled. The settlers only reached the island about 2300 years ago. It is not clear where they came from, presumably at different times from different directions: from East Africa and the Middle East, but above all from South Asia.
Many Madagascans can still tell today that their ancestors came from Indonesia and Malaysia. You can definitely tell from their habits: a lot of rice is grown on the island and eaten with every meal.
The first European to see the island was the Portuguese navigator Diego Dias. He discovered it on August 10, 1500 and named it São Lorenço. But since the British, Dutch and French were also interested in the island, it changed its name several times over the next few centuries.
The term Madagascar appeared quite early on, but it wasn't until the 17th century that the locals began to call their island that too. Previously it was called "Nosim-Dambo" - "Island of the wild pigs" by many.
The century of the pirates
The first Europeans who tried to settle on the island from the 16th century on were quickly driven out by the Malagasy people. Only pirates managed to establish themselves permanently on the island, especially on the east coast and in the north. Here the privateers are said to have founded their own republic: "Libertalia".
One thing is certain: Madagascar was the most important pirate island in the Indian Ocean in the 17th century. Ideally located to ambush large merchant ships that were richly loaded on their way to Europe.
There was also plenty of fresh water on the island, plenty of wood to repair ships, and countless bays and hiding spots for the pirates to retreat to. Allegedly the buccaneers buried tons of treasure on the island - they certainly increased the population's gene pool.
Madagascar as a colony
Originally every village in Madagascar had a different ruler. In the 18th century, however, ever larger empires developed. Finally, King Andrianampoinimerina managed to bring large parts of the island under his rule.
He chose the city of Antanarivo in the highlands of the island, which is still the capital of Madagascar, as the seat of government. A brief flirtation with the British, who first brought missionaries to the island, was followed by years of distrust of the Europeans.
In the late 19th century, the French colonial power grew interested in the island in the Indian Ocean. In 1883 the army occupied the port, ended the Malagasy monarchy and finally declared the island a French colony on August 6, 1896. The population and their language "Malagasy" were suppressed.
The French opened up the country by building railroad lines, canals and roads to quickly transport its resources to Europe. Agriculture produced what could be sold dearly in Europe: especially sugar, coffee and spices.
All Jews to Madagascar?
From the 19th century the so-called "Madagascar Plan" appeared again and again in anti-Semitic literature. During the Second World War he was picked up by the German Nazis. He planned to relocate all European Jews to Madagascar. The Nazis probably did not have a kind of "tropical Israel" in mind, Madagascar would have become a large ghetto, a mortal island.
After the defeat of France in June 1940, it first seemed possible to implement the plan, and serious work was being done in Germany. The relocation plan, however, remained a pipe dream. The British fleet would have had to be defeated to implement it, but that never succeeded. In September 1940 all work on the Madagascar Plan was stopped.
There had been riots in Madagascar even before the Second World War. From 1947, however, they became much more violent. After years of heavy fighting, in which more than 80,000 Malagasy people died, France could no longer hold its colony. On June 26, 1960, Madagascar gained independence. The country's first president was Philibert Tsiranana, who ruled for ten years.
In Madagascar there are many different groups of people who are called "Foko". They all share the common language Malagasy. The old religions are still very much alive in Madagascar today. The people follow a pronounced ancestor cult and observe many "fadys", taboos that determine their daily actions.
Since fadys can refer to places, foods or actions and move from place to place in many regions, traveling is not always easy, even for locals in Madagascar. You have to inquire locally about the ruling fadys to avoid making a mistake. With foreigners, the Malagasy people are generally lenient and tolerate unconscious violations of a fady.
Challenges for the future
Only a small part of Madagascar's natural wealth has survived today. Scientists fear that the last of the rainforests on the island could disappear in the next few decades - and with them many unique animals.
Although nature conservation is anchored in the constitution as a national goal, as long as the population lives below the poverty line, it can hardly be implemented. Every day in Madagascar forests are cleared to grow food and wood is burned because electricity is too expensive on the island.
Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. The exploitation during the colonial days and the corrupt governments of later years have resulted in more than two thirds of the Malagasy people living below the poverty line. For years there has not been enough food on the island, Madagascar has to import a lot, including rice, the main staple food.
In the spring of 2009 violent protests broke out in the capital, Antanarivo, in which more than 100 people died. During the unrest, the Malagasy people called for the resignation of President Ravalomanana's government, which had enriched itself at the expense of the population.
On March 17, 2009, a violent military coup took power. The former mayor of Antanarivo, André Rajoelina, declared himself president of a transitional government. Internationally, Madagascar has since been isolated not only geographically, but also politically and economically. The African confederation had excluded the country.
On September 17, 2011, the individual political groups in Madagascar signed a plan to end the crisis with the support of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). It should pave the way back to democracy and the rule of law. In December 2013, democratic presidential elections finally took place again.
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