Africa during the Scramble: The Witch Hunters of Madagascar

By Gary Oswald


Depiction of the conquest of Madagascar. Artist is Louis Charles Bombled of Musee de l'Armee.

The exact time Madagascar was first settled by humans is still disputed but most accounts date it to sometime between 200 and 900 AD, comfortably after the settlement of most other landmasses. Modern DNA research indicate that the first settlers were a mixture of Malay people from Indonesia and Bantu people from Africa. By around 1100 AD not only was Madagascar fully populated, with its megafauna driven to extinction and a lot of its forests replaced by rice paddies but it had become a transoceanic trading hub visited by Arabs, Swahili and Indians.


This continued into the era of European dominance of the Indian Ocean trade. Europeans began to set up their own trading ports on Madagascar, trading slaves and other goods. In particular Madagascar became a major haunt of European Pirates who’d base themselves there to attack the Muslim trade between India and Arabia. During this time period the native Malagasy Kingdoms consolidated and expanded. And the pirates and Malagasy both formed alliances and fought wars, creating a new coastal elite. As examples Abraham Samuel, born in French Martinique as the mixed race son of a slave and a slaver, formed a Kingdom made up of pirates, slavers and native Malagasy which dominated the South-East Coast until his death while Ratsimilaho who founded the Betsimisaraka confederation of the mid-eastern coast was the son of a Malagasy woman and an English pirate.


The largest and most successful Kingdom would however begin not on the coast but in the Highlands, where there was considerably less influence from foreigners. This would be the Merina Kingdom, which was so successful that European sources often referred to them simply as the Kingdom of Madagascar. And yet, as is common with African States of the time, we are talking about a relatively recent rise to prominence. In 1787 the Merina Kingdom was tiny, covering less than 1% of the Island’s land area. By 1827, after vigorous military campaigning by Andrianampoinimerina and his son Radama, they ruled over two thirds of the Island.


Radama I as painted by Philippe-Auguste Ramanankirahina

The Merina Kingdom therefore provides us with a classic example of a large but new and so fragile Kingdom attempting to modernise quickly. Radama conquered the northern coast during the Napoleonic Wars. Here he found a number of Arabic and French trading posts. They were here to buy slaves and food for the plantations in Zanzibar and Reunion. The British Navy was however increasingly powerful in the region, at least one Merina subject was pressed into British service and fought at Trafalgar. In the aftermath of that battle the British were to occupy most of the French islands in the Indian Ocean and held onto Mauritius in the peace of 1815. In 1817 and 1820, Radama signed treaties of alliance and support with the British.


Mauritius was an increasingly important port for Ships travelling between South Africa and India and so a friendly Madagascar was useful in order to supply it with food. Moreover this was the beginning of the British war against the slave trade and they got Radama to agree not to continue the export trade in slaves that the Kingdoms he had conquered had founded, though Madagascar kept their own slaves still. As was often the case, just because an agreement was signed didn’t mean it happened. Around 3 to 4 thousand slaves were still exported a year from Madagascar during the 1860s. This was at least partly because there was still around one third of the island which wasn’t under Merina control and that area still sold slaves. Radama found traders coming to Madagascar often didn’t visit his ports at all.


The UK could run Mauritius on Indian contract labour. The remaining French and Arabic islands could not do this and so slaves were far more important to them. When France did conquer Madagascar in 1895, this was a reason why they kept demanding forced labour rather than taxes from the Malagasy. Thus the Merina ban on exporting slaves had important tactical benefits to the UK as well as moral ones and they were worried about Radama reversing his decree.


Radama had been happy to ban the slave trade because Merina society was feudal, one of nobles and serfs but one wherein the King owned all the land and thus ultimately the serfs. By preventing these serfs being sold, they could be used for labour by the Monarchy. Part of the reason for the success of this Kingdom was that forced labour by serfs had been used to build up food supplies so that famines hit the Merina a lot less than it hit their neighbours. Another part of it was the recruitment of serfs into vast armies for conquest. Unfortunately Radama had underestimated the difficulty of his campaigns in the lowlands, huge quantities of his serfs died of malaria and to enemy action and the riches that could be obtained by looting were far less than had been counted on. When Radama died in 1828, the period of expansion slowed down.


Ranavalona I as painted by Philippe-Auguste Ramanankirahina

Radama was replaced by his wife and cousin Ranavalona who has a notoriously bad reputation. This is partly thanks due to the bloodshed of her pacification of the newly conquered territories. Some sources indicate that Madagascar during the years of the Merina conquest saw a fall in population comparable to King Leopold’s rule in the Congo. It is also partly due to the way Radama and Ranavalona came to regret their partnership with the UK and the latter took actions to end it.


The British had attempted to replace the slave trade by paying for the introduction of cash crops and workshops in Madagascar to replace one export trade with another, But they didn’t understand how bad the climate was for plantations. Madagascar was primarily rice paddies and cash crops plantations required different conditions and often struggled. Likewise there wasn’t a good enough road system for the quick movement of crops. Madagascar was mountainous and a highland kingdom attempting to move products by land was at a huge disadvantage to the coastal traders. And while the lowlanders had long owned cattle herds and traded this with the Highlanders for weaved cloths and jewellery, in the highlands they weren’t used to cows. An attempt to set up a leather working industry, ended up with the Malagasy selling cows to Mauritius and then buying back the tanned skin which enriched the British rather than the Merina. Moreover the British emphasis on free trade meant that their traders weren’t willing to pay export taxes.


By inviting in British Traders and Missionaries, the Merina had given the British an excuse for interfering in their Kingdom but were not making money out of it. Radama began to push towards autarky, hoping to build the firearms and fine goods he was currently buying from the English and so reduce trade. Ranavalona continued further down this path. She passed more and more laws, making it difficult for foreigners to stay in the Kingdom and forcing foreign traders to pay export taxes. By the 1830s, the Malagasy were capable of producing their own firearms and had built up a vast standing Army of up to 30,000 men. However firearms are not all equal. Despite our image of how the Scramble went, the truth is most African armies had guns. There is just a huge difference between a musket and a machine gun. Madagascar could not produce anything like what a European Army was given.


But we must not attribute too much of these reforms to Ranavalona herself. The Queens of Madagascar who ruled following Radama I's death tended to have less power than the earlier Kings due to misogyny. A circle of noble advisers instead had increasing influence. It was these men who overthrew Ranavalona’s son after less than two years of rule and who supported three more Queens instead to avoid the return of absolute rule that a King would bring. The monarch still owned all the land but increasingly nobles would rent it for small sums and, because foreign ownership of land was banned, this nobility was the path for foreign investors. Inter noble struggles thus meant sometimes leading men discouraged the growth of industries that would enrich his rivals. Likewise German attempts to bring in electrical power were discouraged by the English already there.


The latter was part of why Ranavalona was increasingly looking to try and find balances to the British economic dominance. She began selling crown monopolies on trade, wherein foreign traders could be the only person able to buy a product in the Merina Kingdom for a yearly cost and the Queen could end that contract after a year. And she preferred selling these to American, British and French traders so that competing bids could drive the price up. The Americans were increasingly interested in trade in the Indian Ocean, in 1850 they went to war with one of the tiny Kingdoms on the Comoros over it and by the 1880s the remaining independent kingdoms of Zanzibar and Madagascar had become important markets.


As the British became less important, Ranavalona became bolder in her actions towards them. Throughout the 1830s she was increasingly hostile towards the British missionaries. Her husband had invited them in to teach technical knowledge, but instead they were primarily interested in teaching literacy and producing printing presses. Their focus was on a people who could read the bible not one who could make guns. Ranavalona demanded they taught more secular skills and when they refused she expelled them.


She then led persecutions of those Malagasy who had converted to Christianity. The most common way was by trial by poison wherein the accused was fed poison and if they died proclaimed guilty. The Christian converts however tended to belong to the nobility, to this day in Madagascar the Protestants tend to be from the Hova ethnic group which made up the Merina nobility whereas the descendants of serfs are more likely to be Catholic due to them being first educated under French rule. Thus the main victims of the trial by poison tended to be pagan. And they tended to be from the newly conquered kingdoms. Most of the victims were accused not of Christianity but of witchcraft. The Merina occupation forces would accuse prominent and suspected rebels of casting harmful spells on the occupiers and then force them into taking the trial by poison. Literal witch hunts became prominent as a way of removing powerful men without the need for evidence.


Ranavalona III, the last Monarch of Madagascar

There is a tendency in European historiography to view the persecutions as ending upon Ranavalona’s death as her successors, Radama II, Rasoherina and Ranavalonas II and III, practised freedom of religion and ended up Christianising the royal court. But while persecution of Christians stopped, the witch hunts did not.


The crimes of native Kingdoms were often emphasised and exaggerated by colonial powers to justify their rule but we should not ignore them. Conquering and pacifying the rest of Northern Madagascar was something the Merina Royalty only did with a huge spilling of blood and the use of brutal slave labour. We are talking hundreds of thousands if not millions of deaths.


The Merina’s royalty did eventually embrace Christianity. This further weakened the Monarchy compared to the nobles as it separated religious and secular powers. The fact the Monarch was a religious authority had been an important feather in the Queen’s cap. But conversion was seen as important in order to win support within the court and in the attempts to renew the British Alliance.


The truth was that the UK did not want to conquer Madagascar, France did. French traders had been driven off Merina land in the 1810s and French Warships had attacked Merina positions in the 1850s. In response to this threat, the Merina nobility were eager to tie themselves to the British. In fact a considerable amount of land in Southern India was bought by the Malagasy Queen. In return the British made it very clear that they supported Malagasy independence.


Economically France and Madagascar were on a collision course. The later Merina queens opened themselves up for foreign investment to help them modernise, though they still only leased rather than sold land and offered only short leases. The Merina nobility made money by selling mining and logging concessions to foreign companies but certain things, such as rubber and timber, were still protected and so legally the majority of it must remain in the country. French businessman in particular had a reputation for making bad faith contracts with nobles that breached Malagasy law, so that the Malagasy would cancel it and the French government could demand compensation. This led both to moves to exclude French traders entirely and demands from France to honour the cancelled contracts.


The compensation was especially difficult because the Merina Kingdom had a great difficulty in raising capital. It used coins but its people were majority serfs so taxes were mostly paid in forced labour. The forced labour was increasingly put to work in the gold fields to raise money rather than to build up the food reserves. This was especially bad because women as well as men were taken off their farms to mine for gold. Predictably when famines did hit as a result they were devastating and the Merina royalty grew increasingly unpopular. Revolts became common and were often supported by French agents.


In 1883 the French invaded and though they only claimed a small amount of territory after winning they also asked for ten million francs in compensation. The UK offered a loan to cover it but France demanded the UK retract the offer and forced the Malagasy to loan the money from France instead at a much higher interest rate. What the Merina Queens hadn’t realised is the new Suez Canal had made Mauritius and so Madagascar much less important to Britain as ships to India could stop at Aden instead. Upon its completion there was no reason for the UK to be interested in its Malagasy allies and they soon ruthlessly cut them loose entirely.


In 1890, the French refused to recognise British rule over Zanzibar unless the British in return stopped supporting Madagascar. The UK agreed. In 1894, France invaded again from their foothold and, friendless and outgunned, the Merina Kingdom collapsed. Less than 25 French soldiers died in combat in the war that give them complete control of Madagascar. The French would spend the next 60 years caught between the desires of the propaganda victory of ending slave labour and still needing it to make its Indian Ocean presence profitable. Corvée labour would mostly remain in place until the 1920s and would later be redoubled under Vichy rule.


Ultimately the Merina Kingdom was doomed because peace in Europe was more important than victory in Africa. It is not a coincidence that no major European war happened during the Scramble, some kind of cooperation is needed for a continent to be so neatly divided up. The UK could have easily prevented the French annexation of Madagascar were the two at war but it was not worth starting a war over. Whenever there was disagreement over the fates of native Kingdoms, by and large it was worked out in Europe and the Kingdom would be annexed by someone.


For Madagascar to remain independent it could not rely on British paternalism. It needed to be able to fight off the French itself. So why couldn’t it? What turned the all-conquering armies of the 1810s to the paper tigers of the 1890s? The economic missteps and repression were part of it, the Kingdom was not united and healthy, but most of all it was simply the difference between the Weapons you could make in Madagascar versus the weapons you could make in Paris.


Which is why the offer of Union made by the Omani Sultan to Ranavalona I in 1833 is so intriguing. Because the Omani lacked manpower and battleships but they certainly had weapons and money. Ranavalona was justly reluctant to risk the further religious upheaval of a union with a Muslim state or to send her own army off to Kenya when her realm was still so newly conquered and rebellious. But economically and politically the two countries would have benefited from a union. Or at least their nobles would. Both countries were ran on slave labour and oppression. An East Africa ran by a Malagasy-Omani elite is unlikely to be a very happy one even if it does avoid European rule.


But was it even possible for a native Kingdom, no matter how rich or united, to defeat a European army? In the next article we’re looking at the country that answered that question. Ethiopia.

Discuss this Article


© 2019, Sea Lion Press.

  • facebook-square
  • Twitter Square