Pre-colonial Madagascar Had All The Elements of a Modern State

    Learn more about the rich history of this country where women and men had equal rights, and where schooling for children was mandatory already in 1881, 15 years before its colonization by France in 1896.

  • By Anass Sedrati , Guest Contributor
  • November 26, 2020
  • In Educate
View of Antsahatsiroa, Madagascar
View of Antsahatsiroa, Madagascar. Photo Credit: here

Most people might not know much about Madagascar beyond the name of its capital city, the colors of its flag, or its remarkable participation in the last African Cup of Nations. This article is an opportunity to deepen our knowledge about this country whose political situation as well as development are rather unique in Africa. In particular, we will dive into the situation of this island in terms of politics, social structure, and economy before it was colonized by France in 1896. Hopefully, following this historical timeline will help widen the lens through which we analyze colonization in the world, as Madagascar was already sovereign and had political structures of a modern state before it was colonized.

General situation. Before colonial times, Madagascar presented many specificities compared to other African countries. Despite having eighteen different ethnicities living on the island, Malagasy (i.e. related to Madagascar) people shared the same language1. This common artefact made the country homogeneous when it came to culture and identity, which is rather rare in modern Africa. The geographical situation of the country between Africa and Asia is critical in understanding its development between 1800 to 1885. Indeed, Madagascar is surrounded by a number of islands (belonging to Réunion, Mauritius and Seychelles) that were either British or French colonies. The colonial threat was always a very central point in the Malagasy politics of the 19th century, and various policies and laws were implemented during that period in regard to this threat. Even though it was economically independent1 through its production of rice and cattle, Madagascar conducted a number of treaties with foreign powers, mainly France and Britain.

Gathering of The People for The Making of Laws
Gathering of The People for The Making of Laws (LMS, 1869, pp.52). Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Political developments. The political situation of Madagascar in the 19th century was rich in events that shaped the future of the country and helped in the creation of a modern state. Before 1800, the land of the current Madagascar was a divided area where each local community or kingdom had its own governance. The first leader who challenged this model was Andrianampoinimeria (this is also something known about Madagascar, long names!). This ruler coming from the central plateau (Imerina) managed to gather ethnic groups of his native region and founded the kingdom of Merina, with Antananarivo as capital. After his death in 1810, his son and successor Radama I continued his work in conquering the remaining parts of the island in order to have control over two thirds of Madagascar by 1828, and thus have the Merina rule no longer contested1. It is important to note that relations with Britain evolved during the rule of Radama I. The British were allowed to bring missionaries and to educate young Malagasy. This “collaboration” resulted in a number of steps towards a state of institutions, by creating a national army, and writing the national language “Malagasy” in Latin letters.

The successor of Radama I, his first wife, queen Ranavalona I, was concerned with preserving the independence of the Merina kingdom from foreign influence and imposed a series of drastic laws and measures to protect national institutions and local traditions and customs. The queen stopped the treaties with France and Britain, judging that they were threatening the sovereignty of the country. Moreover, she encouraged persecution of Christians1, as this new religion was competing with the national tradition “Sampy”, that was based on the idea of “royal divinity”, a useful concept to maintain the rule. Trade was banned with the surrounding islands, and very few foreigners were allowed to remain in Madagascar. Historians describe her reign as “a reign of terror”, characterized by a tyrannical and exploitative ruling against her people, and brutal repressions towards the revolted populations1,2,3. However, considerable industrial development and Malagasy nationalism and independence were strengthened during her era.

Left: Radama I. Right: Malagasy Woman>
              <figcaption class=Left: Radama I. Painting by Philippe-Auguste Ramanankirahina, 1905. credit, Right: "Malagasy Woman" by Antonion Zeno Shindler, 1813 credit

This was not the case when her successor Radama II took the power. He was in fact overly ambitious to finalize the modernization of Madagascar with the help of foreign powers, a complete shift of direction compared with the earlier period. Radama II allowed Christianity to be taught and welcomed foreigners to invest in the country. He even allowed them to purchase and own land, which was contrary to Malagasy traditions. The excessive openness of Radama II towards foreigners resulted in him being killed by political opponents after only 2 years as a king. His wife Ravodozakandriana took power after him. Learning from the lesson of his death, the queen navigated between traditionalism and modernity, and shared the power with her prime minister. Her successor, queen Ranavalona II, made a big shift in Malagasy politics by converting to Christianity with her husband in 1869 1. It is important to note that they have converted to Protestantism (supported officially by Britain), and not to Catholicism (supported by France). Later that century, many interesting developments took place in the country. Already in 1881, school was made compulsory for all children over the age of seven. There were hospitals and high courts in the country. Moreover, the Merina kingdom (also called kingdom of Madagascar), that was recognized by French and British governments, had signed several international treaties with them. Clearly, Madagascar had the structure and institutions of a modern state. It was nonetheless colonized by France in 1896 which significantly worsened the living conditions of the Malagasy people.


Studying the history of Madagascar before its colonization highlights unique facts about pre-colonial Africa. Strikingly, by the end of the 19th century, Madagascar had all the elements (organizational and institutional) of a modern state. Nevertheless, it was still colonized after severe resistance. Learning about the Malagasy context in the 19th century gives an interesting viewpoint and angle to our reflections about our own past, and how and by whom it was narrated.


1Ajayi, J F Ade (ed) General History of Africa. VI. Africa in the Nineteenth Century until the 1880s, James Currey, UNESCO 1998

2 Ayache, Simon. Esquisse pour le portrait d'une reine, Ranavalona 1ère. Université de Madagascar, 1966.

3 Kamhi, Alison. "Perceptions of Ranavalona I: A Malagasy Historic Figure as a Thematic Symbol of Malagasy Attitudes Toward History." Letter from the Editors-in-Chief (2002): 29.s