Madagascar, officially the Republic of Madagascar, is an island nation in the Indian Ocean, off the eastern coast of Africa. The main island, also called Madagascar, is the fourth largest island in the world. It is the home of five percent of the world's plant and animal species, 80 percent of which are unique to Madagascar. Among its most notable examples of biodiversity are the lemur infraorder of primates, three endemic bird families and six endemic baobab species. The adjective (language, ethnicity and citizenship) derived from Madagascar is Malagasy (pronounced "mal-gazh"). The primary language spoken in Madagascar is Malagasy.
Archeologists place the first arrival of humans on the island to the years between 200 and 500 C.E., when
seafarers from southeast Asia, probably Kalimantan or the southern Sulawesi, arrived after crossing thousands of miles of open ocean in their outrigger canoes. The feat represented the western-most branch of the great Austronesian expansion.
The written history of Madagascar began in the 7th century, when Arabs established trading posts along the northwest coast. European contact began in the 1500s, when Portuguese sea captain Diego Dias sighted the island after his ship became separated from a fleet going to India. In the late 17th century, the French established trading posts along the east coast. From about 1774 to 1824, it was a favourite haunt for pirates, including Americans, one of whom brought Malagasy rice to South Carolina.
During the Middle Ages, the chiefs of the different settlements on the island began to extend their power through trade with Madagascar's Indian Ocean neighbors, notably North Africa, the Middle-east and India. Large chiefdoms began to dominate considerable areas of the island. Among these were the Sakalava chiefdoms of the Menabe, centered in what is now the town of Morondava, and of Boina, centered in what is now the provincial capital of Mahajanga (Majunga). The influence of the Sakalava extended across what is now the provinces of Antsiranana, Mahajanga and Toliara. But with the domination of the Indian Ocean by the British fleet and the end of the Arab slave trade, the Sakalava would lose their power to the emerging Merina threat. For a short time the Betsimisaraka of the east coast also unified, but this unification was short-lived.
Beginning in the 1790s, Merina rulers succeeded in establishing hegemony over the major part of the island, including the coast. In 1817, the Merina ruler and the British governor of Mauritius concluded a treaty abolishing the slave trade, which had been important in Madagascar's economy. In return, the island received British military and financial assistance. British influence remained strong for several decades, during which the Merina court was converted to Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, and Anglicanism.
France invaded Madagascar in 1883 in what became known as the first Franco-Hova War (Hova being the name of the Merina aristocrats), eeking to restore property that had been confiscated from French citizens. At the war’s end, Madagascar ceded Antsiranana (Diégo Suarez) on the northern coast to France and paid 560,000 gold francs to the heirs of Joseph-François Lambert. The British accepted the imposition of a French protectorate over Madagascar in 1885 in return for eventual control over Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) and as part of an overall definition of spheres of influence in the area.
In Europe, meanwhile, diplomats partitioning the Africa continent worked out an agreement whereby Britain, to obtain the Sultanate of Zanzibar, ceded its share of Heligoland to Germany and renounced all claims to Madagascar in favor of France. The agreement spelled doom for Madagascar. Prime Minister Rainilaiarivory had succeeded in playing England and France against one another, but now France could meddle without fear of reprisals from England. In 1895, a French flying column landed in Mahajanga (Majunga) and marched to the capital, Antananarivo, where the city’s defenders were taken by surprise, as they were expecting an attack from the much closer east coast. Twenty French soldiers died fighting and 6,000 died of malaria and other diseases before the second Franco-Hova War ended.
Absolute French control over Madagascar was established by military force in 1895-1896, and in 1896, the French Parliament voted to annex Madagascar. The 103-year-old Merina monarchy ended with the royal family being sent into exile in Algeria. In December 1904, the Russian Baltic Fleet stopped at Diego Suarez for coal and provisions before sailing on to its doomed encounter with the Japanese Fleet in the Battle of Tsushima. Before leaving port the Russian sailors were required to put ashore the animals they had acquired, including monkeys, boa constrictors and one crocodile.
During World War II, Malagasy troops fought in France, Morocco, and Syria. Immediately preceding the fall of France, Germany initiated planning to forcibly deport all of Europe's Jews to Madagascar in what was known as the Madagascar Plan. Action on the plan was never begun. After France fell to Germany, the Vichy government administered Madagascar. British troops occupied the strategic island in 1942 to preclude its seizure by the Japanese. The Free French received the island from the United Kingdom in 1943.
In 1947, with French prestige at low ebb, a nationalist uprising was suppressed after several months of bitter fighting with 100,000 persons killed and this after Malagasy troops had to fight for France during the World War II. The French subsequently established reformed institutions in 1956 under the Loi Cadre (Overseas Reform Act), and Madagascar moved peacefully toward independence. The Malagasy Republic was proclaimed on October 14, 1958, as an autonomous state within the French Community. A period of provisional government ended with the adoption of a constitution in 1959 and full independence on June 26, 1960.