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Madagascar is the world’s fourth largest island. Measuring 1600 km north-south and 600 km east-west, it lies in the Indian Ocean, 500 km off the south-east coast of Africa . It is an island of spectacular beauty and ecology, an estimated three-quarters of which is unique.

Madagascar’s topography and geography are very varied. Essentially, the island comprises a central highland region which runs north-south down its spine, flanked by two coastal strips which meet the Mozambique Channel on the western seaboard and the Indian Ocean on the eastern. The highlands rise up to over 2800 metres (9100 feet). The coasts possess beautiful beaches largely unsullied by major tourist developments. Between the two are landscapes dominated by extraordinary rock formations.

The capital, Antananarivo (‘Tana’) lies roughly in the centre of the island. Surrounded by twelve hills, it is one of the world’s highest capitals at 1310 metres (4260 feet). Other major towns are Toamasina (usually called ‘Tamatave’) on the east coast and Toliara (pronounced ‘Tuléar’) on the west coast.
Parts of the island are covered by rain forest reflecting the island’s tropical climate and home to lemurs, chameleons, trees (including the baobab) and plants which exist nowhere else. Average temperatures range between 10 degs C in the dry winter months (April to September) and 30 deg C in the summer (October to March). The rainy season usually runs from December to March. However, Madagascar has several microclimates which create substantial regional variations.

Madagascar ‘s 18 million people are mostly descended from Indonesian seafarers who settled the island some 2,000 years ago. However, there are also strong African, Arab and, latterly, European and Chinese influences.

Until 1960, Madagascar was a French colony. The president of Madagascar now is Andry Rajoelina. French remains an official language along with the indigenous Malagasy.Very little English is spoken.

The majority of the population are Christian, mostly Catholic although there are also growing Protestant sects including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists. Animist beliefs based on ancestor worship are also prevalent. Around 10 per cent of the population are Muslim.

Madagascar has recently changed currency from the Malagasy Franc (MgF) to the Ariary. In August 2006, the Ariary became the sole legal tender, although prices are still often quoted in Malagasy Francs. The conversion between the two is fixed at 5 MgF = 1 Ariary. The exchange rate in August 2006 was £1 = Ariary 3600.
Sterling can only be exchanged at banks in the main towns. Travellers are advised to take Euros or US dollars. (€1 = Ariary 2600). ATMs are available in major towns.
Time in Madagascar is GMT + 3 hours
Electricity is 220 V AC. Two-pin plugs are standard.


Madagascar is home to one of the worlds less widely known human cultures. Situated in the Indian Ocean, over 400 kilometres from the coast of Mozambique, it cannot really be said to be part of Africa, especially as Malagasy cultures, and particularly the Malagasy language, have more in common with Asia, and specifically Indonesia, than they do with Africa.

The difficulty which Western social scientists have had in deciding how to classify Madagascar, other than as a part of what until recently was called the Third World, causes no similar confusion among the 12 million people who live in Madagascar. They have a strong sense of their own identity. Scholarly doubts over how to classify Malagasy society, while they do not bother the Malagasy themselves, and only occasionally disturb the small group of professional Madagascar specialists, have nevertheless had a considerable effect on the literature. Quite simply Madagascar does not fit easily into either the African or the Asian category used in area studies, and only occasionally does an individual social scientist, typically an anthropologist or a historian, stumble across the world’s fourth-biggest island. The study of Madagascarþs human culture has become the monopoly of a rather small group of specialists. Like all specialist groups they have a tendency to talk among themselves in ways which are difficult for non-initiates to penetrate.
This is all the more a pity in that Madagascar presents raw materials of exceptional quality for social science, particularly in the field of history. Madagascar is one of fairly few parts of Africa (that is, if we consider it African at all; it is a member-state of the Organisation of African Unity) where there existed a pre-colonial state governed by a literate bureaucracy which has left abundant archives. These are quite well catalogued and, until recently at least, were open for use by historians. 70 Years before the country was colonized by France, the central highlands were the home of the Merina kingdom which has left behind diplomatic and administrative correspondence, memoirs, tax and judicial records and many of the documents which are the staple diet of Western historiography. In addition, the British and French diplomatic and missionary archives covering Madagascar are particularly good from the early 19th century onwards. It is partly because of the richness of its historical materials that Madagascar has also been a fruitful area for anthropological research. Some of the classical anthropological studies which have taken Madagascar, or parts of it, as their theme have gained in value from being able to trace the evolution of cultural patterns over time, sometimes over quite considerable time.
Inasmuch as malgachisants – as academic specialists are known – have had a background in area studies, it has tended to be a grounding in Africa rather than Asia. This is rather paradoxical, for not only is the Malagasy language of the Malayo-Polynesian group, but it is generally believed that Madagascarþs earliest immigrants were probably of Indonesian origin, and subsequent influences have been assimilated into what is still sometimes recognizable as an Indonesian-related culture. Despite the existence of a number of excellent works on the Malagasy language, it has been relatively little studied by specialists of Asia who may find in Malagasy culture, and in the language especially, clues as to the history of some Asian languages which have developed from common roots.
Just as Madagascar has been the preserve of specialists in the academic world, so it has also in the business and commercial world. Madagascarþs economy has stagnated since the early 1970s, and it is rarely the subject of international attention for this reason. Periodic attempts to build a tourist industry have not led to the development of mass tourism, and, in general, those outsiders who have personal knowledge of the island remain rather few in number.

First inhabitants

Until the publication of Sir Mervyn Brown’s recent History of Madagascar, there did not exist an English-language history of the island from earliest times until today. Sir Mervyn Brown came to know the island when he was accredited as the British ambassador there some 20 years ago. He invested time and energy to the study of things Malagasy to the extent of learning the language and reading extensively on its history. In 1978 he published a history of Madagascar up to the end of the colonial period which he called Madagascar Rediscovered, based partly on original research in archives and on manuscript sources. He has now produced a second edition so substantially altered and updated as to warrant a new title. It is a good read, and can be recommended as a starting-point for anyone interested to know more about Madagascar, whether because they are travelling there, or contemplating doing research, or are simply curious.
This new book, A History of Madagascar, is divided into five parts. The first part, which actually occupies less than a tenth of the book’s total length, describes briefly the physical geography of the island and discusses its first inhabitants. As with much early African history, much of this is based on the analysis of modern language and culture, supplemented by a few precious archaeological records. Specialists have tended to divide into those emphasizing the Indonesian or Asian-Indonesian origin of the Malagasy, and those emphasizing the African or at least the creole aspect of Madagascars first inhabitants. Sir Mervyn Brown sides with the majority point of view in suggesting that the first inhabitants of Madagascar were groups of Indonesian origin who had gradually migrated around the Indian Ocean rim, touching the East African coast before settling in Madagascar, a process which probably took place over a considerable period of time, beginning in the earliest centuries of the Christian era.


July 2018
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