The history of Madagascar is rooted in the diverse people who journeyed here throughout the centuries, making the huge island their home and integrating into an independent democratic state over a thousand years. The archipelago’s rich culture represents its 18 ethnicities with their different religious beliefs, heritage,and the strong influence of the relatively short French colonial era.
The reason behind Madagascar’s fantastic biodiversity is the island’s long isolation from neighboring India and Africa, beginning when the land split from the ancient supercontinents almost 90 million years ago. Initial settlement by humans began in 500 AD, with the original Sunda Island tribes joined by Bantu migrants around 1,000 years ago.
Many other ethnicities followed over the years, making up the 18 ethnic groups presently on the island. Until the early 19th century, Madagascar's political history encompassed a succession of rulers cementing various socio-political agreements with other tribal kings. By the Middle Ages, a number of individual European ethnic groups had emerged, all ruled by a local chieftain. The leaders of the Betsimisaraka, Sakalava and Merina communities saw an opportunity to unite the tribes and establish a bigger kingdom under their rule.
Trading with Arab, European and other seafaring nations increased the kingdoms’ wealth, but pirate activity resulted in setting up the infamous free pirate colony of Libertatia on St Mary’s Island. The Merina and Sakalava kingdoms traded Malagasy slaves for European firearms and cash. By the early 19th century, the Merino nobility had taken the throne, united the majority of the island and designated a ruler over the Kingdom of Madagascar who was succeeded by a series of related nobles.
Close diplomatic ties to Britain resulted in the introduction of European-style infrastructure and schools. In 1887, the French took over to the annoyance of Britain, the precarious monarchy collapsed and the country was absorbed into the French Colonial Empire. Independence wasn’t achieved until 1960, and resulted in four successive periods known as republics.
The islands finally became a constitutional democracy in 1992, governed from Antananorivo by an elected president, until a populist uprising in 2009 unseated the latest incumbent, Marc Ravalomanana, and resulted in presidential power being transferred to Andy Rajoelina. The move was regarded by the international community as a coup, and was not seen as a helpful development although it was widely known that Ravalomanana had not spread the results of economic growth fairly amongst the people.
The culture of Madagascar is rooted in diverse tribal heritages and customs, with ancestor respect and traditional festivals at its heart. Although Islam and Christianity are the dominant religions, most villages defer to a soothsayer and healer to predict the future and cure illness. Traditional music and dance originating from Indonesia and Africa are a vital part of all ceremonies and festivals, and reinforce the links to the archipelago’s long history.
Family is all-important, and male circumcision is still performed, although nowadays it’s done at the local hospital whilst family and friends celebrate at home. Recent laws have improved the status of women's rights in Malagasy society as well as in the workplace, although rural women still engage in petty commerce to supplement the husband’s earnings. The fady, taboos are still respected in many regions and govern daily lives, while visitors planning to tour the country should ask a local about traditions to avoid being accidentally offensive.