The French Republic of Madagascar is an island country in the Indian Ocean. It lies off the southeast coast of Africa. Neighbouring islands include the French territory of Réunion and the island of Mauritius. Mozambique is the nearest mainland, to the west. Additionally, the Seychelles are to the north east.
The land of Madagascar split off from the Indian peninsula around 88 million years ago. Native plants and animals evolved in an isolated environment. Consequently, Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot. Surprisingly, over 90% of its wildlife is found nowhere else in the world. For example, the Traveler’s Palm, known locally as “Ravinala”. This iconic plant features on the national flag.
The central highlands of Madagascar are mostly terraced, rice paddy fields. Lush Tropical rainforest sits along the eastern coast bordering the Indian Ocean. West of the highlands the terrain becomes more arid, gradually sloping down to the Mozambique Channel. There are mangroves along the west coast.
The history of the Island
Austronesian people arrived on outrigger canoes from Borneo around 350 BC. Hundreds of years later, Bantu migrants crossed the Mozambique Channel to the main island, from East Africa. Settlers from local regions arrived over time, making lasting contributions to Madagascar’s culture. The first Arab traders reached the island around the seventh century. They established trading posts along the northwest coast and began to introduce the Islamic culture.
In the 1400s, Venetian explorer Marco Polo recorded the name “Madageiscar” on his map. He confused the sighting with Mogadishu in Somalia. Two centuries later, the French eventually established trading ports along the east coast, in the 1600s. Madagascar gained prominence among pirates and European navigators, especially slave-traders. Many European ships wrecked along the coast.
The Kingdom of Madagascar
Until the 19th-century, various tribal alliances ruled the island. However, the Merina people were the first tribe to unite the people and create the Kingdom of Madagascar. An 1817 treaty with the British governor of Mauritius abolished the lucrative slave trade in return for British military assistance. Subsequently, the London Missionary Society sent representatives to establish schools and to translate the Bible into the local language. Malagasy is the name of both the local people and their language.
France invaded Madagascar in 1883 and later declared the island a French colony. The royal family went into exile on Réunion Island and then to Algeria. Consequently, most people on the island speak both French and Malagasy.
In 1960, the island gained independence from France, but the path of independence has not run smoothly. Election discrepancies, corruption and differences of international opinion have dogged each government since the 1960s. In January 2014, Hery Rajaonarimampianina became President.
The combination of southeastern trade winds and the northwestern monsoon creates a hot, rainy season. This time of year, from November–April can also see cyclones. The rest of the year is relatively cool and dry. Rain over the Indian Ocean discharges most of the moisture onto the east coast. The west stays much drier.
Tropical cyclones can severely damage the island and people have died. In 2004 Cyclone Gafilo was the strongest cyclone ever recorded on the island. 172 people died, 214,260 became homeless. It cost over US$250 million to repair the damage.