POPULATION: 23.57 million (2014)

AREA: 226,658 sq. mi. (587,044 sq. km)

LANGUAGES: Malagasy and French (both official)


PRINCIPAL RELIGIONS: Traditional 52%, Christian 41%, Muslim 7%

CITIESAntananarivo (capital), 1,507,000 (2000 est.); Mahajanga, Toamasina, Fianarantsoa, Antseranana

ANNUAL RAINFALL: Varies from 120–190 in. (3,000–5,000 mm) on the east coast to 20 in. (510 mm) in the southwest

ECONOMY: GDP $10.59 billion (2014)


  • Agricultural: coffee, cloves, vanilla, shellfish, beans, rice, sugar, cassava, peanuts, livestock
  • Manufacturing: meat processing, textiles, petroleum products
  • Mining: chromite, graphite, coal, bauxite

GOVERNMENT: Independence from France, 1960. Republic with president elected by universal suffrage. Governing bodies: Assemblee Nationale, Senate, and prime minister appointed by the president.


  • 1960–1972 President Philibert Tsiranana
  • 1972–1975 Prime Minister Major General Cabriel Ramanantsoa
  • Feb. 1975 General Gilles Andriamahazo
  • 1975–1993 President Didier Ratsiraka
  • 1993–1996 President Albert Zafy
  • 1996–1997 Interim president Norbet Ratsirahonana
  • 1997– President Didier Ratsiraka


EDUCATION: Compulsory for ages 6–13; literacy rate 46%


The island nation of Madagascar lies off the southeastern coast of Africa. A most unusual place, the island contains an amazing diversity of plants, animals, and environments. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Madagascar, though, is the origin of its people—trying to determine where they came from and when they arrived.


Although now an island, Madagascar at one time belonged to a giant continent called Gondwanaland that also included Africa, India, and Australia. This continent broke up some 150 million years ago, and Madagascar drifted to its current location about 240 miles from mainland Africa.

Madagascar consists of low-lying coasts surrounding a central plateau with mountains reaching nearly 9,500 feet. The western half of the island rises gradually from the coast in a series of hills and plateaus to the more mountainous interior. The eastern part contains a narrow coastal strip bordered by steep cliffs and mountainsides that rise abruptly to the central plateau.

At one time rain forests covered much of the island's interior, but over the centuries most of them have been cleared for agriculture. Major forests remain only on the mountains near the eastern coast and in the far northwest. Most of the island's interior hills are covered with thin vegetation. Savannas dominate the western part of Madagascar, while the south is quite dry and contains large areas of semidesert.

Trade winds from the southeast blow across Madagascar throughout the year. From December to May these winds meet monsoon winds coming from the northwest. During this period, rain falls almost every day, with the east coast receiving more than the west coast. Between May and October the weather becomes generally cooler and drier, and at higher elevations temperatures can fall to freezing. Madagascar has many local climate variations as well, and changes from one area to the next can be dramatic.


Although little is known of its early history, it appears that Madagascar was settled by people from lands bordering the Indian Ocean. When they arrived is still a mystery. In a relatively short time these different peoples created a uniform culture, but one with distinctive differences in various parts of the island. This combination of unity and diversity has been an important factor in Madagascar's historical and political development.

Early History

Archaeological evidence indicates that Madagascar was one of the last places on earth to be settled by humans. The earliest traces of humans date back around 1,900 years, but the first continuously occupied site is much more recent—from about the A.D. 700s. Linguistic evidence suggests that the early settlers probably came from Africa and from what is now Indonesia. Researchers have found a relationship between the local Malagasy language and languages spoken on the Indonesian island of Borneo and have also demonstrated the significant influence of BANTU languages of eastern and southern Africa.

Genetic evidence indicates that the ancestors of the Malagasy, the people of Madagascar, came from India and lands surrounding the Persian Gulf as well as from Africa and Indonesia. Some scholars believe that Africans were the island's first settlers, joined later by Asians. Others think that the Asian populations came first and the Africans arrived later. Still others suggest that Asian immigrants migrated to Africa where they mixed with local peoples and that the descendants of the mixed population later settled on Madagascar.

In any event, by about 1350 the original inhabitants of Madagascar had spread out across the island and established settlements both along the coasts and in the interior. Most of these early sites were small farming or herding communities, but the northwest coast had an urban trading center called Mahilaka of about 10,000 inhabitants.

Between the early 1500s and mid-1700s, a number of kingdoms arose in Madagascar alongside many scattered groups with no central authority. The largest of these kingdoms, Madagascar, belonged to the Merina. Their king, Ratsimilaho, hoped to unify the island, but he died in 1750 before he could accomplish that task. The failure to unite the various kingdoms marked the beginning of a period of instability that ended with the French conquest of Madagascar in the late 1800s.

Anarchy and Consolidation

After Ratsimilaho died, his kingdom was divided among his four sons and soon fell into disarray. It was not reunited until the reign of King Andrianampoinimerina (1783–1810), who launched a series of military campaigns to conquer neighboring peoples. His successor, Radama I (1810–1828), extended Merina control over about two-thirds of the island.

The British governor of MAURITIUS helped Radama expand, providing military technology and other assistance in hopes of keeping the island out of French hands. Radama was succeeded by Queen Ranavalona I, who came from a nonnoble Merina clan called the Hova. Under her rule, the Hova increased their power and wealth at the expense of the rest of the Malagasy peoples. Ranavalona was more hostile to European influence, even closing the island's ports to outside trade.

Merina rule was far from popular on Madagascar. Most of the conquered peoples had no desire to be governed by the Merina, who exploited them politically and economically. The situation became worse under King Radama II (1861–1863), who reopened Madagascar to European influence. He rashly adopted many Western ways that were unpopular with most Malagasy. Radama II was assassinated. His brother succeeded him but was overthrown after only one year. In 1864 Rainilaiarivony, the Merina prime minister, took control of the kingdom. Ruling for more than 30 years, he reorganized and modernized the army and adopted more favorable policies toward the non-Merina population.

Rainilaiarivony and his queen, Ranavalona II, converted to Protestantism in 1869. Because only educated Merina followed their lead, the conversion further widened the gulf between the Merina and non-Merina Malagasy. Tensions increased as the Merina became more Westernized. However, internal division was only one problem with which Rainilaiarivony had to deal. His kingdom also faced the threat of France's colonial ambitions.

French Conquest and Colonialism

In the early 1860s, the Merina ruler Radama II signed a treaty with a Frenchman named Lambert. Called the Lambert Charter, it granted the French territorial rights to part of Madagascar. The agreement was later canceled by the Malagasy ruler.

Relations with France grew worse when the Merina kingdom adopted Protestantism (France was a Catholic country). The French responded by claiming the land mentioned in the Lambert Charter. Madagascar appealed without success to both Great Britain and the United States, and in 1883 the French invaded the island.

The Franco-Malagasy War lasted two years and ended in victory for Madagascar, which maintained its independence. In 1890, however, France and Britain signed an agreement that recognized France's right to establish a protectorate over the island. In return, the French agreed to a British protectorate over ZANZIBAR.

In 1895 the French again invaded Madagascar and quickly defeated Merina forces. The Merina rulers then signed a treaty in which they agreed to the protectorate. The next year Merina nobles led an uprising against French rule. The French crushed the rebellion and exiled the queen, bringing an end to the Kingdom of Madagascar. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, the French put down several other rebellions on the island.

Under French rule, Madagascar's cities were modernized; ports, roads, and railroads were built; and French settlers arrived on the island. These colonists were given various special privileges, such as the right to use forced Malagasy labor. The Malagasy were taxed and compelled to serve in the French army. Those who failed to obey French authority received harsh punishments. The French also outlawed trade unions and restricted freedom of the press. Malagasy discontent with colonial rule rose after World War I, but in the 1930s a change in the French government led to some improvement in conditions.

Malagasy involvement in World War II helped move the country toward independence. In 1944 Madagascar was allowed to send four elected representatives to the French parliament. Two years later the island's first independent political party was founded. Madagascar became an overseas territory of France, which gave French citizenship to all Malagasy.

Although white settlers and civil servants resisted the changes sweeping Madagascar, nationalist feelings intensified. In 1947 the Malagasy Revolt erupted. French reaction was swift and brutal, with some 90,000 Malagasy killed in violent reprisals. Although the rebellion was crushed, the island remained in a state of siege for nearly ten years as France tried to maintain control by force.

By this time events were racing beyond French control. In 1956 pressure from abroad led France to allow internal self-rule to its overseas territories. Two years later Madagascar voted to become a self-governing republic within the French community. In 1958 Madagascar adopted a new constitution calling for complete independence, which France granted in June 1960.

After Independence

The first president of the newly independent nation was a former schoolteacher, Philibert Tsiranana. He maintained close ties with France and became one of the founders of the ORGANIZATION OF AFRICAN UNITY (OAU). Reelected twice as president, Tsiranana hoped to improve the lives of Malagasy peasants. However, he angered the people by trading with South Africa, known for its harsh treatment of blacks and Asians under apartheid. Moreover, during Tsiranana's rule, Europeans assumed leading positions in Madagascar's economy, which was strongly focused on trade with France. This trade benefited France more than it did Madagascar. The level of corruption in government was also high, and many young Malagasy saw little hope for a better future.

Disappointment with Tsiranana's rule led in 1972 to the rise of a student movement and to a series of strikes and rebellions. The killing of 400 demonstrators by the police caused opposition parties to boycott elections that year. When the army refused to support Tsiranana, he asked the army commander, General Gabriel Ramanantsoa, to form a new government.

After taking power, Ramanantsoa met with French leaders to arrange the closing of French military bases on Madagascar and the withdrawal of foreign troops. At the same time, he developed closer ties with African nations, released political prisoners, introduced economic reforms, took steps to curb corruption, and replaced French teachers and civil servants with Malagasy.

Despite Ramanantsoa's efforts, opponents attempted a coup in 1974, and the following year he gave up power. But his successor was assassinated six days later, and the military formed yet another government. The man chosen to lead the country was Lieutenant Didier Ratsiraka, who had served as Ramanantsoa's foreign minister.

Leftist Ratsiraka nationalized many businesses and encouraged collective agricultural policies. Moderately successful at first, these policies soon led to economic decline, and Madagascar was forced to adopt tough economic reforms to qualify for international loans. These reforms stabilized some parts of the economy, but also led to higher food prices, food shortages, and greater unemployment as the nationalized companies came under private ownership. Despite these difficulties, Ratsiraka was reelected in 1983.

After his reelection, Ratsiraka tried to turn Madagascar into a oneparty state. He restricted freedom of the press as well as the formation of new political parties. Elected again in 1989 with support from the military, Ratsiraka eventually bowed to pressure from church leaders and other groups and restored many of the freedoms he had taken away. However, this did not prevent unrest, and in 1991 a massive demonstration calling for more democracy ended in violence when police fired on the crowd, killing many demonstrators.

During this time a doctor named Albert Zafy emerged as a leading opponent of Ratsiraka's government. In 1992 a new constitution was adopted that limited presidential powers. In elections held later that year, Zafy became president. However, the new government was unstable, with several prime ministers coming and going during the next four years.

In 1996 Zafy was impeached by the parliament after a long-running feud and removed from office. In the elections that followed, the voters returned Ratsiraka to power. Ratsiraka then proposed changes to the constitution that strengthened presidential powers. Voters, not fully understanding the changes and hoping to end some of the instability that plagued Zafy's presidency, approved the measures by a slim margin. Ratsiraka has since made moves to consolidate his power while putting together a government that reflects the diversity of Madagascar's population. His cabinet included members of many different ethnic groups.


About 75 percent of Madagascar's working population is engaged in agriculture. The staple crop is rice, which is grown in the lowlands on marshy plains and in the highlands on terraces carved into the sides of mountains. At one time rice was also a major export crop, but the failure of various agricultural policies has forced Madagascar to import rice. The island's main exports now are crops such as coffee, sugar, cloves, vanilla, pepper, and tobacco. The instability of world prices for these products is a major reason for Madagascar's slow economic growth. However, soil erosion caused by the massive clearing of forests and overgrazing of livestock has also led to a decline in agriculture.

Madagascar's industry includes some mining and manufacturing, but these activities play only a minor role in the economy. In the late 1990s, a mining boom in sapphires contributed little to the island's income and caused great environmental damage. As a result of its weak economy and slow economic growth, Madagascar is heavily dependent upon foreign aid, particularly from France.


In the colonial era the French divided the Malagasy into 20 different ethnic groups, but ethnicity is not a useful basis for classification. The Malagasy themselves form communities based on KINSHIP, shared location and customs, and common histories and leadership.

The largest Malagasy group, the Merina, make up about 25 percent of the population. They live in the central highlands. Most Merina make their living as rice farmers, but those who live in cities work in government or as traders or teachers. The Merina are highly literate and largely Christian.

The Betsimisaraka of the central east coast, the second largest group, are also mainly rice farmers. The Betsimisaraka arose from families who banded together to control the SLAVE TRADE. The Merina conquered them during the 1800s, and a shared history of domination by the Merina is part of their group identity. Traditional ancestor worship is still common among the Betsimisaraka, but Christianity has gained converts.

Perhaps the most important distinction among the Malagasy is between the Merina and the cotier (“coastal peoples”). The term cotier refers to non-Merina groups. These peoples share a history of domination by the Merina that continued under colonial rule. The French relied on the Merina to administer their colonial government, which gave the group many advantages in education and other areas. The Merina still exercise most economic and political power, though President Ratsiraka is a cotier.

While the Merina-cotier rivalry pulls the country apart, the common Malagasy language helps to keep it together. Also beneficial is the fact that the national borders are based on geography rather than imposed by colonial powers. Thus, unlike most of Africa, Madagascar has escaped the problem of having competing ethnic groups forced together to form a modern state. (See also Boundaries in Africa, Colonialism in AfricaEthnic Groups and Identity.)