The island of Madagascar has long served as a point of social and economic contact among the peoples of Africa and the Indian Ocean region. The wealth of its natural resources and its position at the axis of transoceanic and coastal trade routes attracted disparate populations whose contributions to local cultures were multiple. Arab and Swahili traders introduced Islam through trade relations and colonization, while Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English merchants were a regular presence on the island from the sixteenth century onward. Echoes of Malagasy culture are found in African societies across the Mozambique Channel in the present-day southeast African nations of Tanzania, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.
Formation of the Maroserana and Merina Kingdoms
Madagascar's disparate populations were traditionally organized into small, ethnically based communities that subsisted on trade, agriculture, and cattle herding. Sometime in the early seventeenth century, however, a dynastic class of rulers emerged that created a series of large-scale kingdoms in the southern and western regions of the island. Known as the Maroserana, these monarchs subdued local peoples and reorganized social structures to take greater advantage of the region's fertile plains and marshlands. The sudden appearance of the Maroserana in Malagasy history remains largely unexplained. Linguistic and ethnographic evidence suggests that they may have been immigrants from the mainland kingdom of Mwene Mutapa, a regional power that controlled trading routes in southeast Africa. Regardless of their origins, this elite group introduced structures of statecraft that significantly altered the ethnic and political face of western and southern Madagascar.
The Maroserana kings adopted the cultural traditions of their subjects and then spread them through territorial expansion. It was through this process that the practices and beliefs of two ethnic groups, the Sakalava and the Mahafaly, became dominant throughout western and southern Madagascar, respectively. This was especially apparent in the growth of the Menabé and Boina kingdoms, which disseminated Sakalava practices of royal ancestral worship that were central to the ruler's power. The fragmentary remains of deceased Sakalava monarchs were preserved in reliquaries and venerated through the royal dady cult, while the ancestors themselves spoke through royally appointed spirit mediums in a tradition known as tromba. The explicit connections to his forbears legitimated and strengthened the king's rule. In the smaller Mahafaly kingdom, local artisanal practices such as metal smithing and honey production were institutionalized as the Maroserana rulers formed official relations with indigenous clans who specialized in these practices.
In the central highlands, several small chiefdoms were united to form the Merina kingdom in the early seventeenth century. This polity had no connection to the Maroserana ruling class. The founder of the Merina kingdom, Ralambo, introduced numerous social and political institutions to shape and reinforce centralized rule. Primary among these was a council of twelve sampy, guardians of the state amulets that served to strengthen and protect the power of the court (1999.443). Divine status was bestowed upon ancestral monarchs, and royal circumcision, among other ceremonies, was implemented. Finally, new noble and artisanal classes were created. Merina rulers developed the marshy lands of the central highlands for rice cultivation, which provided an important dietary staple as well as a trade product that was exchanged for European firearms. Although riven by civil war in the late eighteenth century, the kingdom was reunited under the ruler Andrianampoinimerina around 1780, and in the nineteenth century became a dominant political force in Madagascar.