An island not to miss: to the 18th century AD

As a very large island in the Indian Ocean (1000 miles from north to south, and in land area more than twice the size of Great Britain), Madagascar is a natural landfall for seafarers sailing east from Africa or west from Indonesia.

Although the voyage from Indonesia is by far the longer, the ethnic make-up of the island's population, known collectively as the Malagasy, is as much Indonesian as African. Similarly the Malagasy language falls within an Indonesian group, though it also contains many words of African and colonial origin (Bantu, Swahili and Arabic from the first group, English and French from the second).

The island is first known to Europeans after being sighted in 1500 by a Portuguese ship on the new Route to india, but it is not until a century later that much outside attention is paid to the place. In the 17th century Portuguese missionaries try to bring to the Malagasy the news of Christianity, and both Britain and France attempt to establish settlements.

France is the more successful, maintaining a garrison at Fort-Dauphin for thirty years. A massacre brings their presence to an end in 1674 (though the kings of France continue to claim rights over the island). Subsequently the only Europeans here tend to be pirates. Madagascar is one of Captain Kidd's favourite ports of call for shelter and provisions.

Meanwhile, and of greater local significance, substantial kingdoms are beginning to be established at this same period by some of the island's many competing rulers. By the middle of the 17th century almost half the island, in the west and north, is ruled by a dynasty emerging from the Sakalava tribes.

The Sakalava dominance, declining in the 18th century, is followed by that of a Merina family from the central plateau. The Merina kingdom is firmly established by a forceful ruler with a name to test the memory, Andrianampoinimerina. On his death in 1810 he bequeaths to his son, Radama, the challenge of conquering the entire island. The sea, he says, should be the boundary of the Merina ricefield.

The Merina ricefield: AD 1810-1897

Radama I, inheriting his kingdom at the age of eighteen, expands it very successfully during the rest of his short life. He does not quite extend the Merina ricefield to every shore of the island, as his father urged, but he wins control over perhaps two thirds of its large land mass.

He does so with British help. After agreeing to abolish the export of slaves and to accept a British agent at his court in Antananarivo, he receives many concrete benefits - an annual subsidy, arms and ammunition, training and uniforms for his troops. A script is devised for the Malagasy language. Printing is introduced. And members of the London Missionary Society set about the task of converting the Malagasy to Protestant Christianity.

This busy state of affairs is brought to an abrupt end by the early death of Radama in 1828. He is succeeded on the throne by his queen, Ranavalona, who reverses all his policies. Most of the Europeans are expelled, the newly baptized Christians are persecuted (some 200 are killed), and in 1835 the Christian religion is formally banned.

The new policies need not imply chaos and a collapse of the kingdom, but in practice the reign of Ranavalona is characterized by rebellions, wars and brutality. It comes to an end with her death in 1861. Her son, Radama II, immediately opens the island again to European involvement. But within two years he is murdered in his palace - with the complicity of his wife, Rasoherina, who follows him on the throne.

For the next three decades Madagascar, or the greater part of it, is ruled by a succession of three queens - Rasoherina (1863-8), her cousin Ranavalona II (1868-83), and Ranavalona's cousin Ranavalona III (1883-97). But the power behind the throne is a man. Each queen in turn marries the same prime minister, Rainilaiarivony.

The prime minister continues the policy of welcoming back the Europeans (he and his second wife are baptized together soon after the start of her reign), but by the 1880s the European powers are in a new and aggressive mood of Colonialism. In the case of Madagascar this is all too plain in the behaviour of the French.

Arrival of the French: AD 1883-1897

In addition to their early and essentially Notional claim to the island, from a few decades in the 17th century, the French have maintained a close contact with Madagascar during the 19th century. When Ranavalona I expels most of the Europeans, in the 1830s, one of the few who remains is Jean Laborde, a Frenchman who wins considerable influence over the queen. And when her son, Radama II, decides to grant a concession to European entrepreneurs, it is a French company which he chooses.

But by the 1880s the French government is in a more demanding mood. Several decades previously, during the anarchy of Ranavalona I's reign, the French offered protection to the Sakalava tribes in the northwest. Now they claim this region as an official French protectorate.

When their demands are rejected, in 1883, a French warship arrives off the port of Tamatave. A bombardment of the town is followed by the landing of marines. The French force subsequently moves north to capture Diégo-Suarez at the northern tip of the island.

Two years later the prime minister and his current wife sign a treaty which confirms the power of gunboat diplomacy. Madagascar's foreign affairs are from now on to be looked after by France; there is to be a French resident at court; and the region around Diégo-Suarez is to be ceded to France as a useful naval base.

This violent fait accompli causes little concern in European diplomatic circles. Britain gracefully acknowledges that Madagascar is now a French protectorate (in return for a similar French understanding on the British position in Zanzibar). But within Madagascar the situation is not so simple.

Although he has signed the treaty in 1885, the prime minister sets about arming and training an army (British officers are made available to help him). The result is a brief war with a French force sent in 1895 to bring him to heel. Once again it is an uneven contest. The French reach the capital in September 1895. The queen and her husband are sent into exile (in 1897). Madagascar becomes a French colony.

A French colony: AD 1897-1960

Madagascar prospers economically under French rule. Railways are introduced, roads are improved, new crops are cultivated (including coffee and tobacco) to supplement the existing exports of rice and cassava. Soon three quarters of Madagascar's external trade is with France.

In World War II the local administration sides with France's Vichy government. The result is a blockade in 1942 by British and South African ships. When this brings the capitulation of the island, Madagascar is placed under the authority of the Free French.

After the war Madagascar, like all other French colonies, becomes an overseas territory within the French union. This status brings a territorial assembly at Antananarivo and the right to elect deputies to the national assembly in Paris.

But meanwhile a nationalist movement, dating back to the first two decades of the century, has been making progress. In 1947 an insurrection is achieved by the Democratic Movement for Malagasy Renewal (a party to which all three delegates to the French national assembly belong). The resulting warfare between the French army and the insurgents results in an official tally of 11,000 deaths, a figure almost certainly too low.

Again like all French colonies, Madagascar can choose in 1958 between an immediate severing of all links with France or internal autonomy within what is now called the French community. In a referendum the people opt for internal autonomy. Philibert Tsiranana, founder of the Social Democratic Party, becomes president of the provisional government.

Independence follows in 1960, under the new name of the Malagasy republic. Elections confirm Tsiranana in the post of president.

Independence: from AD 1960

Tsiranana remains president of the Malagasy republic for twelve years, until ill health causes him to resign in 1972. He has conducted a pro-western policy, benefiting from the Cold War atmosphere to win the support of the USA and other anti-communist powers.

However the man whom he selects to follow him, Major General Gabriel Ramanantsoa, abruptly reverses this policy. The Soviet Union and other communist countries are now looked to as the source of aid. French military and naval forces are expelled from the country. French commercial concerns are nationalized. Rural reform puts committees in charge of agricultural production for sale to state-owned companies.

Ramanantsoa lasts just three years in charge of this programme. His successor in 1975, Colonel Richard Ratsimandrava, holds power for only six days before he is assassinated in a military coup (bringing the country to the brink of civil war). The incoming junta of officers selects Lieutenant Commander Didier Ratsiraka as president and head of a revolutionary council, which succeeds in maintaining control.

For the next eleven years Ratsiraka continues his predecessors' communist policies, doing increasing damage to the country's economy. Then, in 1986, he abruptly changes tack. Laws are passed to transform Madagascar (the new name adopted for the republic in 1975) into a free-market economy. Western nations respond enthusiastically. France even cancels a national debt of four billion French francs.

However the change of policy does little to enhance the popularity of Ratsiraka's military regime. The move throughout Africa at this time towards multiparty elections has its effect in Madagascar. An opposition grouping emerges - the Forces Vives (or Live Forces), led by Albert Zafy. It is sufficiently strong to force Ratsiraka to yield executive power in 1991 to a transitional government. Elections are held in two rounds in 1992-3.

Zafy is elected president and the Forces Vives win enough seats to head a coalition in the new national assembly. However Madagascar's economy fails to pick up. In 1996 the national assembly votes to impeach Zafy. He stands down to enable a new presidential election to be held.

In an election at the end of 1996 Zafy is defeated by his previous rival, the military dictator with sixteen years' presidential experience, Admiral Didier Ratsiraka. Legislative elections in May 1998 also give control of the national assembly to a colation headed by Ratsiraka's party, AREMA or Avant-garde de la Révolution Malgache (Avant-garde of the Malagasy Revolution).

The wheel has come full circle from Ratsiraka's forced departure from office in 1991. But Madagascar's economic problems have barely improved in the interim, and the island suffers devastating damage from two cyclones early in 2000.