The 1895 French invasion of Madagascar nearly came to grief when General Duchesne lingered for too long in the islands malarial lowlands to construct roads and bridges to support a thrust toward Tananarive. His force melting away from disease, Duchesne was obliged to strike inland with a 1,500-man ‘flying column’.
For most of the eighteenth century, the British and French competed bitterly for ascendancy in the Indian Ocean, but victory in the Napoleonic Wars (1793- 1815) gave predominance in the region to Britain. In the western Indian Ocean, Britain deprived France of its trading posts in Madagascar and of Mauritius and Réunion, returning only the latter to France in the postwar settlement. Stung by the loss of Mauritius, France continued to fight for influence over Madagascar, where it possessed considerable historical claims, based upon former settlements at Fort Dauphin (Taolanaro) (1642-1674), and subsequent trading posts, notably at Fort Dauphin and Antongil Bay. An 1818-1819 French expedition seized Nosy Boraha, an island off the east coast of Madagascar, and Tintingue and Fort Dauphin (Taolanaro) on the mainland. However, malaria decimated colonists, and the fall of Portal from government in Paris in 1821 resulted in the abandonment of a systematic colonial policy and the curtailment of imperial expansion on financial grounds.
Moreover, the British-trained Merina army seized the reoccupied French trading posts in Madagascar. Autarkic policies adopted from the mid-1820s led the Merina to reject both British and French influence in the island and to ban foreign access to Malagasy labor. This was anathema to Réunionnais planters who depended on imports of cheap labor and provisions, of which Madagascar was the closest supplier. Their pleas for colonizing Madagascar were supported by the French Navy (and ultra-Royalists), which presented the island as the potential equivalent to France of Australia to Britain. In 1829 the government of Charles X briefly revived the imperial momentum: French forces backed a Betsimisaraka revolt on the east coast, where they attacked the main ports of Toamasina and Mahavelona. However, following the July 1830 Revolution, Louis Philippe (ruled 1830-1848) sought to appease British sentiment and in July 1831 French troops were withdrawn from mainland Madagascar, leaving as their sole Malagasy “dependency” the malarial island of Nosy Boraha. For the next half-century, French governments proved unwilling to engage in colonial ventures that might either offend Britain, the dominant global power, or burden the French treasury. Hence, while in 1841 ratifying treaties negotiated by the French Navy establishing protectorates over the neighboring islands of Mayotta and Nosy Be, the French government failed to heed calls for intervention in mainland Madagascar. This was the case even following the 1845 Merina ban on European trade and the 1848 emancipation measure that plunged Réunion into a prolonged economic crisis for which planters presented the colonization of Madagascar as a panacea. Indeed, from 1845 a modus vivendi was reached whereby France tacitly recognized British predominance in East Africa.
Thus, when in the early 1850s a group led by Rakoto Radama, heir apparent to the Merina throne, called for the French to intervene and establish a protectorate, Napoleon III refused. The latter desired imperial glory but was influenced less by the Saint-Simon school that stressed indirect rule and Catholic missionary activity more than direct rule. Indeed, in line with British policy, France in 1861, abolished colonial monopolies and adopted free trade-a policy even endorsed by the French Navy. Within this framework France in 1862 signed a treaty of “eternal friendship” with Radama II of Madagascar. The 1868 Franco- Merina treaty, while permitting freedom of access, movement, settlement, and trade to foreigners, as well as religious liberty, thus satisfying the bulk of the “open door” demands of Western powers, nevertheless recognized the Merina ban on both the freehold sale of land and the emigration of Malagasy labor.
From the late 1870s France’s attitude changed in favor of colonial expansion although not until the 1882 Egyptian affair was there a convergence of metropolitan and regional interests in favor of a forward movement in Madagascar: In 1883, de Mahy, the Réunion deputy and leader of a stop gap administration in France, started a conflict with the Merina that in December 1885 ended in the cession to France of the port of Antsiranana (Diego-Suarez), an indemnity of 10 million francs and an ill-defined protectorate over the island. In 1886 France also declared a protectorate over all the neighboring Comoro islands.
The main pretext for intervention in Madagascar centered on the factors of French historic rights and its “civilizing mission.” The real motivation was the desire to preserve international status following military defeat by Germany in 1870-1871. The French feared that if they failed to react to what they perceived as British attempts to claim a monopoly in Africa from the mid-1870s, their national status would be further eroded. In Africa, Britain concentrated upon those regions deemed essential to its wider imperial interests; notably Egypt, South Africa, and Zanzibar. Thus Protestant missionary calls to support the Merina were ignored by the British government, which in 1890 signed a treaty recognizing French hegemony in Madagascar in return for French acceptance of British paramountcy in Zanzibar.
The French colonial cause was boosted by hopes of economic gain. The 1880s depression created a domestic audience receptive to arguments that colonies were a necessity for the employment of surplus domestic capital and industrial manufactures. These ideas converged with those of planters and traders on Réunion, suffering from depressed sugar prices following the conversion of France to sugar beet production, who viewed Madagascar as a potential field of settlement for its surplus and impoverished population. Madagascar not only possessed valuable tropical resources (forest products and plantations of coffee, cocoa, and spices), it also possessed gold the exploitation of which induced gold rushes to the island in 1891 and 1895.
However, forces within Madagascar that precipitated a crisis of the indigenous Merina aristocracy also played a major role in the French takeover of the island. Policies centered on self-reliance not only failed to stimulate an industrial revolution, but excessive exploitation of fanompoana (nonremunerated forced labor) undermined the traditional economy. The emphasis on fanompoana resulted in the flight of ordinary farmers from the land and created an increasingly vicious circle of social protest, famine, and disease. French pressure aggravated the situation, notably the imposition by France in 1885 of a $2 million war indemnity. The Merina court reacted by increasing domestic taxation and fanompoana. By the early 1890s the cumulative effects of this had so critically undermined the economy that it precipitated a crisis. Merina subjects fled civil fanompoana and soldiers deserted the imperial army en masse, so that when Senegalese troops finally relieved the malaria-stricken French expeditionary force of 1894, their passage to the Merina capital was virtually unopposed.
A widespread insurrection followed the French protectorate imposed in 1895. Traditionally interpreted as a nationalist revolt against the French, the uprising was primarily directed against the maintenance under the French protectorate of a Merina administration universally detested for its corruption and highly exploitative forced labor regime. Hence, the chief victims of the rebels were not the French, but the property and agents of the Merina state church, the institution through which fanompoana and other taxes were levied. The reaction of the French was, in the central provinces to replace Merina with French colonial administration, and in certain other regions, notably in Sakalava land, where there existed a strong tradition of independence, to grant a certain degree of indirect rule.
Further Reading Brunschwig, H. “Anglophobia and French African Policy.” In France and Britain in African Imperial Rivalry and Colonial Rule, edited by P. Gifford and W. Roger Louis. New Haven, 1971. Campbell, G. “Missionaries, Fanompoana and the Menalamba Revolt in Late Nineteenth Century Madagascar.” Journal of Southern African Studies. 15, no. 19 (1988), 54-73. —. “Crisis of Faith and Colonial Conquest: The Impact of Famine and Disease in Late Nineteenth-Century Madagascar.” Cahiers d’Études Africaines. 32 (1992), 409-453. Kent, R. K. “How France Acquired Madagascar.” Tarikh. 2, no. 4 (1969). —, (ed.) Madagascar in History: Essays from the 1970s. Berkeley: Foundation for Malagasy Studies, 1979. Wastell, R. E. P. “British Imperial Policy in relation to Madagascar, 1810-1896.” Ph. D. diss., London University, 1944.