Article excerpt

Madagascar is sometimes considered a world apart. The fourth-largest island in the world, it is marked by enormous regional diversity. The concept of insular exceptionalism refers not only to a natural environment with outstanding numbers of endemic plants and animals but also to a human history that in various respects contrasts with any other part of Africa.1 Since Portuguese seafarers first sighted the island in 1500 there had been numerous contacts with Europeans, yet the Malagasy resisted all attempts by the sea powers to establish a foothold until the French invasion of 1895. The early colonizing efforts, fostered by enthusiastic agents, were in fact marked by a succession of blunders and disasters. An English attempt to create a trading settlement in Saint Augustin, in the southwest of Madagascar, only lasted 18 months, and the French abandoned their Fort Dauphin at the southeastern tip of the island in 1674, after a troubled existence of 30 years. Both ventures failed, with considerable loss of life, due partly to disease and partly to poor management and inadequate provisions. Above all, the Europeans proved unable to establish longstanding ties with the indigenous population.2

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries Madagascar became the principal refuge for several hundred European pirates. It is generally assumed that the marauders were more successful than the first colonizers in their dealings with the Malagasy. One scholar has even suggested that access to firearms through pirates and slavers made a significant contribution to the emergence of large-scale kingdoms in various parts of the island.3 This hypothesis lacks a solid empirical foundation, however. Research on piracy has attracted much attention in the last few years but the relations between the marauders and the indigenous societies in Madagascar, as elsewhere, remain poorly understood. Published accounts of the pirates are by and large anecdotal and do not attempt to explore the context of crosscultural encounters.4 A recent trend in historiography to romanticize pirate bands as revolutionaries is not particularly helpful. In fact, piracy can best be understood as an economic phenomenon, and in the Indian Ocean marauders usually operated within commercial networks that included the slave trade.

In order to examine the relations between the Europeans and the Malagasy in the period under consideration, historians can rely on a broad range of sources that are not yet fully appreciated. Unfortunately, the written records offer little more than an impression of the contacts between outsiders and the indigenous population, but in recent years our knowledge of the material culture, trade connections, and settlement structures has increased considerably. Archaeological evidence suggests that small chiefdoms arose throughout the island during the 14th century, and a second stage of political consolidation began in the second half of the 17th century when many chiefdoms in the coastal regions were fused into larger polities.5 Against this background the various interactions between pirates, slave traders, and the Malagasy populations are of particular interest.

The Slave Trade in the Second Half of the 17th Century

After European trading companies had established a network of factories in the major port towns of the Indian Ocean, a pattern of shipping emerged in which Madagascar played a marginal role. Most vessels bound for India and the Far East sailed on a southerly route and did not call at Madagascar. Ships headed for Muscat, Mocha, or Surat principally put into Cape Town and the Comoros, especially at Anjouan. If a crew ran short of water or provisions, vessels also dropped anchor on the west coast of Madagascar. Homebound ships from India normally passed by the southern tip of the island and stopped for provisions at the Cape.6 Only in dire need did vessels steer for Madagascar, which in part explains the large number of shipwrecks on the inhospitable south coast. …