Madagascar: Conflicts of Authority in the Great Island

By Philip M. Allen | Go to book overview

1
The Virtue of Insularity

THE LIE OF THE ISLAND

Africa's largest island -- fourth in the world after Greenland, New Guinea, and Borneo -- Madagascar marks the southwest corner of the vast Indian Ocean triangle, flanking the long coast of Mozambique. The hourglass channel between them narrows to 400 kilometers between Cap St. André and Moçambique Island, billowing wide to 1,000 kilometers at its northern and southern apertures. Tantamount to a small continent both in extent and complexity, Madagascar spans from north to south as far (1,606 kilometers) as the distance between Boston and Atlanta. Its people, the Malagasy, consider their island as a continental expanse rather than as a maritime spot surrounded by ocean. In French, it is familiarly known as "the great island" (la grande île).

A typical insular people, the Malagasy have been able to live their own unique history while communicating fruitfully with nearby shores and distant lands. In the north and west coast towns, Muslim merchants commerced over medieval centuries with the Comoro Islands and the greater Indian Ocean world. Viewed from the exterior, this northern façade of Madagascar appears as a remote frontier of the international system that connected Arabs, Indians, Indonesians, and Chinese, together with Swahili- and Bantu-speaking Africans for more than a millennium.1 In fact, the island's permanent population settled there only quite recently from points in Africa, South Asia, and the Indonesian archipelago. Madagascar's interchange with the Indian Ocean littoral is being belatedly documented, for the island lay far from the core of the great monsoon system.2 It took a more central role in the world only after Europeans had rounded the Cape of Good Hope to defeat that system and link the Indian Ocean with the Eurafrican west. And even that distinction evolved slowly.

Madagascar's insularity is more than a geographical platitude. A hundred million years of biophysical isolation permitted the evolution of a unique natural environment, just as several centuries of political separation allowed the development of a civilization unlike any other. Lying so snugly alongside southeastern Africa, Madagascar nevertheless kept its distance and became something quite different. Apart from curious moments of interchange, the two land masses developed -- or rather deviated -- in parallel. As the zoologist Alison Jolly describes it, "The world of Madagascar tells us

-1-

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Madagascar: Conflicts of Authority in the Great Island
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page v
  • Contents ix
  • Tables and Illustrations xi
  • Preface and Acknowledgments xiii
  • 1 - The Virtue of Insularity 1
  • Notes 26
  • 2 - Politics: From Paternalism to Revolution 31
  • Notes 74
  • 3 - Ratsiraka's Republic: Revolution as Myth 79
  • Notes 117
  • 4 - Society in Modern Madagascar 121
  • Notes 162
  • 5 - Madagascar's Economy: Flight from Reality 168
  • Notes 213
  • 6 - Conclusion: Continuity as Revolution 220
  • Notes 236
  • Glossary 239
  • Selected Bibliography 242
  • About the Book and Author 247
  • Index 248
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