Jules Ferry and the Renaissance of French Imperialism

By Thomas F. Power Jr. | Go to book overview

Chapter Five
MADAGASCAR AND THE AMBITIONS OF
FRENCH COLONIALS

At the outset of his second Premiership, Ferry was persuaded to attempt the seizure of the huge island of Madagascar. Misled by the advice of the deputies from Réunion, pushed on by French officials in the Indian Ocean area, he gave strong support to a punitive expedition that was just setting out for Madagascar when he assumed office. For two years he waged war on the Queen of that island, his expedition dragging out to a dismal failure, as French resources were overtaxed in Indo-China and in West and Equatorial Africa.

France had some old, vague claims to Madagascar that had nearly lapsed by Ferry's time. On the route to India, near which lay the once-prosperous sugar and coffee colony of Réunion, it was temporarily held by the French in the seventeenth century and again assailed by them during the July Monarchy. 1 By pushing their rivals off the central highlands, the most valuable part of Madagascar, the Hovas had become the dominant tribe in the nineteenth century. However, except in the very center of the island their control was incomplete, the organization of their government rather crude. But in 1862 and 1868 Napoleon III signed treaties with the Polynesian tribe, abandoning French claims to Madagascar, thus healing a break of long standing between the island and France.

Advances against Madagascar stemmed from the several French possessions in the Indian Ocean. Here the most important French colony was Réunion, formerly known as Bourbon. As a sugar island it had been a valuable asset to the ancien régime, but was of rather slight importance in the nineteenth century. It was represented in Parliament by two deputies and one senator. The other French holdings in the area were in the Comores archipelago in the Mozambique Channel between Africa and Madagascar. There, on the small islands of Mayotte, Nossi-Mitsiou, and Nossi-Bé, the French had staked out a claim in 1843. Only Nossi-Bé was inhabited by Frenchmen and had a French governor. 2 Although

____________________
1
Attempts of Cardinal Richelieu and Colbert to colonize the island had been in the end unsuccessful. Similarly, an expedition of 1845 had failed.
2
Hanotaux et Martineau, op. cit., VI, 286-287.

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