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Madagascar, or Republic of Madagascar (older name Malagasy Republic), is an island nation in the Indian Ocean, off the southeastern coast of Africa. The main island, also called Madagascar, is the fourth largest island in the world, and is home to five percent of the world's plant and animal species; more than 80 percent of which are endemic to Madagascar. Most notable are the lemur infraorder of primates, the carnivorous fossa, three endemic bird families and six endemic baobab species.
Despite its location close to the African continent, the first human settlers of Madagascar appear to have come from Asia, rather than Africa, between 100 and 500 AD. The culture shows the influence of both Africa and Asia. The settlement represented the western-most branch of the great Austronesian expansion. Some of the strongest evidence indicating that the settlers of Madagascar came from this region is linguistic: the Malagasy language belongs to the group of Malayo-Polynesian languages, the rest of which are spoken in the island nations of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Ocean.
The written history of Madagascar begins in the 7th century, when Arabs established trading posts along the northwest coast and first transcribed the Malagasy into the Arabic-based alphabet Sorabe. European contact began in the 1500s, when Portuguese sea captain Diogo Dias sighted the island after his ship separated from a fleet going to India.
In 1665, François Caron, the Director General of the newly formed French East India Company, sailed to Madagascar. The Company failed to found a colony on Madagascar but established ports on the nearby islands of Bourbon and Île-de-France (today's Réunion and Mauritius). In the late 17th century, the French established trading posts along the east coast.
From about 1774 to 1824, it was a favourite haunt for pirates, including Americans, one of whom brought Malagasy rice to North Carolina. Many European sailors would be shipwrecked on the coasts of the island. The most interesting of these is Robert Drury whose journal is one of the only written depictions of life in southern Madagascar during the 18th century.
During the Middle Ages, the chiefs of the different settlements began to extend their power through trade with Indian Ocean neighbors, notably East Africa, the Middle East and India. Large chiefdoms began to dominate considerable areas of the island. Among these were the Sakalava chiefdoms of the Menabe, centered in what is now the town of Morondava, and of Boina, centered in what is now the provincial capital of Mahajanga (Majunga). The influence of the Sakalava extended across what is now the provinces of Antsiranana, Mahajanga and Toliara. But with the domination of the Indian Ocean by the British fleet and the end of the Arab slave trade, the Sakalava would lose their power to the emerging Merina threat. For a short time the Betsimisaraka of the east coast also unified, but this unification was short-lived.
On October 1, 1776, the natives of Madagascar elected Móric Benovsky King / Emperor (Ampansacabé) of Madagascar on the Mahevelou plane.
Beginning in the 1790s, Merina rulers succeeded in establishing hegemony over the major part of the island, including the coast. In 1817, the Merina ruler and the British governor of Mauritius concluded a treaty abolishing the slave trade, which had been important in Madagascar's economy. In return, the island received British military and financial assistance. British influence remained strong for several decades, during which the Merina court was converted to Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, and Anglicanism.
France invaded Madagascar in 1883 in what became known as the first Franco-Hova War (Hova being the name of the Merina aristocrats), seeking to restore property that had been confiscated from French citizens. At the war's end, Madagascar ceded Antsiranana (Diego Suarez) on the northern coast to France and paid 560,000 gold francs to the heirs of Joseph-François Lambert. The British accepted the imposition of a French protectorate over Madagascar in 1885 in return for eventual control over Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) and as part of an overall definition of spheres of influence in the area.
In Europe, meanwhile, diplomats partitioning the African continent worked out an agreement whereby Britain, to obtain the Sultanate of Zanzibar, ceded its share of Heligoland to Germany and renounced all claims to Madagascar in favor of France. In 1895, a French flying column landed in Mahajanga (Majunga) and marched to the capital, Antananarivo, where the city's defenders were taken by surprise, as they were expecting an attack from the much closer east coast. Twenty French soldiers died fighting and 6,000 died of malaria and other diseases before the second Franco-Hova War ended.
Absolute French control over Madagascar was established by military force in 1895-1896, and in 1896 the French Parliament voted to annex Madagascar. The 103-year-old Merina monarchy ended with the royal family being sent into exile in Algeria. In December 1904, the Russian Baltic Fleet stopped at Diego Suarez for coal and provisions before sailing on to its doomed encounter with the Japanese Fleet in the Battle of Tsushima. Before leaving port the Russian sailors were required to put ashore the animals they had acquired, including monkeys, boa constrictors and one crocodile.
During World War II, Malagasy troops fought in France, Morocco, and Syria. Immediately preceding the fall of France, Germany initiated planning to forcibly deport all of Europe's Jews to Madagascar in what was known as the Madagascar Plan. Action on the plan was never begun. After France fell to Germany, the Vichy government administered Madagascar. British troops occupied the strategic island in 1942 to preclude its seizure by the Japanese, after which the Free French took over.
In 1947, with French prestige at low ebb, a nationalist uprising was suppressed after several months of bitter fighting with 8,000 persons killed. The French subsequently established reformed institutions in 1956 under the Loi Cadre (Overseas Reform Act), and Madagascar moved peacefully toward independence. The Malagasy Republic was proclaimed on October 14, 1958, as an autonomous state within the French Community. A period of provisional government ended with the adoption of a constitution in 1959 and full independence on June 26, 1960.
Sources: Wikipedia and CIA World Factbook
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