George Padmore 1947

Madagascar Fights for Freedom

Source: Left, No. 132, October 1947.
Transcribed: by Christian Hogsbjerg for the Marxists’ Internet Archive 2007.

Colonies – British, French and Dutch – today make headline news. We have had India, Indonesia, Vietnam. And lately trouble in Madagascar has flared up. Colonial countries, it seems, are not content to continue to remain under imperialistic domination.

Madagascar has been a French Protectorate since 1885, but the Malgash people have been very restive under alien rule. The third largest island in the world, it was inhabited by many tribes which, although at different degrees of evolution, had in common many traditions and habits, and their ways of living were nearly all the same. Polynesian in origin, they spring ethnologically from the same group, and their language contains merely local differences.

It was the Portuguese who were the first strangers to call at Madagascar. This was in 1506, and they were followed a century later by French settlers sponsored by the Société de l’Orient, founded under the aegis of Cardinal Richelieu. With the French colonists came missionaries and merchants. Efforts were made to play upon such differences as existed among the tribes, and to use resultant division in the interests of the French. In 1672, a general insurrection drove the French out of the island which is now known as La Reunion.

There followed for Madagascar three-quarters of a century of peace, during which the Malgash people were able to devote themselves to quiet living. The Hova tribe, an intelligent and socially advanced people, had made themselves the ruling class, and the kings of Madagascar were chosen from among them.

Another attempt was made to restore French influence in the island in 1768, but it was unsuccessful. Next, the French Minister Colbert sent a Polish adventurer, Count Maurice de Benyowski, to reconquer the island. His method of insinuation was to impress the superstitious natives by mean of sorcery, and he managed to proclaim himself king of the country. He was not given international diplomatic recognition, however, and his reign was short.

There then developed a military and diplomatic race for ascendancy over Madagascar between the French and British. In 1811, the British superceded the French in Tamatave, which is the next important town after the capital of Tananarive. They were decimated by a wholescale massacre, but this did not deter them from returning. Queen Ranavalona, under the influence of a sorcerer’s pronouncement, decreed slavery for all Europeans. In protest, two French warships shelled Tamatave, and all Europeans were then expelled and an embargo laid upon external trade. One Frenchman, Jean Laborde, who enjoyed the Queen’s confidence, remained behind.

This Laborde’s property became the lever by which the French prised their way back into Madagascar. On his death his heirs wanted to sell part of his property, but local legislation, interpreting the land tenure system, prohibited this. This prohibition led to a crisis between Madagascar and the Western Powers, but it was settled between all the important ones except France by three separate alliances.

Instead of signing the agreements, the French launched a surprise attack against the island in 1883, following the Malgash Government’s refusal to comply with a French request to (a) cede to France the northern part of Madagascar up to the 16th parallel; (b) pay an indemnity of one million francs to France and Laborde’s heirs; (c) submit Malgash foreign policy to French control. A slightly altered second proposal was made and rejected by the Malgash, who counter-attacked the French victoriously on September 1, 1885.

The French put forward a truce and an ambiguous protectorate treaty was negotiated in December, 1885. A subsequent protocol added on January 9, 1886, dispelled the wilful ambiguity of the first document. A protectorate was established over Madagascar, whose foreign relations were entrusted to a French Resident. French nationals were granted extra-territoriality, and the French Army occupied Diego Suarez. Toward the end of 1886 the indemnity had been paid.

All too soon the ambiguous clauses in the protectorate treaty gave rise to contention, and clashes occurred between the Malgash and the French, and, finally, in 1894 the French delivered an ultimatum to the Malgash Government, demanding them to “give full effect to the 1885 agreement and allow, as a guarantee, 2,000 troops to be garrisoned at Tananarive.”

Queen Ranavalona II, the last of the Hova rulers, refused, and war was made against the Malgash. Heavy bombardment was made by the French against the main ports, and they landed an expeditionary force at Majunga Bay. Though the Malgash forces, under their General Rainianjalhy, inflicted heavy casualties, and won the early encounter, the French, with their superior weapons, forced the capitulation of Tananarive in September, 1895. A new protectorate was imposed upon the island, and in August, 1896, Madagascar was made a French Colony.

The Malgash refused to submit to their conquerors and a general uprising jolted the country. They surrounded the capital and set the countryside alight, and it was only with considerable difficulty that the French forces quelled them. General Gallieni was charged with subduing the insurgents, but the pacification took considerable time and cost France much in men and money. The Malgash lost nearly 700,000 out of their population of four millions.

Economic Imperialism

A little larger than France, the island of Madagascar lies within three climatic zones, it has a wide variety of cultivation varying from the tropical products like coffee, cocoa, vanilla, sugar, mango, cotton, rice tobacco, pineapple, to the more temperate products like maize, wheat barley, oats, potatoes.

The island is sparsely populated having an average density of six to the square kilometre. A fourth of the population belong to the Hova (or Merina) of Malay stock; the rest of the inhabitants include a number of other tribes. About three quarters of the people are cultivators, between 700,000 and 800,000 are shepherds, while 300,000 live in the towns, a third of them living in Tananarive.

The country’s natural resources have been very meagrely exploited by the French, and practically nothing has been done to develop it in any way industrially. In twelve years, under Gallieni, only 230 miles of railway were built, while the island is 1,000 miles long, and 250 miles wide. Less than another 300 miles of railway have been built since.

Not much has been done either in the field of education. When Queen Ranavalona II came to the throne in 1868, the number of children at school was 10,000. In 15 years this had risen to 160,000. Tuition was mostly in Malgash. After the French took over there was a reduction in the number to about 64,000, but the present figure is now given as 200,000.

Forced labour has been a principle in Madagascar since the French came there. Only at the end of 1946 was compulsory labour abolished, after much opposition from the representatives of the French settlers. The Malgash labourers, objecting strongly to the system of forced labour, absented themselves in large numbers

How Revolt Started

Ever since they were forcibly subjected to French rule, the Malgash people have nurtured hopes of freedom. All the French hopes of playing one tribe off against another were unsuccessful. The whole people became knit in their determination to secure their political freedom and rightful sovereignty.

With the inauguration of the new French Constitution, three Malgash deputies were sent to the French Assembly, and two to the Council of the Republic, to represent 4,000,000 people. Two French deputies and two French councilors represent the 20,000 French settlers. Two of the deputies, Raseta and Rovaohangy, together with a political leader named Rabemananjara, all belonging to the Movement for Malgash Renovation, went to Paris in May, 1946, to present a Memorandum to the French Government. It put forward the Malgash claim for national sovereignty for Madagascar as a free state, within the French Union. They had been spurred to this by the preliminary concord which the French had signed with Vietnam, which granted the same status, Madagascar’s claim was refused. As with other Colonial territories, the war events had deepened the will to national freedom among the Malgash. The stand which was being made by the Indonesians, and by the Vietnamese provided encouragement and stimulus, so that the political situation in Madagascar began to become critical. During May and June 1946, High Commissioner de Coppet warned the French Government from Tananarive that the situation was steadily worsening. He attributed the labour trouble and the hostility of the population to the nefarious machinations of local committees under the leadership of Ravaolangy and Reseta. The Movement for Malgash Renovation was the tribune of the people’s aspirations, and its influence was spreading throughout the whole of Madagascar. Economic unrest prevailed everywhere in the island. During the Second World War, Madagascar had been cut off from the French metropolis and was occupied by British troops. Her people at that time, like many other Colonial peoples, pinned their hopes to the Atlantic Charter, whose proclamation had appeared to them as a beacon star lighting the way to freedom. Owing to war demands of the Allies, Madagascar’s exports swelled. Of course, they did not go much to France, which before the war, had been responsible for 75% of Madagascar’s imports and 80% of the island’s exports. France’s colonies had, more than those of any other imperial power, always been part and parcel of the metropolitan economy and functioned within a system of mercantilism. In 1946, there were fleeting signs that the island might achieve some economic well-being, but a number of causes precluded this. Most of the ports are inaccessible to big ships and there is an insufficiency of port equipment. At that time there was also a shortage of labour and political fermentation, which still continue. Tariff control and administrative regulations hampered investments in the modernization and repair of equipment. An additional factor was the non-cooperative attitude of the population. All these were hampering economic activity. Production of vanilla fell to 60% on that of the previous year, sisal to 75%. Foreign ships left the ports unloaded, nine-tenths of the railway workers and dockers were idle. The Hova peasantry were half-naked and more than ever underfed. A worker’s wage on the land was 15 francs a day, while a pound of rice cost 6 francs. The black market flourished under the auspices of the European trading companies, and more and more discriminatory measures were taken against the Malgash. This went on until the population found it quite unbearable, and on March 29, 1947, a rebellion broke out at Moramanga, where 20 coloured and French soldiers were killed. The revolt spread rapidly throughout the island, and incidents were reported at the towns of Vohipeng, Farafangana and Manaka. French aircraft bombed these places unmercilessly, as there were not sufficient French troops to stem the uprising. In Diego Suarez an army depot was plundered. The Malgash deputies sent a cable to the French Minister of Colonies, Marius Moutet, deploring the incidents and urging him to send a parliamentary mission to investigate the crisis. Official circles were not slow to hint that there was a definite connection between the Vietnam movement and the Malgash insurrection. Suspicion was directed against the deputy Ravoahangy who had been involved in the uprising of December, 1915.

Native Deputies Arrested

The French reply to the request of the Malgash deputies was to arrest on April 1, 1947, the Malgash Deputies and Councillors, on the charge of plotting rebellion. The arrests were unconstitutional, inasmuch as Parliamentary members enjoy immunity.

High Commissioner de Coppet has since declared that the situation is “well in hand,” but reports from the spot do not give assurance to this announcement. Mananjary was bombed on April 17, and four days later General Pellet was sent to Tananarive to take over command of the army. On the day of his arrival the administration post north-west of Mananjary was occupied by the insurgents.

The insurgent forces, in fact, continue to make their way all over the island, pushing up north. These forces are officered by ex-service men who fought in Europe, and are estimated in some places to number 6,000. They are well organised and familiar with guerrilla warfare. The French are putting out stories that the movement has been initiated by the Hova, under the direction of the Movement for Malgash Renovation, and that, as the traditional ruling group, they intend to dominate the other minorities.

In an interview, Dr. Raseta, one of the Malgash deputies, stated that the insurrection started simultaneously at places far remote from one another and that in three of the most troubled areas, the inhabitants are not Hova people, but other tribes, and that the Movement for Malgash Renovation has very few followers there.

The Movement for Malgash Renovation stands for Madagascar within the French Union. There is a Democratic Party, which claims full freedom from France. Another movement, sponsored by the French authorities is the Party of the Disinherited. Curiously enough, its influence predominates just in those coastal regions where the first incidents broke out.

The French have used the most ruthless methods in their attempt to put down the revolt, and have employed African troops to a large extent. A vehement protest against this was lodged in the French Chamber during the debate on Madagascar on May 10, 1947, by the Negro Socialist Deputy from Senegal, Mr. Lamine Gueye. He categorically denounced the vicious repressive measures being taken against the Malgash, among which he listed the throwing of prisoners out of planes, burning of huts, etc. He registered his stern objection to the French Government making use of his countrymen to suppress the Malgash, thus arming one member of the French Union against another. He was strongly supported by his fellow deputies from the Ivory Coast, Mauretania and Algeria, MM. Houphouet, Babana and Benchenouf.

In France, the Press, both Right and Left, hints at foreign intrigues being responsible for the present troubles in Madagascar.

French intransigence in relation to Madagascar is just another example of France’s failure to realise that the time has come to renounce imperialism. Her Colonial representatives have given repeated warnings that the French Union cannot be built on the cemetery, hatred and coercion. If ever it is to be built, they say, it must rest on foundations of peace, mutual understanding and free will.