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Section 6: Southern African States

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    Namibia

    Today’s Namibia did not witness the emergence of ancient or medieval kingdoms and empires that would largely dominate its territory, but evidence suggests that a number of diverse peoples settled there as a result of ancient, medieval, and modern migrations.

    LEARNING OBJECTIVES

    Describe the tribal makeup of Namibia

    KEY TAKEAWAYS

    Key Points

    • Not much is known about pre-colonial Namibia, but evidence suggests that a number of diverse peoples settled there as a result of ancient, medieval, and modern migrations.
    • The San (also called Bushmen) are generally assumed to have been the earliest inhabitants of the region comprising today’s Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa. Until about 2,000 years ago, they were the only inhabitants in Namibia, but around that time the Nama (also known as Namaqua), the Khoikhoi, and the Hottentots settled around the Orange River in the south, on the border between Namibia and South Africa, where they kept herds of sheep and goats.
    • In the 9th century, the Damara entered Namibia. The Damara do not relate to the other Khoisan peoples, although they share a similar language. It is believed that they separated themselves early on from their Bantu brothers of Southern and Central Africa and moved to Southwest Africa.
    • The Ovambo, and the smaller and closely related group Kavango, lived in northern Namibia and southern Angola. The Kavango also lived in western Zambia. They migrated south from the upper regions of Zambezi around the 14th century. Their economy was based on farming, cattle, and fishing, but they also produced metal goods.
    • During the 17th century, the Herero, a pastoral, nomadic people keeping cattle, moved into Namibia. They came from the east African lakes and entered Namibia from the northwest.
    • In the 19th century white farmers, mostly Boers, moved farther north, pushing the indigenous Khoisan peoples, who put up a
      fierce resistance, across the Orange River. Known as Oorlams, these Khoisan adopted Boer customs and spoke a language similar to Afrikaans.
    • Europeans first arrived in Namibia in the 15th century, and the territory became one of the first European (German) colonies on the continent.

    Key Terms

    • Zambezi: The fourth-longest river in Africa, the longest east flowing river in Africa, and the largest river flowing into the Indian Ocean from Africa. The 2,574-kilometer-long river (1,599 miles) rises in Zambia and flows through eastern Angola, along the eastern border of Namibia and the northern border of Botswana, then along the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe to Mozambique, where it crosses the country to empty into the Indian Ocean.
    • Khoisan peoples: A unifying name for two groups of peoples of Southern Africa who share physical and putative linguistic characteristics distinct from the Bantu majority of the region. Culturally, they are divided into the foraging San, or Bushmen, and the pastoral Khoi, or more specifically Khoikhoi, previously known as Hottentots.
    • Herero Wars: A series of colonial wars between the German Empire and the Herero people of German South-West Africa (present-day Namibia, c. 1903–1908).
    • the Herero and Namaqua genocide: A campaign of racial extermination and collective punishment that the German Empire undertook in German South-West Africa (modern-day Namibia) against the Herero and Nama people. It is considered one of the first genocides of the 20th century. It took place between 1904 and 1907 during the Herero Wars.

    The Peoples Of Pre-Colonial Namibia

    Unlike in other territories in Africa, no powerful ancient or medieval kingdoms and empires served as predecessors of the Namibian state today. Not much is known about pre-colonial Namibia, but evidence suggests that a number of diverse peoples settled there as a result of ancient, medieval, and modern migrations. The San (also called Bushmen) are generally assumed to have been the earliest inhabitants of the region comprising today’s Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa. The San were hunters and gatherers with a nomadic lifestyle. The most important part of their diet consisted of fruits, nuts, and roots, but they also hunted different kinds of antelopes.

    Until about 2,000 years ago, the original hunters and gatherers of the San people were the only inhabitants in Namibia, but around that time, the Nama (also known as Namaqua), the Khoikhoi, and the Hottentots settled around the Orange River in the south, on the border between Namibia and South Africa, where they kept herds of sheep and goats. Both the San and the Nama were Khoisan peoples, and spoke languages from the Khoisan language group.

    In the 9th century, the Damara entered Namibia. The Damara do not relate to the other Khoisan peoples, although they share a similar language. It is believed that they separated themselves early on from their Bantu brothers of Southern and Central Africa and moved to Southwest Africa. It is unclear where they came from, but they settled in the grasslands in central Namibia, known as Damaraland.

    The Ovambo, and the smaller and closely related group Kavango, lived in northern Namibia and southern Angola. The Kavango also lived in western Zambia. They migrated south from the upper regions of Zambezi around the 14th century. Their economy was based on farming, cattle, and fishing, but they also produced metal goods. Both groups belonged to the Bantu nation. They rarely ventured south to the central parts of the country, where the conditions did not suit their farming way of life. However, they extensively traded their knives and agricultural implements. The Ovambo constitute the largest ethnic group and a majority of the population in today’s Namibia.

    During the 17th century, the Herero, a pastoral, nomadic people keeping cattle, moved into Namibia. They came from the east African lakes and entered Namibia from the northwest. First they resided in Kaokoland, but in the middle of the 19th century some tribes moved farther south and into Damaraland. A number of tribes remained in Kaokoland. During German occupation of this region, about one third of the population was wiped out in a genocide that continues to provoke historical and political debates. Known as the Herero and Namaqua genocide, it was a campaign of racial extermination and collective punishment. It is considered one of the first genocides of the 20th century, taking place between 1904 and 1907 during the Herero Wars.

    Photograph of seven members of a Herero family

    Herero, c. 1910: During the 17th century the Herero, a pastoral, nomadic people keeping cattle, moved into Namibia. They came from the east African lakes and entered Namibia from the northwest.

    In the 19th century white farmers, mostly Boers, moved farther north, pushing the indigenous Khoisan peoples, who put up a fierce resistance, across the Orange River. Known as Oorlams, these Khoisans adopted Boer customs and spoke a language similar to Afrikaans. Armed with guns, the Oorlams caused instability as more and more came to settle in Namaqualand, and eventually conflict arose between them and the Nama. Under the leadership of Jonker Afrikaner, the Oorlams used their superior weapons to take control of the best grazing land. In the 1830s, Jonker Afrikaner concluded an agreement with the Nama chief Oaseb whereby the Oorlams would protect the central grasslands of Namibia from the Herero who were then pushing south. Eventually, warfare over land control between the Herero and the Oorlams, as well as between the two of them and the Damara, who were the original inhabitants of the area, broke out. The Damara were displaced by the fighting and many were killed.

    Europeans in Namibia

    The first European to set foot on Namibian soil was the Portuguese Diogo Cão, in 1485 during an exploratory mission along the west coast of Africa. The next European to visit Namibia was also a Portuguese, Bartholomeu Dias, who stopped there on his way to round the Cape of Good Hope. However, as the inhospitable Namib Desert constituted a formidable barrier, neither of the Portuguese explorers went far inland.

    In 1793, the Dutch authority in the Cape decided to take control of Walvis Bay, since it was the only good deep-water harbor along the Skeleton Coast. When the United Kingdom took control of the Cape Colony in 1797, they also took over Walvis Bay. But white settlement in the area was limited, and neither the Dutch nor the British penetrated far into the country. One of the first European groups to show interest in Namibia were the missionaries. In 1805 the London Missionary Society began working in Namibia, moving north from the Cape Colony. In 1811 they founded the town Bethanie in southern Namibia, where they built a church, which today is Namibia’s oldest building.

    In the 1840s the German Rhenish Mission Society started working in Namibia and cooperating with the London Missionary Society. It was not until the 19th century, when European powers sought to carve up the African continent between them in the so-called Scramble for Africa, that Europeans—predominately Germany and Great Britain— became interested in Namibia. The first territorial claim on a part of Namibia came when Britain occupied Walvis Bay, confirming the settlement of 1797, and permitted the Cape Colony to annex it in 1878. The annexation was an attempt to forestall German ambitions in the area, and it also guaranteed control of the good deep water harbor on the way to the Cape Colony and other British colonies on Africa’s east coast. Believing that Britain was soon about to declare the whole area a protectorate, the German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck claimed it in 1884, thereby establishing German South-West Africa as a colony.

    Great Zimbabwe

    Great Zimbabwe was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe (13th–15th c.); it flourished as an international gold and ivory trade center and its architecturally unique ruins remain among the oldest and largest structures in Southern Africa.

    LEARNING OBJECTIVES

    Explain the social structure, unique aspects, and decline of Great Zimbabwe

    KEY TAKEAWAYS

    Key Points

    • Great Zimbabwe is a ruined city in the southeastern hills of today’s Zimbabwe. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe during the country’s Late Iron Age. Construction on the monument began in the 11th century and continued until the 15th century.
    • David Beach believes that the city and its state, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, flourished from 1200 to 1500, although a somewhat earlier date for its demise is implied by a description transmitted in the early 1500s to João de Barros. Its growth has been linked to the decline of Mapungubwe from around 1300, due to climatic change or the greater availability of gold in the hinterland of Great Zimbabwe.
    • Archaeological evidence suggests that Great Zimbabwe became a center for trading, with a trade network linked to Kilwa Kisiwani and extending as far as China. This international trade was mainly in gold and ivory. The rulers of Zimbabwe brought artistic and stone masonry traditions from
      Mapungubwe. The construction of elaborate stone buildings and walls reached its
      apex in the kingdom.
    • Causes suggested for the decline and ultimate abandonment of the city of Great Zimbabwe have included a decline in trade compared to sites further north, the exhaustion of the gold mines, political instability, and famine and water shortages induced by climatic change.
    • In the early 11th century, people from the Kingdom of Mapungubwe in Southern Africa are believed to have settled on the Zimbabwe plateau. There, they would establish the Kingdom of Zimbabwe around 1220.
    • Nyatsimba Mutota from Great Zimbabwe established his dynasty at Chitakochangonya Hill, and the land he conquered would become the Kingdom of Mutapa. Within a generation, Mutapa eclipsed Great Zimbabwe. By 1450, the capital and most of the kingdom had been abandoned.

    Key Terms

    • Mapungubwe: A pre-colonial state in Southern Africa located at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers, south of Great Zimbabwe. It was the first stage in a development that would culminate in the creation of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe in the 13th century and with gold trading links to Rhapta and Kilwa Kisiwani on the African east coast. It lasted about 80 years, and at its height its population was about 5,000 people.
    • Shona: A group of Bantu people in Zimbabwe and some neighboring countries. The main part of them is divided into five major clans and adjacent to some people of very similar culture and languages. They
      created empires and states on the Zimbabwe plateau. These states include the Kingdom of Zimbabwe (12th–16th century), the Torwa State, and the Munhumutapa states.
    • Great Zimbabwe: A ruined city in the southeastern hills of Zimbabwe near Lake Mutirikwe and the town of Masvingo. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe during the country’s Late Iron Age. Construction on the monument began in the 11th century and continued until the 15th century. It is believed to have served as a royal palace for the local monarch. As such, it would have been used as the seat of political power.
    • Kingdom of Zimbabwe: A medieval (c. 1220–1450) kingdom located in modern-day Zimbabwe. Its capital, Great Zimbabwe, is the largest stone structure in precolonial Southern Africa.

    Introduction

    Great Zimbabwe is a ruined city in the southeastern hills of today’s Zimbabwe. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe during the country’s Late Iron Age. Construction on the monument began in the 11th century and continued until the 15th century. The exact identity of the Great Zimbabwe builders is at present unknown. Local traditions recorded in the 18th and 19th centuries assert that the stoneworks were constructed by the early Lemba. However, the most popular modern archaeological theory is that the edifices were erected by the ancestral Shona.

    Origins and Growth

    Construction of the stone buildings started in the 11th century and continued for over 300 years. The ruins at Great Zimbabwe are some of the oldest and largest structures in Southern Africa; they are the second oldest after nearby Mapungubwe in South Africa. The most formidable edifice, commonly referred to as the Great Enclosure, makes it the largest ancient structure south of the Sahara Desert. David Beach believes that the city and its state, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, flourished from 1200 to 1500, although a somewhat earlier date for its demise is implied by a description transmitted in the early 1500s to João de Barros. Its growth has been linked to the decline of Mapungubwe from around 1300, due to climatic change or the greater availability of gold in the hinterland of Great Zimbabwe. At its peak, estimates are that Great Zimbabwe had as many as 18,000 inhabitants. The ruins that survive are built entirely of stone, and they span 730 ha (1,800 acres).

     

    Economy

     

    Archaeological evidence suggests that Great Zimbabwe became a center for trading, with a trade network linked to Kilwa Kisiwani (the historic center of
    the Kilwa Sultanate; off the southern coast of present-day Tanzania in eastern Africa)
    and extending as far as China. This international trade was mainly in gold and ivory. Some estimates indicate that more than 20 million ounces of gold were extracted from the ground. That international commerce was in addition to the local agricultural trade, in which cattle were especially important. The large cattle herd that supplied the city moved seasonally and was managed by the court. Archaeological evidence also suggests a high degree of social stratification, with poorer residents living outside of the city. Chinese pottery shards, coins from Arabia, glass beads, and other non-local items have been excavated. Despite these strong international trade links, there is no evidence to suggest exchange of architectural concepts between Great Zimbabwe and other centers such as Kilwa Kisiwani.

    image

    A tower of Great Zimbabwe: Great Zimbabwe is notable for its advanced masonry techniques. The ruins form three distinct architectural groups. They are known as the Hill Complex, the Valley Complex and the Great Enclosure. The Hill Complex is the oldest, and was occupied from the 9th to 13th centuries. The Great Enclosure was occupied from the 13th to 15th centuries, and the Valley Complex from the 14th to 16th centuries.

     

    Kingdom of Zimbabwe

     

    The Kingdom of Zimbabwe, of which Great Zimbabwe was the capital, existed between circa 1220 and 1450 in modern-day Zimbabwe.
    Although it was formally established during the medieval period, archaeological excavations suggest that state formation here was considerably more ancient. In the early 11th century, people from the Kingdom of Mapungubwe in Southern Africa are believed to have settled on the Zimbabwe plateau. There, they would establish the Kingdom of Zimbabwe around 1220. Sixteenth-century records left by the explorer João de Barros indicate that Great Zimbabwe appears to have still been inhabited as recently as the early 1500s.

    The rulers of Zimbabwe brought artistic and stone masonry traditions from Mapungubwe. The construction of elaborate stone buildings and walls reached its apex in the kingdom. The kingdom taxed other rulers throughout the region. It was composed of over 150 tributaries headquartered in their own minor zimbabwes (stone structures). The Kingdom controlled the ivory and gold trade from the interior to the southeastern coast of Africa. Asian and Arabic goods could be found in abundance. The Great Zimbabwe people mined minerals like gold, copper, and iron. They also kept livestock.

     

    Decline of the State and the City

     

    Causes suggested for the decline and ultimate abandonment of the city of Great Zimbabwe have included a decline in trade compared to sites further north, the exhaustion of the gold mines, political instability, and famine and water shortages induced by climatic change. Around 1430, prince Nyatsimba Mutota from Great Zimbabwe traveled north in search of salt among the Shona-Tavara. He defeated the Tonga and Tavara with his army and established his dynasty at Chitakochangonya Hill. The land he conquered would become the Kingdom of Mutapa. Within a generation, Mutapa eclipsed Great Zimbabwe as the economic and political power in Zimbabwe. By 1450, the capital and most of the kingdom had been abandoned.

    The end of the kingdom resulted in a fragmentation of proto-Shona power. Two bases emerged along a north-south axis. In the north, the Kingdom of Mutapa carried on and even improved upon Zimbabwe’s administrative structure. It did not carry on the stone masonry tradition to the extent of its predecessor. In the south, the Kingdom of Butua was established as a smaller but nearly identical version of Zimbabwe. Both states were eventually absorbed into the largest and most powerful of the Kalanga states, the Rozwi Empire.

     

    The Swahili Culture

     

    Swahili culture originated on the Swahili Coast from the mixture of Perso-Arab and Bantu cultures that is credited for creating Swahili as a distinctive East African culture and language.

    LEARNING OBJECTIVES

    Explain how the Bantu migration impacted the Swahili culture

    KEY TAKEAWAYS

    Key Points

    • Swahili culture is the culture of the Swahili people inhabiting the Swahili Coast. They speak Swahili as their native language, which belongs to the Niger-Congo family. Swahili culture is the product of the history of the coastal part of the African Great Lakes region.
    • As with the Swahili language, Swahili culture has a Bantu core and has also borrowed from foreign influences. Around 3,000 years ago, speakers of
      the proto-Bantu language group began a millennia-long series of migrations; the Swahili people originate from Bantu inhabitants of the coast of Southeast Africa, in Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique. They are mainly united under the mother tongue of Kiswahili, a Bantu language.
    • Around the 8th century, the Swahili people engaged in the Indian Ocean trade. As a consequence, they were influenced by Arabic, Persian, Indian, and Chinese cultures. During the 10th century, several city-states flourished along the Swahili Coast and adjacent island. They were Muslim, cosmopolitan, and politically independent of one another.
    • The Kilwa Sultanate  was a medieval sultanate, centered at Kilwa, whose authority, at its height, stretched over the entire length of the Swahili Coast. It was founded in the 10th century, and the last native dynasty was overthrown by a Portuguese invasion in 1505. By 1513, the sultanate was already fragmented into smaller states.
    • Despite its origin as a Persian colony, extensive inter-marriage and conversion of local Bantu inhabitants and later Arab immigration turned the Kilwa Sultanate into a very diverse state. It is the mixture of Perso-Arab and Bantu cultures in Kilwa that is credited for creating Swahili as a distinctive East African culture and language.
    • The diverse history of the Swahili Coast has also resulted in multicultural influences on Swahili arts, including furniture and architecture.

    Key Terms

    • Kilwa Sultanate: A Medieval sultanate, centered at Kilwa (an island off modern-day Tanzania), whose authority, at its height, stretched over the entire length of the Swahili Coast. It was founded in the 10th century by Ali ibn al-Hassan Shirazi, a Persian prince of Shiraz. His family ruled the Sultanate until 1277, when it was replaced by the Arab family of Abu Moaheb. The latter was overthrown by a Portuguese invasion in 1505.
    • Bantu expansion: A postulated millennia-long series of migrations of speakers of the original proto-Bantu language group. Attempts to trace the exact route of the migrations, to correlate it with archaeological evidence and genetic evidence, have not been conclusive. The Bantu traveled in two waves, and it is likely that the migration of the Bantu-speaking people from their core region in West Africa began around 1000 BCE.

     

    Bantu and Swahili Culture

     

    Swahili culture is the culture of the Swahili people inhabiting the Swahili Coast, encompassing today’s Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and Mozambique, as well as the adjacent islands of Zanzibar and Comoros and some parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Malawi. They speak Swahili as their native language, which belongs to the Niger-Congo family. Swahili culture is the product of the history of the coastal part of the African Great Lakes region.

    As with the Swahili language, Swahili culture has a Bantu core and has also borrowed from foreign influences. Around 3,000 years ago, speakers of the proto-Bantu language group began a millennia-long series of migrations eastward from their homeland between West Africa and Central Africa, at the border of eastern Nigeria and Cameroon. This Bantu expansion first introduced Bantu peoples to central, southern, and southeastern Africa, regions they had previously been absent from. The Swahili people are mainly united under the mother tongue of Kiswahili, a Bantu language. This also extends to Arab, Persian, and other migrants who reached the coast around the 7th and 8th centuries, providing considerable cultural infusion and numerous loan words from Arabic and Persian. However, archaeologist Felix Chami notes the presence of Bantu settlements straddling the Southeast African coast as early as the beginning of the 1st millennium. They evolved gradually from the 6th century onward to accommodate for an increase in trade (mainly with Arab merchants), population growth, and further centralized urbanization, developing into what would later become known as the Swahili city-states.

    image

    Swahili Arabic script on a carved wooden door (open) at Lamu in Kenya

    British archaeologists assumed during the colonial period that Arab or Persian colonizers brought stone architecture and urban civilization to the Swahili Coast. Today we know that it was local populations that developed the Swahili coast. Swahili architecture exhibits a range of influences and innovations, and diverse forms and histories interlock and overlap to create densely layered structures that cannot be broken down into distinct stylistic parts.

     

    Swahili City-States

     

    Around the 8th century, the Swahili people began trading with the Arab, Persian, Indian, Chinese, and Southeast Asian peoples—a process known as the Indian Ocean trade. As a consequence of long-distance trading routes crossing the Indian Ocean, the Swahili were influenced by Arabic, Persian, Indian, and Chinese cultures. During the 10th century, several city-states flourished along the Swahili Coast and adjacent islands, including Kilwa, Malindi, Gedi, Pate, Comoros, and Zanzibar. These early Swahili city-states were Muslim, cosmopolitan, and politically independent of one another. They grew in wealth as the Bantu Swahili people served as intermediaries and facilitators to local, Arab, Persian, Indonesian, Malaysian, Indian, and Chinese merchants. They all competed against one another for the best of the Great Lakes region’s trade business, and their chief exports were salt, ebony, gold, ivory, and sandalwood. They were also involved in the slave trade. These city-states began to decline towards the 16th century, mainly as a consequence of the Portuguese advent. Eventually, Swahili trading centers went out of business, and commerce between Africa and Asia on the Indian Ocean collapsed.

     

    Kilwa Sultanate

     

    The Kilwa Sultanate was a medieval sultanate, centered at Kilwa (an island off modern-day Tanzania), whose authority, at its height, stretched over the entire length of the Swahili Coast. It was founded in the 10th century by Ali ibn al-Hassan Shirazi, a Persian prince of Shiraz. His family ruled the Sultanate until 1277, when it was replaced by the Arab family of Abu Moaheb. The latter was overthrown by a Portuguese invasion in 1505. By 1513, the sultanate was already fragmented into smaller states, many of which became protectorates of the Sultanate of Oman.

    Despite its origin as a Persian colony, extensive inter-marriage and conversion of local Bantu inhabitants and later Arab immigration turned the Kilwa Sultanate into a diverse state not ethnically differentiable from the mainland. It is the mixture of Perso-Arab and Bantu cultures in Kilwa that is credited for creating Swahili as a distinctive East African culture and language. Nonetheless, the Muslims of Kilwa (whatever their ethnicity) would often refer to themselves generally as Shirazi or Arabs, and to the unconverted Bantu peoples of the mainland as Zanj or Khaffirs(infidels).

    The Kilwa Sultanate was almost wholly dependent on external commerce. Effectively, it was a confederation of urban settlements, and there was little or no agriculture carried on in within the boundaries of the sultanate. Grains (principally millet and rice), meats (cattle and poultry), and other supplies necessary to feed the large city populations had to be purchased from the Bantu peoples of the interior. Kilwan traders from the coast encouraged the development of market towns in the Bantu-dominated highlands of what are now Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. The Kilwan mode of living was as middlemen traders, importing manufactured goods (cloth, etc.) from Arabia and India, which were then swapped in the highland market towns for Bantu-produced agricultural commodities (grain, meats, etc.) for their own subsistence, and precious raw materials (gold, ivory, etc.) that they would export back to Asia. The exception was the coconut palm tree.

     

    Arts

     

    The diverse history of the Swahili Coast has also resulted in multicultural influences on Swahili arts, including furniture and architecture. The Swahili do not often use designs with images of living beings due to their Muslim heritage. Instead, Swahili designs are primarily geometric. The most typical musical genre of Swahili culture is taarab (or tarabu), sung in the Swahili language. Its melodies and orchestration have Arab and Indian influences, although Western instruments, such as guitars, are sometimes used. Swahili architecture, a term used to designate a whole range of diverse building traditions practiced or once practiced along the eastern and southeastern coasts of Africa, is in many ways an extension of mainland African traditions, although structural elements, such as domes and barrel vaulting, clearly connect to Persian Gulf area and South Asian building traditions as well. Exotic ornament and design elements also connected the architecture of the Swahili coast to other Islamic port cities. In fact, many of the classic mansions and palaces of the Swahili Coast belonged to wealthy merchants and landowners, who played a key role in the mercantile economy of the region.

     

    The Kingdoms of Madagascar

     

    Among many fragmented communities that populated Madagascar, the Sakalava, Merina, and Betsimisaraka seized the opportunity to unite disparate groups and establish powerful kingdoms under their rule.

    LEARNING OBJECTIVES

    Identify some of the kingdoms that ruled on Madagascar before the arrival of Europeans

    KEY TAKEAWAYS

    Key Points

    • Over the past 2,000 years, Madagascar has received waves of settlers of diverse origins, including Austronesian, Bantu, Arab, South Asian, Chinese, and European populations. Centuries of intermarriages created the Malagasy people that form nearly the entire population of Madagascar today.
    • By the European Middle Ages, over a dozen predominant ethnic identities had emerged on the island, typified by rule under a local chieftain. Leaders of some communities, such as the Sakalava, Merina, and Betsimisaraka, seized the opportunity to unite these disparate groups and establish powerful kingdoms under their rule.
    • According to local tradition, the founders of the Sakalava kingdom quickly subdued the neighboring princes, starting with the southern ones, in the Mahafaly area. The true founder of Sakalava dominance was Andriamisara. In the 17th century, the empire started to split, resulting in a southern kingdom (Menabe) and a northern kingdom (Boina). Further splits followed.
    • A northern Betsimisaraka zana-malata named Ratsimilaho successfully united his compatriots, and around 1712 was elected king of all the Betsimisaraka. He established alliances with the southern Betsimisaraka and the neighboring Bezanozano, extending his authority over these areas by allowing local chiefs to maintain their power while offering tributes of rice, cattle, and slaves. By 1730, he was one of the most powerful kings of Madagascar. Around a century later, the fractured Betsimisaraka kingdom was easily colonized by Radama I, king of Merina.
    • The Merina emerged as the politically dominant group in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the Merina kingdom reached the peak of its power in the early 19th century. Its economy was heavily based on slave labor. The absolute dominance of the Merina kingdom over all of Madagascar came to an end with the first Franco-Hova War of 1883 to 1885.
    • In 1896, the French Parliament voted to annex Madagascar, forming the colony of French Madagascar in 1897.

    Key Terms

    • Sakalava: An ethnic group of Madagascar that occupies the western edge of the island from Toliara in the south to Sambirano in the north. The term denominates a number of smaller ethnic groups that once comprised an empire, rather than an ethnic group in its own right. During the Middle Ages, their influence extended across the area that is now the provinces of Antsiranana, Mahajanga, and Toliara. However, with the domination of the Indian Ocean by the British fleet and the end of the Arab slave trade, they lost their power to the emerging Merina threat.
    • Malagasy people: The ethnic group that forms nearly the entire population of Madagascar. They are divided into two subgroups: the “Highlander” Merina, Sihanaka, and Betsileo of the central plateau around Antananarivo, Alaotra, and Fianarantsoa, and the “coastal dwellers” elsewhere in the country. This division has its roots in historical patterns of settlement.
    • Merina: The dominant “highlander” Malagasy ethnic group in Madagascar, and one of the country’s eighteen official ethnic groups. Their core territory corresponds to the former Antananarivo Province in the center of the island. Beginning in the late 18th century, their sovereigns extended political domination over the rest of the island, ultimately uniting it under their rule.
    • Betsimisaraka: A group that makes up approximately 15% of the Malagasy people and is the second largest ethnic group in Madagascar after the Merina. They occupy a large stretch of the eastern seaboard of Madagascar, from Mananjary in the south to Antalaha in the north. They have a long history of extensive interaction with European seafarers and traders that produced a significant subset with mixed European-Malagasy origins, termed the zana-malata.

     

    Diverse Populations and the Rise of Great Kingdoms

     

    Over the past 2,000 years, Madagascar has received waves of settlers of diverse origins, including Austronesian, Bantu, Arab, South Asian, Chinese, and European populations. Centuries of intermarriages created the Malagasy people, who primarily speak Malagasy, an Austronesian language with Bantu, Malay, Arabic, French, and English influences. Most of the genetic makeup of the average Malagasy, however, reflects an almost equal blend of Austronesian and Bantu influences, especially in coastal regions. Other populations often intermixed with the existent population to a more limited degree or have sought to preserve a separate community from the majority Malagasy.

    By the European Middle Ages, over a dozen predominant ethnic identities had emerged on the island, typified by rule under a local chieftain. Leaders of some communities, such as the Sakalava, Merina, and Betsimisaraka, seized the opportunity to unite these disparate groups and establish powerful kingdoms under their rule. The kingdoms increased their wealth and power through exchanges with European, Arab, and other seafaring traders, whether they were legitimate vessels or pirates.

     

    Sakalava

     

    The island’s west clan chiefs began to extend their power through trade with their Indian Ocean neighbors, first with Arab, Persian, and Somali traders who connected Madagascar with East Africa, the Middle East, and India, and later with European slave traders. The wealth created in Madagascar through trade produced a state system ruled by powerful regional monarchs known as the Maroserana. These monarchs adopted the cultural traditions of subjects in their territories and expanded their kingdoms. They took on divine status, and new nobility and artisan classes were created. Madagascar functioned as a contact port for the other Swahili seaport city-states, such as Sofala, Kilwa, Mombasa, and Zanzibar. By the Middle Ages, large chiefdoms began to dominate considerable areas of the island. Among these were the Betsimisaraka alliance of the eastern coast and 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). The influence of the Sakalava extended across the area that is now the provinces of Antsiranana, Mahajanga, and Toliara.

    According to local tradition, the founders of the Sakalava kingdom were Maroseraña (or Maroseranana, “those who owned many ports”) princes from the Fiherenana (now Toliara). They quickly subdued the neighboring princes, starting with the southern ones, in the Mahafaly area. The true founder of Sakalava dominance was Andriamisara. His son Andriandahifotsy (c. 1610–1658) extended his authority northwards, past the Mangoky River. His two sons, Andriamanetiarivo and Andriamandisoarivo, extended gains further up to the Tsongay region (now Mahajanga). At about that time, the empire started to split, resulting in a southern kingdom (Menabe) and a northern kingdom (Boina). Further splits followed, despite continued extension of the Boina princes’ reach into the extreme north, in Antankarana country.

     

    Betsmiraka

     

    Like the Sakalava to the west, today’s Betsimisaraka are composed of numerous ethnic sub-groups that formed a confederation in the early 18th century. Through the late 17th century, the various clans of the eastern seaboard were governed by chieftains who typically ruled over one or two villages. Around 1700, the Tsikoa clans began uniting around a series of powerful leaders. Ramanano, the chief of Vatomandry, was elected in 1710 as the leader of the Tsikoa (“those who are steadfast”) and initiated invasions of the northern ports. A northern Betsimisaraka zana-malata (a person of mixed native and European origin) named Ratsimilaho led a resistance to these invasions and successfully united his compatriots around this cause. In 1712, he forced the Tsikoa to flee, and was elected king of all the Betsimisaraka and given a new name, Ramaromanompo (“Lord Served by Many”) at his capital at Foulpointe. He established alliances with the southern Betsimisaraka and the neighboring Bezanozano, extending his authority over these areas by allowing local chiefs to maintain their power while offering tributes of rice, cattle, and slaves. By 1730, he was one of the most powerful kings of Madagascar. By the time of his death in 1754, his moderate and stabilizing rule had provided nearly forty years of unity among the diverse clans within the Betsimisaraka political union. He also allied the Betsimisaraka with the other most powerful kingdom of the time, the Sakalava of the west coast, through marriage with Matave, the only daughter of Iboina king Andrianbaba.

    Ratsimilaho’s successors gradually weakened the union, leaving it vulnerable to the growing influence and presence of European and particularly French settlers, slave traders, missionaries, and merchants. The fractured Betsimisaraka kingdom was easily colonized in 1817 by Radama I, king of Merina. The subjugation of the Betsimisaraka in the 19th century left the population relatively impoverished. Under colonization by the French (1896–1960), a focused effort was made to increase access to education and paid employment on French plantations.

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    Map of Madagascar and surrounding areas, c. 1702–1707

    Over the 19th century, a series of Merina monarchs engaged in the process of modernization through close diplomatic ties to Britain that led to the establishment of European-style schools, government institutions, and infrastructure. Christianity, introduced by members of the London Missionary Society, was made the state religion under Queen Ranavalona II and her prime minister, highly influential statesman Rainilaiarivony.

     

    Merina

     

    The Merina emerged as the politically dominant group in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. Oral history traces the emergence of a united kingdom in the central highlands of Madagascar—a region called Imerina—back to early 16th century king Andriamanelo. By 1824, sovereigns in his line had conquered nearly all of Madagascar, particularly through the military strategy and ambitious political policies of Andrianampoinimerina (c. 1785–1810) and his son Radama I (1792–1828). The kingdom’s contact with British and later French powers led local leaders to build schools and a modern army based on European models.

    The Merina oral histories mention several attacks by Sakalava raiders against their villages as early as the 17th century and during the entire 18th century. However, it seems that the term was used generically to design all the nomadic peoples in the sparsely settled territories between the Merina country and the western coast of the island. The Merina king Radama I’s wars with the western coast of the island ended in a fragile peace sealed through his marriage with the daughter of a king of Menabe. Though the Merina were never to annex the two last Sakalava strongholds of Menabe and Boina (Mahajanga), the Sakalava never again posed a threat to the central plateau, which remained under Merina control until the French colonization of the island in 1896.

    The Merina kingdom reached the peak of its power in the early 19th century. In a number of military expeditions, large numbers of non-Merina were captured and used for slave labor. By the 1850s, these slaves were replaced by imported slaves from East Africa, mostly of Makoa ethnicity. Until the 1820s, the imported slave labor benefited all classes of Merina society, but in the period of 1825 to 1861, a general impoverishment of small farmers led to the concentration of slave ownership in the hands of the ruling elite. The slave-based economy led to a constant danger of a slave revolt, and for a period in the 1820s all non-Merina males captured in military expeditions were killed rather than enslaved for fear of an armed uprising. There was a brief period of increased prosperity in the late 1870s, as slave import began to pick up again, but it was cut short with the abolishment of slavery under French administration in 1896. Due to the influence of British missionaries, the Merina upper classes converted entirely to Protestantism in the mid-19th century, following the example of their queen, Ranavalona II.

    The absolute dominance of the Merina kingdom over all of Madagascar came to an end with the first Franco-Hova War of 1883 to 1885, when a French flying column marched to the capital, Antananarivo, taking the city’s defenders by surprise. In 1896, the French Parliament voted to annex Madagascar, forming the colony of French Madagascar in 1897.

     
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