A large island country lying 450–900 km (280–560 miles) distant from the south-east African coast, to which it runs parallel.
A broad plain in the west rises to the Ankaratra Mountains, which slope steeply eastward to the Indian Ocean. The eastern coast is hot, very wet, subject to cyclones, and densely clad with rainforest. As a result of the island becoming separated from Africa during the period of continental drift, many of its plant and animal species, for example lemurs (prosimians), are unique.
Economic activity in Madagascar is mainly agricultural: coffee, vanilla, and cloves are major exports. Rice, cassava, and sweet potatoes are the chief food crops; cattle-breeding is extensive. Mining of chrome ore is significant, and there are bauxite deposits. An oil refinery produces petroleum-based products. Industry is limited mostly to food-processing.
The Madagascan people are of Indo-Melanesian and Malay descent, mixed with some Bantu, Arabs, Indians, and Chinese. The time of arrival of different groups is controversial. Arab traders were probably visiting by the 10th century. In 1500 a Portuguese sea captain, Diego Dias, chanced on the island, calling it São Lourenço. However, Marco Polo had already named it Madagascar from hearsay knowledge, and this name endured. In the following centuries Dutch, English, and Portuguese vessels made frequent visits, and the French set up trading centres. Many of these were used as pirate bases. By the beginning of the 17th century a number of small Malagasy kingdoms emerged, and later the Sakalawa, from the west of the island, conquered northern and western Madagascar, but their kingdom disintegrated in the 18th century. The Merina people of the interior were later united under King Andrianampoinimerina (ruled 1787–1810), and became the dominant group on the island by the early 19th century.
In 1860 King Radama II gave concessions to a French trading company. This led in 1890 to a French Protectorate, although resistance lasted until 1895. After 1945 Madagascar became an Overseas Territory of the French Republic, sending Deputies to Paris. It became a republic in 1958, and regained its independence (1960) as the Malagasy Republic, changing its name back to Madagascar in 1975. Severe social and economic problems caused recurrent unrest and frequent changes of government. Admiral Didier Ratsiraka was elected President in 1982 and again in 1989, working closely with a Supreme Revolutionary Council. A new multiparty constitution was adopted in 1992 and Albert Zafy became President following elections in 1993. In 1996 he was impeached, and later defeated in presidential elections by Ratsiraka. Marc Ravalomanana was narrowly victorious in 2001; however, Ratsiraka rejected the result, leading to a short period of chaos until he left the country.
587,041 sq km (226,658 sq miles)
1 ariary = 5 iraimbilanja
traditional beliefs 48.0%; Protestant 22.7%; Roman Catholic 20.3%; Muslim 1.9%
Malagasy 98.9% (Merina 26.6%; Betsimisaraka 14.9%; Betsileo 11.7%; Tsimihety 7.4%; Sakalava 6.4%); Antandroy 5.3%; Comorian 0.3%; Indian and Pakistani 0.2%; French 0.2%; Chinese 0.1%
Malagasy, French (both official)
Subjects: History — African Studies.