Upon its emergence in the early 17th century, the highland kingdom of Imerina was initially a minor power relative to the larger coastal kingdoms and grew even weaker in the early 18th century when King Andriamasinavalona divided it among his four sons.
Following almost a century of warring and famine, Imerina was reunited in 1793 by King Andrianampoinimerina (1787–1810).
From his initial capital Ambohimanga, and later from the Rova of Antananarivo, this Merina king rapidly expanded his rule over neighboring principalities.
His ambition to bring the entire island under his control was largely achieved by his son and successor, King Radama I (1810–28), who was recognized by the British government as King of Madagascar.
Radama concluded a treaty in 1817 with the British governor of Mauritius to abolish the lucrative slave trade in return for British military and financial assistance.
Artisan missionary envoys from the London Missionary Society began arriving in 1818 and included such key figures as James Cameron, David Jones and David Griffiths, who established schools, transcribed the Malagasy language using the Roman alphabet, translated the Bible, and introduced a variety of new technologies to the island.
Radama’s successor, Queen Ranavalona I (1828–61), responded to increasing political and cultural encroachment on the part of Britain and France by issuing a royal edict prohibiting the practice of Christianity in Madagascar and pressuring most foreigners to leave the territory.
She made heavy use of the traditional practice of fanompoana (forced labor as tax payment) to complete public works projects and develop a standing army of between 20,000 and 30,000 Merina soldiers, whom she deployed to pacify outlying regions of the island and further expand the Kingdom of Merina to encompass most of Madagascar.
Residents of Madagascar could accuse one another of various crimes, including theft, Christianity and especially witchcraft, for which the ordeal of tangena was routinely obligatory.
Between 1828 and 1861, the tangena ordeal caused about 3,000 deaths annually.
In 1838, it was estimated that as many as 100,000 people in Imerina died as a result of the tangena ordeal, constituting roughly 20 percent of the population.
The combination of regular warfare, disease, difficult forced labor and harsh measures of justice resulted in a high mortality rate among soldiers and civilians alike during her 33-year reign.
Among those who continued to reside in Imerina were Jean Laborde, an entrepreneur who developed munitions and other industries on behalf of the monarchy, and Joseph-François Lambert, a French adventurer and slave trader, with whom then-Prince Radama II signed a controversial trade agreement termed the Lambert Charter.
Succeeding his mother, Radama II (1861–63) attempted to relax the queen’s stringent policies, but was overthrown two years later by Prime Minister Rainivoninahitriniony (1852–1865) and an alliance of Andriana (noble) and Hova (commoner) courtiers, who sought to end the absolute power of the monarch.
Following the coup, the courtiers offered Radama’s queen Rasoherina (1863–68) the opportunity to rule, if she would accept a power sharing arrangement with the Prime Minister a new social contract that would be sealed by a political marriage between them.
Queen Rasoherina accepted, first wedding Rainivoninahitriniony, then later deposing him and wedding his brother, Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony (1864–95), who would go on to marry Queen Ranavalona II (1868–83) and Queen Ranavalona III (1883–97) in succession.
Over the course of Rainilaiarivony’s 31-year tenure as prime minister, numerous policies were adopted to modernize and consolidate the power of the central government.
Schools were constructed throughout the island and attendance was made mandatory. Army organization was improved, and British consultants were employed to train and professionalize soldiers.
Polygamy was outlawed and Christianity, declared the official religion of the court in 1869, was adopted alongside traditional beliefs among a growing portion of the populace.
Legal codes were reformed on the basis of British common law and three European-style courts were established in the capital city. In his joint role as Commander-in-Chief, Rainilaiarivony also successfully ensured the defense of Madagascar against several French colonial incursions.
Primarily on the basis that the Lambert Charter had not been respected, France invaded Madagascar in 1883 in what became known as the first Franco-Hova War.
At the end of the war, Madagascar ceded the northern port town of Antsiranana (Diego Suarez) to France and paid 560,000 francs to Lambert’s heirs. In 1890, the British accepted the full formal imposition of a French protectorate on the island, but French authority was not acknowledged by the government of Madagascar.
To force capitulation, the French bombarded and occupied the harbor of Toamasina on the east coast, and Mahajanga on the west coast, in December 1894 and January 1895 respectively.
A French military flying column then marched toward Antananarivo, losing many men to malaria and other diseases. Reinforcements came from Algeria and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Upon reaching the city in September 1895, the column bombarded the royal palace with heavy artillery, causing heavy casualties and leading Queen Ranavalona III to surrender.
France annexed Madagascar in 1896 and declared the island a colony the following year, dissolving the Merina monarchy and sending the royal family into exile on Réunion Island and to Algeria.
A two-year resistance movement organized in response to the French capture of the royal palace was effectively put down at the end of 1897.
Under colonial rule, plantations were established for the production of a variety of export crops. Slavery was abolished in 1896 and approximately 500,000 slaves were freed; many remained in their former masters’ homes as servants or as sharecroppers; in many parts of the island strong discriminatory views against slave descendants are still held today.
Wide paved boulevards and gathering places were constructed in the capital city of Antananarivo and the Rova palace compound was turned into a museum.
Additional schools were built, particularly in rural and coastal areas where the schools of the Merina had not reached.
Education became mandatory between the ages of 6 to 13 and focused primarily on French language and practical skills.
The Merina royal tradition of taxes paid in the form of labor was continued under the French and used to construct a railway and roads linking key coastal cities to Antananarivo.
Malagasy troops fought for France in World War I. In the 1930s, Nazi political thinkers developed the Madagascar Plan that had identified the island as a potential site for the deportation of Europe’s Jews.
During the Second World War, the island was the site of the Battle of Madagascar between the Vichy government and the British.
The occupation of France during the Second World War tarnished the prestige of the colonial administration in Madagascar and galvanized the growing independence movement, leading to the Malagasy Uprising of 1947.
This movement led the French to establish reformed institutions in 1956 under the Loi Cadre (Overseas Reform Act), and Madagascar moved peacefully towards independence.
The Malagasy Republic was proclaimed on 14 October 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 26 June 1960.