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An Economic History of Imperial Madagascar, 1750-1895: The Rise and Fall of an Island Empire

Author(s):Campbell, Gwyn
Reviewer(s):Worden, Nigel

Published by EH.NET (December 2005)

Gwyn Campbell, An Economic History of Imperial Madagascar, 1750-1895: The Rise and Fall of an Island Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xvii + 413 pp. $90 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-83935-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Nigel Worden, Department of History, University of Cape Town.

Over the past twenty years Gwyn Campbell’s numerous articles on Madagascar have provided refreshing new insights into a region whose historiography is largely unknown in the Anglophone world (“a well-guarded Gallic secret,” as he describes it). This book is thus a long awaited publication which fully fulfills the expectations that Campbell’s previous work has raised. Its significance goes much further than its title might suggest.

At one level the book is indeed a meticulously documented economic history of nineteenth-century Madagascar. In this it is a model for historians of pre-colonial African and Indian Ocean societies. The historian of Madagascar is perhaps fortunate in that written records survive from both pre-colonial administrators and from the accounts of traders, merchants, diplomats and missionaries. These enable the production of data on population, trade and production at a level of detail and accuracy unparalleled in pre-colonial African studies.

Campbell is not only fluent in Malagasy, but also in the less familiar European languages (Welsh, Norwegian) in which some of these records are written. He uses them to reconceptualize the whole history of late pre-colonial Madagascar, and to integrate the island into the broader context of the western Indian Ocean world. In this he transforms the historiography of the region.

Campbell’s central argument is that the nineteenth century saw the rise and collapse of a centralizing Merina economy that underpinned what he describes as a Merina empire. This challenges existing orthodoxy in fundamental ways. Firstly it devastatingly destroys the Malagasy nationalist argument that Madagascar was a single state before colonial conquest, unified by a common language, culture and political system. Secondly, Campbell argues that the conquest of the French in the 1890s was not simply the product of European scramble politics but was directly linked to the internal collapse of the Merina economy.

The first section of the book examines the nature of the “traditional economy” between the mid-eighteenth century and c.1820. A key element was the impetus given to the Malagasy economy by the demand for provisions and for slave labor in the neighboring plantation economies of Reunion and Mauritius and the links further afield (such as the Cape and the Swahili coast). An indigenous plantation economy and the spectacular growth of rice cultivation emerged. By the 1820s long-distance trade, a commercial infrastructure and a market system intersected with these developments to underpin the power of the Merina state of the central regions. By the 1820s, the Merina had conquered the eastern parts of the island and gained access to the coastal trading system.

Campbell then examines an intriguing and little-known development. In the 1820s-50s a period of autarky existed, in which British mercantile free trade policies were rejected in favor of Merina state monopolies. An experiment in producing an industrial economy (“possibly the first in Africa and contemporaneous with similar projects in Europe”) took place, based on the use of forced corvee labor (fanompoana) and marked by the rapid expansion of Merina state authority. But by the middle of the nineteenth century this was weakening, both because of continued high transportation costs which made Malagasy goods uncompetitive in the rapidly commercializing region and because of local resistance to forced labor which led to desertion and banditry.

It was in this context that Merina power faltered in the later nineteenth century. Yet Campbell argues that the Malagasy economy as a whole revived in the 1860s and 1870s, partly because of regional initiatives that were previously disguised in the Merina empire but mainly because of the integration of the island into the expanding regional and international economy. A key role was played by merchants and their agents linked to the British and Indian trading nexus of the western Indian Ocean, focused on Zanzibar, Natal and Mauritius. These developments weakened the autarkic policies of the Merina, especially when other Malagasy peoples such as the Sakalava were able to purchase imported arms and resist Merina control. By the 1890s even the central Merina regions were subject to local raids, while desertion and banditry destroyed the last remnants of the fanompoana labor system on which the Merina economy was based.

The final section of the book examines the consequences of this for the colonial occupation of the island. Although French interests had long existed in Madagascar, it was only in the 1890s that the geopolitics of European expansion led to British abandonment of the region to the French. But it was, Campbell argues, the “implosion” of the Merina state which enabled them to succeed: the French conquered Madagascar “by default.”

Campbell’s study thus transforms our understanding of Madagascar and its place in the history of the western Indian Ocean region. It is also a model of how economic data can inform social and political historical analysis. This is a highly significant intervention in an era when economic history is battling to retain support especially among Africanists and other scholars of the colonial encounter for whom quantitative data have become unfashionable.

Nigel Worden’s research focuses on slavery in the Cape Colony, the construction of social identities in VOC Cape Town and on public history in the Indian Ocean region. Publications include Slavery in Dutch South Africa; Breaking the Chains: Slavery and Emancipation in the Nineteenth-Century Cape Colony; Cape Town: The Making of a City and The Making of Modern South Africa.

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):Africa
Time Period(s):19th Century