Madagascar had no human inhabitants until about 2,500 years ago, when immigrants came, probably from Indonesia via the East African coast. This wave of immigration continued for at least 1,000 years, and there was also an influx of African peoples. Additional immigrants from Africa, Arabia, and the Persian Gulf and, much later, from Europe, India, and China did little more than supplement a fully settled population.
The earliest written histories of the Malagasy are the sorabe, in the Malagasy language using Arabic script. A Portuguese ship sighted the island and sailed along the coast in 1500. In 1502, the island was named Madagascar by the Portuguese, after the island of the same name originally reported by Marco Polo. During the 16th and 17th centuries, attempts were made by the Portuguese, British, Dutch, and French to establish settlements. All these efforts failed, and Madagascar became the lair of pirates who lived on Nosy Sainte Marie and intermarried with the Malagasy.
Among the Malagasy themselves, three main kingdoms appeared: that of the Merina in the central plateau, that of the Sakalava in the west, and that of the Betsimisaraka in the east. Under King Andrianampoinimerina (r.1787–1810), the foundations were laid for the primacy of the Merina kingdom.
Andrianampoinimerina was succeeded in 1810 by Radama I, his son, under whose guidance the Merina kingdom extended its rule over the major portions of the island (especially over the Betsimisaraka kingdom and the south). Radama welcomed Europeans to assist in the modernization of the kingdom and to further his conquests. On Radama's death in 1828, he was succeeded by his wife, Ranavalona I, whose hostility to the innovations in her husband's reign led to a persecution of the Malagasy Christians and eventually to the expulsion of the Europeans after an Anglo-French bombardment of Toamasina in 1845.
Radama II, who succeeded his mother in 1861, was sympathetic to the French but was murdered in 1863. Shortly after this, Rainilaiarivony, who was to become prime minister and consort to three successive queens, took control of the government. The last three decades of Malagasy independence during the 19th century were marked by continued attempts of those opposed to innovation to undermine the prime minister's authority. He therefore slowed modernization and tried to retain independence by seeking British friendship against the French. The latter claimed a protectorate over parts of the Sakalava kingdom by virtue of treaties made in 1840, and disputes over this claim and over French properties on the island resulted in a war in 1883 which was ended in 1885 by a treaty giving the French control over Merina foreign policy.
The British recognized the French position under the terms of the Anglo-French Agreement of 1890, in exchange for French recognition of a British protectorate over Zanzibar. This exchange cleared the way for the French annexation of Madagascar in 1896. Malagasy resistance, especially in the south, was not finally overcome until 1904, however. Gen. Joseph Gallieni, governor-general from 1896 to 1905, opened the first government schools (hitherto all schools had been in the hands of the missions), established a free medical service for Malagasy, encouraged the study of Malagasy language and customs by the creation of the Malagasy Academy (Académie Malgache), and introduced new tropical crops in order to promote economic development. The impress of his policies remained substantial until the end of World War II. His successors, career colonial officials, struggled to promote economic growth, but World War I, subsequent economic difficulties in France, and the prolonged depression of the 1930s, together with the absence of easily exploitable resources, the distance of Madagascar from its main markets, and the shortage of labor, combined to impede their efforts.
During World War II, the Vichy French retained control of Madagascar until it was occupied in 1942 by British troops to prevent its naval facilities from being used by the Japanese. In 1943, French administration was restored under Gen. de Gaulle's Free French government. Madagascar became a French overseas territory in 1946. All Malagasy thus became French citizens, but only a limited number were accorded the franchise (mainly those with some education or experience of European ways in the French civil services or armed forces). A Territorial Assembly was established, with some control of the budget. It was composed entirely of members indirectly elected by provincial assemblies. The latter were wholly elected bodies, but there were separate electorates (and separate seats) for the French citizens of metropolitan status (including Europeans, Réunionnais, and some Malagasy given such status) and for Malagasy citizens of local status. Although the latter had a majority of the seats in both provincial and territorial assemblies, the number of seats assigned to the metropolitan electorate was most disproportionate to its numerical strength. This system was denounced by the nationalists, who had secured a majority of the Malagasy seats in the Territorial Assembly as well as the three Malagasy seats in the French National Assembly.
In March 1947, a rebellion broke out, and for a time the French lost control of the east coast. Europeans and loyal Malagasy were murdered and roads cut. The suppression of the rebellion required substantial forces and took more than a year. Loss of life was estimated at 11,000. The nationalist movement was disrupted by the rebellion and subsequent repressions, but was not destroyed. A period of reform beginning in 1956 resulted in abolition of the dual electorate system, placed Malagasy in important government positions, and led to the rebirth of serious political activity.
In the referendum of 28 September 1958, Madagascar overwhelmingly voted for the new French constitution and became an autonomous republic in the new French Community. As the Malagasy Republic, it became a sovereign independent nation on 26 June 1960 and on 20 September 1960 was elected to UN membership.
The constitution that was adopted in October 1958 and amended in June 1960 provided Madagascar with a strong presidential form of government. The president, Philibert Tsiranana, remained in power until May 1972, when there were riots throughout Madagascar. The protests were led by a nationalist, leftist coalition of students, teachers, laborers, and urban unemployed. The repression that followed these demonstrations led to the fall of the Tsiranana government on 18 May. Gen. Gabriel Ramanantsoa was immediately asked to form a nonpolitical "government of national unity," which was composed of 11 ministers (5 military and 6 civilian). Ramanantsoa effectively destroyed the coalition by raising the minimum wages, providing strike pay, annulling the head and cattle taxes, prosecuting corrupt officials, and introducing price and currency controls. The new government also broke diplomatic ties with South Africa, established relations with the Communist bloc, withdrew from the franc zone, and arranged for the withdrawal of French military forces under new cooperation agreements with France.
On 5 February 1975, following a period of social and ethnic unrest, Ramanantsoa was replaced as head of state by Col. Richard Ratsimandrava, who was assassinated in an attempted coup six days later. A military Directorate composed of 18 officers was immediately formed and assumed all governmental authority. The Directorate was superseded on 13 June by the all-military Supreme Council of the Revolution, headed by Didier Ratsiraka, who had been minister of foreign affairs in the Ramanantsoa government.
In December 1975, a draft constitution was approved in a referendum by 95% of the voters and the Second Malagasy Republic, to be called the Democratic Republic of Madagascar, was proclaimed. Ratsiraka was installed as president on 4 January 1976, thus remaining head of state.
The new regime accelerated growing state control of the economy, and Madagascar turned to the former USSR and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea for military aid. By 1979, however, growing economic difficulties forced Ratsiraka to develop closer ties with the West. Unemployment, inflation, and scarcities of basic foodstuffs caused serious rioting and social unrest in the early 1980s. Ratsiraka was elected to a new term as president on 7 November 1982. During 1986–87, the government was shaken by student protests against educational reforms, rioting in the port of Toamasina, attacks on Indo-Pakistani enterprises in four major urban centers, and famine in the south because of food-supply problems. By early 1987, the governing coalition appeared to be unraveling. On May Day, four of the parties called for the resignation of the government and early elections.
In July 1992, after seven weeks of pro-democracy protests, Ratsiraka finally agreed to dissolve the cabinet and begin talks with the opposition. He also offered to hold a referendum on a new constitution by the end of 1992. Although he rejected demonstrators' demands that he resign, Ratsiraka released Albert Zafy, a popular opponent, and offered to form a coalition government with opposition leaders. Protests continued, and government troops fired on demonstrators in Antananarivo, killing as many as 50. In August, Ratsiraka asked his prime minister, Guy Willy Razanamasy, to form a new government and to "install democracy." By November, Ratsiraka agreed to share power with a transitional government headed by Zafy, his main rival. Ratsiraka's Revolutionary Supreme Council stepped down from power.
The democratization process survived an attempted coup on 29 July 1992, led by a faction of the Active Forces known as the Lifeblood Committee. On 19 August 1992, a new constitution was approved by national referendum. Ratsiraka's supporters
interfered with the voting, seeking greater provincial autonomy. However the interior peoples, especially the Merina, strongly supported the new constitution. This was followed on 25 November by a presidential election, which a team of foreign observers deemed free and fair. Zafy defeated Ratsiraka, but without an absolute majority. In a runoff election on 10 February 1993, Zafy got 67% of the vote to Ratsiraka's 33%. The president was installed in March, amid violent confrontations between Ratsiraka's supporters and government forces.
Parliamentary elections were held in June 1993 for the new National Assembly. Twenty-five parties won representation with Zafy's Forces Vives (FV) taking the largest block of seats—48. Eight parties had more than five seats. The National Assembly elected Francisque Ravony prime minister—55 votes to 45 for Roger Ralison (FV), and 35 for former Maoist leader, Manandagy Rakotonirina.
Communal (territorial) elections, the first step in creation of the Senate, were held in November 1995, but President Zafy's day in the sun was short-lived. He was impeached in September 1995, and then defeated by Ratsiraka in competitive elections in December 1996. On February 10, 1997, Ratsiraka became the second African head of state, after Mathieu Kérékou of Benin, to have lost and then reclaimed the presidency via competitive elections.
An extensive revision of the 1992 Constitution was approved narrowly in a March 1998 constitutional referendum. International observers found the conduct of the referendum generally free and fair, but problems involving the compilation of voter lists, distribution of electoral cards, and other issues led to charges of fraud and manipulation. The revised Constitution reduced checks and balances and strengthened the presidency at the expense of the National Assembly. Parliamentary elections held in May 1998 generally were free and fair, but there were credible complaints of electoral fraud. In November 1999, municipal elections were held for 1,392 mayoral posts and 20,000 council seats.
After 29 years of dormancy, the Senate reconvened in May 2001. However, crisis ensued following the 16 December 2001 presidential election when challenger Marc Ravalomanana claimed to have won the election outright over incumbent Didier Ratsiraka, thereby eliminating the need for a run-off. The official results gave Ravalomanana 46.2%, forcing him into a runoff with Ratsiraka (40.9%). Albert Zafy (Rasalama) claimed 5.4%, Herizo Razafimahaleo 4.2%, D. Rajakoba 1.8%, and P. Rajaonary 1.6%. With Ratsiraka refusing to step down, Ravalomanana and his supporters mounted strikes and protests culminating in Ravalomanana's siezure of the presidency in February 2002. Operating from his provincial fiefdom, Toamasina, Ratsiraka commanded his armed forces to lay siege to the capital, blowing up key bridges and cutting off basic foodstuffs and other critical supplies. The violence resulted in more than 70 deaths. US recognition of Ravalomanana in June 2002 was followed by international approbation of his government, forcing Ratsiraka in July 2002 to seek exile in France ending seven months of political and economic chaos in the country.