A to Z series
Bob Reis

    These days we believe in the geological theory of plate tectonics, and if you look at a map of East Africa you will see that the island of Madagascar fits neatly into the great bay on which lie the coasts of Kenya and Tanzania.  It has moved south over at least tens of millions of years since it broke away from the continent.  That the break happened a long time ago is proved (if you accept Darwin's theory of evolution) by the presence of not a few, but many species of flora and fauna unique to the island.
    The human population is unique as well.  There is no doubt that several waves of immigrants from Indonesia came, and that these voyages over more than 4000 miles of open ocean began at least 2000 years ago.  Cultural and linguistic affinities with Indonesia cannot be denied, and the thought of large flotillas of tiny boats crossing the Indian Ocean to the promised land is rather boggling to an armchair explorer like myself.
    The newcomers intermarried over the centuries with the Africans already in residence, and adopted African ways, participating in the East African economic regime in which cattle were the major form of wealth and "currency" as we know it did not exist.
    Arabs started visiting the northern coast of the island after the rise of Islam in the 7th century CE, establishing trading posts along the northern coast that eventually grew into towns.  They brought with them their version of slavery, Asian manufactured goods, precious metals, and written language.  Centuries of Islamic proselytization ensued, to essentially no effect; the Malagasy liked their own religion, and today the Islamic influence is muted.
    The first Europeans to see Madagascar were the Portuguese explorer Diogo Dias and his crew in 1500.  Evidently his compatriot, Vasco da Gama, sailed through the Mozambique Channel without once sighting the Malagasy shore.  The Portuguese were mainly interested in the Indian trade, and could have used Madagascar as a provisioning station on their way east, if it had been available.  But the only good harbors were held by Arabs, so the Portuguese let it go and concentrated their colonial efforts on the Mascarene Islands, 800 miles further out in the Indian Ocean.
    Well, the Dutch started moving in on the Indian Ocean trade routes late in the 16th century, and when they took the Mascarenes the Portuguese began to think about Madagascar again.  The Arabs were in decline, and outposts were settled without much difficulty.  Great efforts were made to proselytize the Malagasy for the Catholic faith, but the Christian missionaries had no more success than the Muslims before them.  In any event, the Portuguese were doing all right by their standards in Mozambique over on the mainland, and did not much develop their island holdings.
    In the 17th century the French and English were the new kids in the Indian Ocean, full of vinegar and ready to make names for themselves.  Both set up trading posts in the southern part of the island.  Within a year the English decided they didn't like the profit potential and pulled out.  The French hung on, continuing to try to consolidate their position, but by the end of the 18th century they had only managed to secure the out island of Sainte Marie, off the northeast coast.  The descendants of those Indonesian immigrants were tough.
    18th century Madagascar was divided into three kingdoms: Betsimasaraka in the east, Merina in the central plateau, and Sakalava west.  Merina and Sakalava were in decline at the end of the century, while Betsimasaraka came to be dominated by a mulatto dynasty, whose avaricious ways ruined that kingdom as well.
    At the dawn of the 19th century a reinvigorated Merina kingdom began to take over the whole island.  Merina control was consolidated by king Radama I.  A modernizer, Radama banned the slave trade and brought in European advisors to help modernize the administration and the army.  He also invited in the London Missionary Society, and under his patronage its operatives eventually converted a large proportion of the Merina.
    Radama died in 1810, and was succeeded by his wife Ranavalona I.  She did not share her husband's zeal for modernization, quite the opposite in fact.  Her xenophobia extended even to the Christianized portion of her own people, who were rather severely persecuted.  Naturally, the Europeans took exception to this treatment of their siblings in faith.  Things reached such a pass that in 1845 an Anglo-French expedition bombarded the eastern port of Tamatave, which incident was followed by a mass expulsion of Europeans from the island.
    The old queen died in 1861, succeeded by a weak king whose ambition in life was to be a French puppet.  He was murdered after two years.  There followed a 32 year period during which power was held by the premier, Rainilaiarivony, who served also as consort to three successive queens.  His hold on the reins was tenuous however, as the anti-European "reactionaries" were strong both at court and in the countryside.
    The premier tried to play the British against the French, but the French held a trump; a claim to a protectorate over the old, defunct Sakalava kingdom by virtue of treaties made in 1840.  The dispute of this territory not having been resolved by other means, war commenced in 1883.  The end came two years later with the declaration of a French protectorate over the entire island.  This fait accompli was recognized in 1890 by England, at that time the only other country that mattered, in exchange for French recognition of the similar English position in Zanzibar.
    The Malagasy were not happy, and resisted French domination in every way.  In 1894 an ultimatum from France was dropped off at the palace of Queen Ranavalona III, which was ignored.  The French response was the military occupation of the capital, Tananarive, the capture and exile of the Queen, and annexation as a French colony in 1896.  Military resistance continued, and was not crushed until 1904.
    The French kept a firm grip on the island until the second World War.  In 1942, fearing that the local Vichy government would let in the Japanese, Madagascar was occupied by the British.  A year later a Free French government was set up, but the war had awakened nationalist aspirations, and a sector of the Malagasy populace began to press for self-government.
    The French were in no mood to be generous.  They brushed off the nationalists, who in 1947 began a war of liberation.  This action was crushed with great severity by the French, who brought in contract troops from Senegal to help, the result being bad blood between these two African countries, who otherwise would naturally have nothing much to do with each other, having the entire breadth of the African continent between them.  It has been estimated that some 80,000 people lost their lives between 1947 and 1948, mostly by displacement rather than through actual combat.
    The French colonies were acting up all over.  There was war in Indochina, Algeria, West Africa, the Paris government had to do something, and in 1958 they put together the constitution of a new French republic, the fifth, the current one.  This constitution was voted on in all the overseas territories, which came to be constituted into a new "French Community," most of the components of which were to become independent nations during the 1960s.  Madagascar's turn came at the start of that decade.
    In 1972 an insurrection in the south and student demonstrations in the capital provoked a military coup, whose leaders expelled the French military mission and took the country out of the French economic community.  In 1975 a Soviet-style Democratic Republic was promulgated, which didn't do the economy any good at all.  Western style multi-party politics was restored during the 1990s, and here we are.
    What does this have to do with us out here in the rest of the world?  Every time we eat a spoonful of vanilla ice cream we are partaking of the bounty of Madagascar.  And then there are the coins.
    As mentioned above, the traditional wealth in East Africa as a whole, and Madagascar in particular, was cattle, and there were essentially no monetary use objects at all.  You don't find anything in the way of "primitive money" from Madagascar; there are no equivalents to the West African kissie pennies and manillas, or the Somali salt blocks.  Indeed, antique Madagascan artifacts of any kind are rare.  No they're not.  I can't recall ever seeing one in my neck of the woods.
    The first "coins" were the private French concoctions listed in Colin Bruce's Unusual World Coins.  Favoring the last queen, whose portrait they bear, and dated in the 1880s, I'm pretty sure all of these things were made later.  My impression is that they were produced as commercial ventures, just like the later imitation coins of "Corfu-Cephalonia-Zante," or "Hutt River Province."  I wouldn't be surprised if not a single one ever made it to Madagascar.  They're pretty items, and one or another of them shows up with moderate frequency in auctions, usually the silver and bronze versions rather than the exotics in aluminum, etc.  Prices tend to be robust.
    A couple of local tokens were struck during the 1920s.  Some French local emergencies of the period are fairly common, and so are some of the Algerians.  Tokens of other African locations are scarcer, but I've had a few and seen a few more.  I've never seen or heard of the pieces struck on behalf of the Gold Mining Society of Andavakoera.  Might be interested in buying.  Got any?
    For real coins we have to wait until 1943, when the new Free French government had the bronze rooster coins struck on their behalf by the British in Pretoria.  These coins are not hard to find.  The 50 centimes is around in BU (I had a roll, most gone now), and I suppose the franc is too, though I haven't seen any blazers of that denomination in more than a couple of years.  Also note that I've had (French) clients who I thought were being extraordinarily picky about what they called XF with these coins.  I always had the opinion that the Pretoria Free French coins were a little mushy, even in indubitable BU, but the customer is always right.
    Then there are the "Marianne" coins of the '50s.  What's that on the reverse of the aluminum coins?  Right, cattle, the traditional wealth.  Notice that some of the obverses refer to the "Union Francaise," that organization of pseudo-independent states, while others mention only the overlord "Republique."
    At any rate all of these coins of the '50s are easily available in perfect condition, and not so easy to find, especially the aluminums, in circulated.  There are essaies and piedforts.  You can usually find some of the essaies if you look around, but only 104 of each of the piedforts were made, and they're tough.
    Now in 1965 the independent government started Malagizing, and this shows up in the coinage with Malagasy legends and the introduction of a denomination with a native name: the ariary of 5 francs.  The coins match the module of the domestic French series, with the French Community franc set at 100 to the domestic franc, and once again the cow is the constant motif.
    These coins were struck without change in odd years through the coups and the "Communist" government, and are still in use.  You can find all the types, though they were not socked into inventory in bulk like the French issues were.  Completing a date set is another story, and I wish you luck.  An FDC set of 1970 is not common, but lack of collector interest has been keeping the price down.
    Simultaneously with this essentially French Community issue appeared in 1978 a socialist looking set of coins in the name of the new "Democratic Republic" in honor of the FAO.  The nickel versions are found in all grades of circulation; evidently they were popular on the island.  The silver proofs are, I believe, British Royal Mint products.  None of these coins are what I would call common.  The types were repeated in 1983 in copper-nickel.  I haven't seen these.  1988 wildlife proofs are very scarce, though a groundswell of enthusiasm for them is lacking.
    Have you noticed that several ex-communist countries have continued issuing coins in the name of their defunct "People's" governments?  There are Afghani coins like that, and here are some Malagasy as well.  I don't know the significance of this.  Do you?

Written circa 2003 maybe.