The Zafy-Malata of Madagascar


Table of Contents

Thomas Tew & the Zana-Malata
Who was Thomas Tew?
The Zana-Malata
Libertatia and Ratsimilaho
Some General Observations on Madagascar
The Origins
I The Melanesians

II The Dayaks
III Bajau and Bugis
IV The Malays
Some Background

Ma'anyan and other languages

The Ma'anyan Mystery (cont.)
V The Arabs
The Colonial Period and the Merina

Epilogue: The Nusantarians
Suggestions to Young Merina Leaders
Suggestions to Young Non-Merina Leaders


In 1693, a privateer from America, Thomas Tew, visited Madagascar. He presented a letter of credentials from the Queen of England and was received with high honors.

So friendly was the reception by the local ruler, Queen Antavaratra Rahena, that both had a child. This child, a son named Ratsimilaho, was later sent to England for education. Upon his return, Ratsimilaho succeeded his mother. He united the East Coast tribes in one people which he called the "Betsimisaraka", "The Many Never to Be Divided". His successors ruled over the East Coast until all of Madagascar came under the rule of the Merina tribe inhabiting the highlands. Queen Rahena's direct descendants were called the Zana-Malata, the "Children of the Mulattoes." After the reign of the Zana-Malata ended around 1800, their descendants were called the Zafy-Malata, the "Offspring of the Mulattoes."

The Zafy-Malata are hence the clan of the royal dynasty of the East Coast. It is a small clan but its members still enjoy considerable prestige two centuries after their rule ended because of generations of distinguished Zafy-Malata officials and high clergymen serving Madagascar.

Until the 19th century, Madagascar had no written records; history was preserved by way of oral accounts. Afterwards, research and documentation were often tainted and falsified by ignorance, superficiality and manipulation.

This site is intended to serve as a documentation and forum for the Zafy-Malata clan, for the Betsimisaraka people -- the second largest ethnie in Madagascar -- and for the coastal populations -- the Côtiers -- in general.

Contributions to the discussion in Malagasy, French or English are most welcome.


Thomas Tew & the Zana-Malata

Thomas Tew was not the British privateer he pretended to be when he first anchored his 70 ton sloop "Amity" at Nosy Boraha, an offshore island later called Ile Sainte Marie, in 1693. Thomas Tew, or Tom Tew, as the Zafy-Malata call him, was a pirate. Although English by nationality he came from Newport, Rhode Island on the American East Coast. From the Governor of Bermuda he had received a privateering commission to attack French vessels, which he never did. Instead, he sailed around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, took local ships of the English and Dutch East India companies and ammassed a fortune of 100,000 pound sterling in gold, precious stones, ivory and silver with which he returned to Newport in spring 1694. Few months later he was again on his way to Madagascar.

So far, all historians agree. But of what happened next, Western history and Malagasy reports paint totally different pictures. According to a Western source -- the account of Charles Johnson, an English writer -- Thomas Tew attacked a ship of the Great Mogul, sailing in the Red Sea, full of gold, silver and jewels. During the fight he was shot in the belly by an Indian soldier and died. His men managed to take the Mogul's ship and returned to Newport.

After 1700, according to other Western sources, an English pirate named Thomas White turned up in Ile Sainte Marie, had a relationship with Queen Rahena, fathered her son Ratsimilaho and had, before dying there, instructed his staff to take Ratsimilaho to England for education. But on Ile Sainte Marie, the father of Ratsimilaho is Thomas Tew, not Thomas White.

The Zafy-Malata do not know any separate person called Thomas White. Instead, they believe that Tom Tew and Tom White are the same person. If that is the case, what had happened in reality?

Who Was Thomas Tew?

Thomas Tew was undoubtedly a shrewd and unscrupulous man. He pretended to be related to a well known and respected Tew family of Rhode Island. But there is no proof in the civil registers of him being related to these Tews.

Instead, it appears that he moved from England to Rhode Island which, in those days, was well known as a haven for pirates whereas England was cracking down on buccaneers. It is not even sure that his name was Thomas Tew: it could also have been Thomas Tue (there are a few English birth register entries for that name which would fit his presumptive age).

When he visited Governor Fletcher of New York in 1694 to obtain a new commission, he was accompanied by elegantly dressed ladies: his wife and his two daughters clad in silk. Yet, there is no trace of a wedding or child birth in Rhode Island that would document his family. It is quite possible that he, to impress the Governor, hired a woman with her daughters for the purpose. So, how does Thomas White fit in the picture?

Very simply, because the Malagasy called Thomas Tew "Tom the White Man" and Western authors, in a case of mistaken identity, thought there had been two pirates where there had been only one. In fact, some historians of Indian Ocean piracy don't mention any Thomas White.

But how come that Thomas Tew died in battle while Thomas White lived happily in Nosy Boraha before he allegedly died in Ile Bourbon (La Réunion )in 1719?

There is good reason to suspect that Thomas Tew faked his own death. The account of his heroic death in battle, described with gory details but based on hearsay, is too romantic and detailed to be believable. According to other sources Tew was taken prisoner and hanged.

Tew had many reasons to disappear. His benefactor, Governor Fletcher of New York, had been demoted because he had been too receptive to the charms and bribes of several buccaneers. The East India Company, concerned about the loss of so many of its ships, had begun to chase the pirates and Tew was high up on the Wanted! list.

With the riches he had he could enjoy an easy life in Madagascar and take care of his family. That, the Zafy-Malata believe, is what happened. Thomas Tew, for the outside world, became Thomas White. Ratsimilaho himself apparently stated that his father was Thomas Tew. Tew, in settling in Madagascar and presumably running the affairs of Libertatia (see below), found jolly company as many members of his old crew had chosen to stay rather than return to Rhode Island. "The rest of his men had taken a fancy to Madagascar...They built small fortified settlements for themselves, fought, feasted, drank and selected as female companions the most presentable of the Malagasy women. They gathered Malagasy followers to themselves, engaged in minor warfare with the tribes and commenced a trade in slaves...They styled themselves "princes" and even "kings", had their rivalries and romances, cut one another's throats with impunity and by their own particular lights were perfectly happy." (Bulpin, 75)

Ratsimilaho is believed to have been born some time between 1680(!) and 1710 (the latter date stands probably for the beginning of his long reign), and to have died in 1756. In all likelyhood Ratsimilaho was born in 1694 and became king in 1710.

"The Betsimisaraka people who inhabited the north-east coast of Madagascar were ruled by an individual named Ratsimilahy (sic). who claimed to be a son of the pirate Thomas Tew by a daughter of the original chief. This chief, who resided on St. Mary's (Ile Sainte Marie)..." (Bulpin, 119)

The Zana-Malata

The word Malata, derived from the derisory English term "mulatto" -- and the French equivalent "mulâtre" (from mule:half horse, half donkey) -- does not have a meaning in Malagasy: people adopted the term used by the pirates and other foreigners, thinking it was a name. Still today most Zafy-Malata probably have no clue what their clan's name stands for: they believe "Malata" is simply a Malagasy name.

Genealogy would be easy if all Zana-Malata were the offspring of Thomas Tew. But that is not the case. Instead, the Betsimisaraka called "Zana-Malata" those who descended from royal intimacy with foreigners. (Some Western sources mistakenly consider all of the numerous East Coast descendants of pirates as "Zana-Malata")

In practice, there was one more foreigner, a French corporal from Gascogne by the nickname La Bigorne (Jean-Onésime Fillet), who charmed a Betsimisaraka princess -- a daughter of King Ratsimilaho -- Béty (malag. Betia: "The One Loved by All"). Known for his sexual prowess, La Bigorne (bigorne is an anvil with a horn) fathered another branch of the Zafy-Malata clan. For a long time, the "English" branch and the "French" branch happily co-existed, with the French branch being more powerful due to the fact that Madagascar had become a French colony in 1896.

After the liberation in 1963, however, things changed. Most of the "French" Zafy-Malata were already French citizens and left the island together with the French. Or they opted for French nationality and left thereafter.

The "English" Zafy-Malata stayed and continued to guard the Zana-Malata cemetery. Once again, Thomas Tew is the pivotal personality for the remaining Zafy-Malata.

Many other pirates followed Thomas Tew to Nosy Boraha. Hundreds of them visited the island. Madagascar's East Coast, in the 18th century, was a safe and hospitable haven for the buccaneers. As a result, a considerable volume of trade developed between Madagascar, Europe and America. Although the strong Madagascar-USA trade almost collapsed when France abolished the independent Kingdom of Madagascar, memories of the pre-colonial period are still alive and subject of a current research effort by the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

Libertatia and Ratsimilaho

During the last years of the 17th century, three pirates, Thomas Tew, the Provençal Misson and the Italian Dominican priest Caraccioli jointly founded a republic on Madagascar which they called Libertatia or Libertalia and which lasted for an astonishingly long 25 years. The precise location is not known: most think Libertatia stretched from the Bay of Antongil in the North to Mananjar in the South, comprising Ile Sainte Marie and Foulpointe; identical to the area that later became the Kingdom of the Zana-Malata. Others believe the republic was centered on the Bay of Antongil.

Misson was apparently the spiritual leader of this remarkable enterprise which aimed at establishing a truly democratic state in which all were equal regardless of nationality or color. Slaves from Angola were set free and hired as equals. The citizens of the state, called Liberi, were set to work. The pirates planted gardens, tended poultry and cattle. Captain William Kidd came in 1697 to have his leaking galley repaired; he lost half of his men who preferred to live in Libertatia. Madagascar's hospitality and economic potential were clearly decribed; even its present value and role as provider of unique and invaluable medicinal plant germplasm was recognized and described by Charles Johnson (who many believe was but a pen name of Daniel Defoe) in "The History of the Pyrates."

Some doubt has been expressed whether Misson was a fictitious character invented by the author; Tew, however, was certainly a real person whose existence is corroborated by Betsimisaraka history. "One of the important new members among the Liberi was Tom Tew, an American pirate from one of the British colonies along the Atlantic coast. He, too, was essentially a social man and an idealist...Tom Tew, the American buccaneer, soon took his place alongside Misson, the gentleman from Provence, and Caraccioli, the once Italian priest; they made a sort of triumvirate to govern the Liberi. For a time, the Greek revival prospered." (Arthur Stratton: The Great Red Island. London 1965, 104-106)

The founders of Libertatia clearly recognized the trading potential of their new state; proving that they were indeed entrepreneurs in the modern sense. They were so deeply convinced of their legitimate role as colonizers and pioneers that they saw their island republic as a barrier against pirates, happily ignoring their own résumés.

Johnson describes how the pirates obtained the implements and amenities of European life by taking suitable prizes -- the Indian Ocean of those days must have been a supermarket for pirates. Since the pirates conducted a lively trade with the "natives", ie. the East Coast population, it can be assumed that Queen Rahena and her Court were early on exposed to "modern" European technology and life style.

However, according to Johnson, the cordial relations with the Malagasy must have gone awry at some point because they ambushed Libertatia and killed most of its citizens, including Caraccioli. Misson and Tew escaped; the setback seems to have only been temporary but it sufficed to end the dream of formally establishing a utopian republic. Madagascar's coasts continued to be a pirates' paradise.

While there is no indication in the sparse literature of what happened after Libertatia was abandoned it is obvious from the historic dates that Ratsimilaho, Tom Tew's son, took over and the Republic of Libertatia became the Malagasy Kingdom of the Betsimisaraka. In uniting the East Coast tribes, Ratsimilaho preserved his heritage and continued Libertatia under a different name as a truly Malagasy kingdom. One might speculate that the liberal utopia of the pirates could only be established on the East Coast because the local people were very liberal in their customs and traditions. But one might also speculate that the tradition of Côtier liberalism of today still reflects the heritage of Libertatia.

Some general observations on Madagascar

The following pages have been compiled in order to provide some knowledge on the origins and history of the Betsimisaraka and the Côtier population in general. Past research was mainly focussed on the highland tribes, and resulted in neglect of and disdain for the Côtiers.

Given the scarcity of proven facts, much of the following documentation must by necessity remain speculative and lack the desirable degree of scientific rigor. However, research on Madagascar's ethnology and languages is progressing rapidly, and views that prevailed a decade or two ago appear by now superseded.

The Origins

The island of Madagascar, stretching alongside the East African coast, is characterized by a vegetation that shows many Indo-Australomalesian connections. Prevailing easterly winds and Indian Ocean currents are suspected to be the main agents of long distance dispersal of plants from India, Malaya, Australia and the Pacific islands to Madagascar and other Indian Ocean islands. Small wonder that humans followed the drift of plants and settled Madagascar, coming from Austromalesia. These humans also acted as dispersal agents of plants which can now be found in places as distant as Madagascar, New Caledonia and Hawaii.

What is known about the origins of the population of Madagascar? At the present state of knowledge it appears that the island has been settled in basically four consecutive phases or waves of immigration:

I. The Melanesians

II. The Dayaks

III. Bajau and Bukis

IV. The Malays

V. The Arabs

According to recent archaeological finds, Madagascar was probably already inhabited during the neolithic period. There are many oral reports about a pygmy population, the Vazimba or Kalanoro inhabiting the forests, living by gathering fruits and honey. These pygmies have never been thoroughly researched. If the existence of the shy Kalanoro pygmies could be ascertained they would probably rank as the only known humans who do not use fire. However, there are traces of another neolithic population that is more tangible:

I. The Melanesians

The first settlers, arriving probably between 3000 and 1500-1000 B.C. across 6,000 miles of open ocean on outrigger boats or double-hulled catamarans were Melanesians: dark skinned seafarers with thick, curly hair, sometimes also called Negritos or Australoids. They implanted their culture based on ancestor cult and strict behavioral paradigms (fady=taboo).

The Melanesians, being coastal dwellers by origin, came from Austro-Malesia and settled the coasts of Madagascar. Their purest descendants are probably several southern and western tribes such as the Antandroy and the Mahafaly. The Mahafaly tombs and statues are close in style to the art of the New Guinea archipelago, the Solomon Islands, and the giant stelae of Easter Island.

The Melanesians were perhaps the best seafarers the world has ever seen. Preceding the Polynesians, they discovered and settled vast ocean expanses reaching from Africa's eastern coast to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and most likely the western shores of America. However, before the Polynesians followed their traces, the Melanesians -- perhaps because they had exhausted the resources of these islands -- withdrew from the eastern Pacific and returned toward Micronesia and the Maluku Islands (Moluccas). But early in the 20th century, some Melanesians were still living high up on the mountain of Tahiti Nui.

During the neolithic period, between 5000 and 3500 B.C. Austronesian-speaking Melanesians, coming from the West, colonized what is today's Melanesia plus Polynesia as far east as Samoa. They brought with them taro and yams, poultry, dogs, and probably pigs (their favorite animal). Their culture is called Lapita culture because of the neolithic pottery (first found near Lapita, New Caledonia) found all over Melanesia and Tonga. During this period of Melanesian expansion they are thought to have discovered Madagascar and the East African coast, coming either from the Moluccas and the New Guinea archipelago, or in a shortcut from somewhere between Malaya and Sumatra/Kalimantan/Sulawesi. Since thus far no Lapita pottery has been found in Madagascar the latter hypothesis is gaining in importance.

The role of the Melanesians in the history of Madagascar has long been ignored or, at best, underestimated. The European explorers and colonizers were confused by the superficial similarity between Africans and Melanesians: both are dark skinned with frizzy hair. (However, they should have noticed that Melanesians have extremely strong hair growth whereas Africans -- both men and women -- tend to have short hair). Also, blond hair in childhood (blondism) is not unusual among Melanesians. The myth spread that the dark coastal people of Madagascar were the descendants of Bantu immigrants and slaves from mainland Africa. While there are places where Arab and mixed-Arab visitors -- Omanis, Yemenis and Swahilis --, as well as their African slaves, contributed to the coastal gene pool there is no trace of any mass immigration from the African mainland.

Some writers believe that there were some earlier African immigrants scattered along the coast before the Melanesians arrived. "At some distant date the Melanesians...were the first to discover the beautifully fertile , exhilarating and healthy highlands. There they settled, planting rice in the great marshes and bogs of the plateau, breeding the hump-backed sanga cattle (which the earlier settlers seem to have brought over with them from East Africa) and leading their own ancient way of life, mixing with their African neighbours around the fringes of their settled areas and, by means of its natural superiority over the primitive tongues of Africa, giving to the island people as a whole the common Malagasy language, which, Melanesian in character but corrupted by the cruder African influence, is nowadays peculiar to Madagascar." (T.V. Bulpin: Islands in a Forgotten Sea, Cape Town 1969,11)

This statement by a foreign writer is typical in its amusing mixture of truth and myth. Melanesians prefer to live in the coastal lowlands; cattle ranching was promoted by the Arabs and Swahilis; wet rice cultivation is not typical of Melanesian agriculture and was probably imported from India or Indonesia; the 'crude' idioms of Africa smack of colonialist arrogance; only about 20 percent of Malagasy vocabulary stems from Africa, India, Arabia and Europe combined; a low percentage given the long history of interaction.

The first to have recognized the role of the Melanesians as the earliest settlers in Madagascar was Alfred Grandidier in 1902. He thought that Indo-Melanesians had left India and Indonesia long before our era migrating to Madagascar and eastern Insulinde. (V. Tsara & J.C. Woillet: Madagascar, Mascareignes et Comores. Paris 1969, 26)

The Melanesians (Greek for the People of the Dark Islands; melos=black, nisi=island) are genetically related to the Papuas of New Guinea, the Torres Islanders and the Aborigines of Australia. Contrary to the latter, however, the Melanesians are sea rather than land dwellers. They are the quintessential seafarers, and much of their culture relates to the sea. Among the Betsimisaraka the belief is common that they came from the sea; that their mothers were mermaids and that they have to return to the sea and immerse themselves for ritual cleaning and rebirth.

With the Papuas of New Guinea and the Aborigines of Australia the Melanesians -- as animists -- share their deep love of nature. The land, the trees, the rocks and, in particular, the water -- are sacred and considered living, active elements of life. Remove a boulder or a big tree from a Melanesian family's land and you will make them sad and possibly sick.

When the French colonists slashed the bush on New Caledonia (one of the largest Melanesian islands) to establish coconut plantations, the population suffered terribly, feeling uprooted and disoriented. Their suicide rate shot up, competing with former East Germany's for the world record. Interestingly, suicide is uncommon in the Betsimisaraka society.

This deep rooted respect for nature made the Melanesians perhaps the first conscious environmentalists. Typical for the Betsimisaraka is their strict adherence to hygiene. Whereas the Gulf Arabs, for instance, love to use the beach for defecation, the Betsimisaraka will always defecate at safe distance from any water. Water is never to be dirtied by refuse or laundry runoff. The descendants of the Omani Arabs in Manajary, contrariwise, use the seashore as their restroom.

Similar to their desire to keep nature clean and intact, the Melanesians also love to maintain strict personal cleanliness and hygiene.

The system by which the Melanesians enforce these rules is the taboo (tapu) or fady. For any Melanesian, life is difficult and at times stressful because a multitude of taboos must be observed day after day, an entire life long. While there is, as in any population, a good deal of superstition, many of the taboos are wise and savory social regulations to prevent conflict, to nurture society, to preserve nature, to avoid cruelty to animals, for instance by making slaughtering procedures resemble death in combat. The Tsaboraha rites before slaughtering the bull require that the animal is challenged in combat because the Betsimisaraka believe that the defeated animal will accept death more naturally. (Some Malayan Negrito tribes try to avoid suffering of wild forest animals because they are afraid of being haunted by the dead animal's spirit)

Generally speaking it can be said that the Melanesians, as well as the Papuas, in the seclusion of their islands, conducted a multitude of experiments in developing human society. Millennia during which Europeans, for instance, focused their creativity on developing technologies for peace and war, the Melanesians researched the art of best shaping human society in the context of environmental sustainability.

Unfortunately, for lack of written records, most of what they achieved and lived in remote places must be considered as lost as the wisdom of the Alexandrine library.

But what remains of these untold millennia is still impressive. The taboo system of societal checks and balances is extremely efficient in making a population without much formal education behave as rigorously correct as, say, the participants in a modern automobile traffic system.

The rules to protect environmental sustainability can be studied among most of the coastal tribes of Madagascar and could inspire both environment researchers and legislators by providing a model possibly suitable for adaptation by other peoples.

Although the Melanesians focused their creativity mainly on the context of society and nature, they also contributed a few breakthroughs to world technology. Many modern hydrofoils and speedboats are based on the Melanesian technology of outrigger, catamaran and trimaran boats which also was adopted by other Indo-Pacific peoples. (Shell adzes found on Melanesian islands allowed the construction of seaworthy and durable dugout canoes as early as 13,000 years B.C.) Modern sport swimming owes one of its advanced styles, crawl swimming, to the Melanesians of the Solomon Islands who developed this style. Another sport invented as a manhood rite by the Melanesians of Pentecost Island (Vanuatu) is bungee jumping (sky diving). A scaffold erected in the forest serves as the platform from which the adolescents jump, only tied on the legs by vines the length and elasticity of which have been calculated to brake the free fall just a few feet above ground.

In the virtual absence of written records and archaeological finds, assumptions about the origins of the Malagasy population are almost exclusively based on linguistic research. However, the assumed first settlers -- the Melanesians -- left a broad trail of evidence: their culture. Despite the millennia that have passed since the first settlers from the East reached Madagascar's coasts, any modern description of the culture of Melanesia reads like a description of everyday life in Madagascar.

The reason why Grandidier father and son and the scores of later "Malgachistes" had difficulty recognizing the determining role of the Melanesians in shaping Madagascar's culture is probably due to the mundane fact that none of them had ever visited the Melanesian islands...


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