The Island of Madagascar/Chapter 2

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The Island of Madagascar  (1883)  by John Wolcott Phelps
Chapter 2


In a geological point of view the island exhibits primitive formations, chiefly granite, sienite, and blocks of exceedingly pure quartz. Of this latter mineral, the natives make use to ornament the summits of their tombs. Grey-wacke, schist, clay slate, suitable for roofing, chalcedony, lime-stone, including various kinds of marble, basalt, sand-stone, are common in the island. Finely crystalized schools frequently occur, and in the lime-stone of apparently fresh water formation are found imbedded fossils, including serpents, lizards, chameleons, and several kinds of vegetables.

No subterranean fires are known to be at present in active, visible operation, yet indications of volcanic action frequently occur, and are strongly marked. Many of the rocks, for several miles together, are composed of homogeneous earthy lava; scoria and pumice are also occasionally discovered. Rock-salt, nitre, and pyrites yielding a valuable percentage of sulphur, are met with.

The country next the shore is generally flat and exceedingly low, in parts marshy and incapable of culture. The margin of level land along the sea-coast, consisting of rich meadow lands or rice grounds, extends on the eastern coast ten or fifteen miles inland; on the western side of the island it is from fifty to one hundred miles, and sometimes more, in width. In some parts of the eastern coast, the country becomes suddenly mountainous at the distance of about thirty miles from the sea. In the interior, beyond this margin of level ground, the country is diversified with hills of varied elevations, and extending in every direction. But in some parts of the island immense plains stretch, in comparatively cheerless solitude, over a wide extent of country, small spots here and there alone being under cultivation. Groves, with pleasing frequency, adorn the landscape; shrubs and brushwood decorate and clothe many parts of the island. The vast extent, the unbroken solitude and gloom of its impenetrable forests, where, under the continued influence of a tropical sun and a humid atmosphere, the growth and decay of vegetation, in its most uncontrolled spontaneity, has proceeded without interruption for centuries, present scenes of extensive and gigantic vegetation, in sublime and varied forms, rarely, perhaps, surpassed in any part of the world. Immense forests traverse the island in all directions, within which may be expected and realized all that is imposing, and wonderful, and venerable in the vegetable kingdom, where, for thousands of years no ax has been laid to their giant trunks, nor even have the footsteps of man ever broken the deep and impressive silence. It is with exceeding difficulty that their dark masses can be penetrated, owing partly to the insalubrity of the deep recesses, where the air itself can hardly circulate, and partly to the very situation of the forests themselves, stretching up the sides of precipitous mountains, spreading over hills broken by sudden and deep chasms, or tenaciously occupying an under soil, from whence the upper has been washed away by heavy rains and torrents, leaving merely a net-work of roots and fibres, with fallen and decayed timber, to support the foot of the passenger.

The country is diversified with mountains, lakes and rivers. The mountains of Ankasatra attain the height of 8,000 to 12,000 feet. Their summits rise from a broad table land in the interior, which, like that of Mexico, is itself considerably elevated. The summits of Ankasatra are generally basalt in various stages of decomposition, many of them being hard and solid within, while the external surface is soft and earthy, and evidently losing a portion every year by the action of the atmosphere. Several of the smaller elevations are sugar-loaf in form, and in these granite predominates.

Lakes lie among the mountains as well as in the low lands along the sea-coast. Some of them are remarkable for their natural beauty, others are esteemed for their utility, and many of them are large, being often a hundred miles in length, though they are quite narrow, sometimes not more than a mile in breadth. Saririaka, the name of one of the lakes signifies “image of ocean.” There is a highly bituminous lake which is five miles in width and sixty miles in length. On the eastern coast of the island a series of lakes extends for a distance of two hundred miles. Several of these are remarkably beautiful, being spotted with islets of various dimensions, some of them clothed with verdure, and others enlivened with the habitations of men.

The rivers of Madagascar are numerous, and many of them are of considerable width, the greater number flowing into the sea on the western coast. But they are all less favorable for the purposes of trade and commerce than from their magnitude a traveler might be led to expect. At their junction with the sea they are generally choked with sand, and their course is often obstructed with cascades, falls, and rapids, rendering navigation dangerous if not impracticable. The sublime, gloomy, and unbroken solitude of some parts of the mountain scenery of the island is enlivened by cataracts of varied size.

The climate is exceedingly diversified, both in the range of its temperature, and the degrees of its salubrity. The heat in the low lands and on the coast is often intense, but in the interior and elevated parts of the country it is mild, the themometer seldom rising above 85°. In the different sections every variety of temperature may be met with, from the oppressive heat of the coast, to the cold of the loftly Ankasatra range, on the summits of which ice may often be found; or the elevated regions in the northern part of the island, where showers of sleet are frequently encountered.

The temperature of the principal province, Ankova, in which the capital is situated, is agreeable to the European, the greatest heat being about 85°, and the lowest 40°. Though it is often sultry in the middle portions of the day, yet the mornings and evenings are always pleasant. In the winter months, from May to October, when the ground is frequently covered with hoar frost, the thermometer sometimes does not rise above 44° for days together. At other seasons, the fluctuations in the heat of the atmosphere are extreme and sudden. Often in the morning the thermometer is at 40°, or even at 38°, and rises to 75° or 80° between two and three o’clock in the afternoon of the same day.

The effluvia arising from the lakes and swamps near the coast, is extremely prejudicial to health; and by incautious exposure to this, either early in the morning or late at evening, the fatal seeds of the Malagasy fever may be so deeply received into the human system as never to be eradicated. But in Ankova, which is some five or six thousand feet above the level of the sea, and in the interior, the fever does not exist, except in the state of a relapse from the disease contracted on the coast.

The rain, during its season, usually commences every day at from two to four or six o’clock in the afternoon and continues fora few hours, sometimes lasting through the night. It is generally accompanied with heavy thunder and much lightning. The trade winds prevail during the greater part of the year, and blow from the east or southeast; but the rains are often accompanied by high winds from the west, occasionally northwest, and not unfrequently from the southwest. The rain is occasionally mingled with hail; and showers of hail stones, at times as large as walnuts, have proved exceedingly injurious to vegetation. The Rambondanitra, “tail of heaven,” that is, waterspout, and the Tadio, “twist,” that is, whirlwind, are not uncommon, and often exceedingly destructive both to houses and plantations in the interior of the island. Houses are at times struck by lightning, and scarcely a year passes without several lives being lost from the same cause. Meteors are occasionally seen, and earthquakes are not unknown.

Among the numerously varied vegetable productions of the island we may mention the following:—The baobab, ebony, the tapia edulis on which a native silk worm is extensively reared, the tamarind, Indian fig, Indian betel, dragon tree, bamboo, the trees from which gum copal and gum elastic are derived, etc., etc. The island abounds in spices, in ginger, wild pepper, capsicums, tumeric, etc., and also in the sugar-cane, cotton-plant, tobacco, hemp, indigo-plant, and several kinds of dye-woods.

Among the articles of food may be mentioned, first, rice, which is the principal edible of the natives, and of which there are eleven varieties. It is the general belief of the people that this plant is of comparatively recent introduction into the island, although it has been Known there for several hundred years. So also with the cocoa-nut, which is supposed to have been washed ashore on the island by the waves some hundred and fifty years ago. The bread-fruit tree is of more recent introduction still. Plantains and bananas have been known from time immemorial. There are several kinds of yams, the manioc plant, Indian corn, large millet, beans, gourds, melons, pine apples and earth-nuts. Lemons, oranges, citrons, limes, peaches, and mulberries have long been introduced, and they flourish luxuriantly. Coffee has been found to succeed well. Wheat, barley, and oats have been produced, but are not much prized by the natives, and do not seem to flourish in their soil. The common potato is extensively cultivated and highly esteemed.

Honey and wax are abundant, and many kinds of oil, including that from the palma Christi, are obtained from the numerous vegetable productions of the country.

The ornithology of the island is but comparatively little known. Domestic poultry is abundant, and pheasants, partridges and guinea-fowl, both wild and tame, are common. Besides the birds which appear to be natives of the island, peacocks, turkeys, geese and ducks have been introduced. There are pigeons, turtle-doves, eagles, owls, kites, crows, hawks, paroquets with their gay plumage and querulous voices, etc., etc. Wild geese, ducks and other water-fowl abound in the lakes and rivers.

Although the quadrupeds of Madagascar extend to but few varieties, they comprehend the kinds most useful and essential t oa nation in the early stages of its civilization. Horned cattle are numerous, both tame and wild. Many of the latter resemble in shape and size the cattle of Europe. The former are of the zebu, or buffalo kind, and have a large hump or bunch on the back between the shoulders. Herds of cattle constitute the principal wealth of a number of the chiefs or nobles, and not only furnish a considerable portion of their means of subsistence, but are exported in large numbers to the islands of Bourbonand Mauritius, and furnished to the shipping visiting the coast for supplies. Besides cattle, sheep, swine, and goats are also abundant. The sheep, which appear to be aboriginal, resemble those of the Cape of Good Hope, covered with short hair instead of wool, and having large tails weighing from ten to twenty pounds each.

Dogs and cats, both wild and tame, hedge-hogs, badgers, baboons, monkeys, foxes, squirrels, rats and mice abound in the island.

Among the amphibious animals the crocodile is the most conspicuous. As it is held in veneration by the inhabitants, its numbers are not diminished by the destructive agency of man, except in the use of its eggs, and in consequence the fresh waters of the island abound with it. In some parts, the natives affirm that they are so numerous as to cause the place to resemble a plain covered with bullocks. They shun brackish and salt water, and their favorite places are the deep, rugged banks of a river or lake overhung with trees, and containing numerous cavities in which they can hide themselves, having also a gradually sloping sandbank, up which they can crawl to deposit their eggs. They feed principally upon fish, and may be seen and heard chasing their prey in the waters of the lake with astonishing velocity, and apparently in concert with each other. Bullocks are often seized as they are swimming across the water, and sometimes successfully attacked while drinking. But besides preying upon the animals that venture within their reach, they seize and eat with great voracity their own young. They have the sagacity to watch at those places where the females deposit their eggs, for the appearance of the young, which, on bursting the shell, usually run directly to the water. There a close-formed file of old crocodiles lie in wait, ready with their terrific teeth to devour these young as soon as they reach their genial element.

Many of the crocodile’s eggs are destroyed by birds, especially by vultures, and also by serpents, but many more by the natives, who take off the shell, boil them, and dry them in the sun; after which they are preserved for use or sale. A single family have been seen to have as many as five hundred eggs drying at one time.

The laws by which life preys upon life, both animal and vegetable, in a tropical island left wholly to itself without the influence of divine revelation, the rank-growing swamps, teeming amidst their own decay, the darkling superstitions of man by which human life is destroyed, the struggle of the germ of life everywhere against the principle of decay, present one of the most curious and interesting subjects for the consideration of Christian man.

We shall now proceed to give some account of the natives of Madagascar, and of the efforts which have been made to Christianize them.

There cannot of course be any very accurate estimate formed of the number of inhabitants which occupy the island, but it is supposed that they amount to five millions. But this is evidently less than the island has contained at former and not remote periods of its history. The embankments spread over large tracts of country, now overgrown with grass or brushwood, show that these parts were once regularly cultivated rice fields; and the scattered ruins of villages, or whole ranges of villages, now totally deserted, mark, though imperfectly, to what extent the country has been depopulated.

The island is not inhabited by one single race, but by a number of distinct tribes, more or less numerous, evidently derived from more then one source; differing also in many respects from each other, and remaining, though nominally comprised in one political empire, distinct and peculiar nations. There are points, however, in which they bear a general resemblance to each other. They are all rather below the middle stature, which but few exceeded; and their countenances do not exhibit that prominence of features which distinguish the European and most of the Asiatic nations. The men are more elegantly formed than the women, in whom there is a greater tendency to corpulency than in the other sex. The beards of the men are but slight, and are plucked out in youth. Their hands are not so warm to the touch as those of the Europeans, and their blood by the thermometer is colder. But the distinction between them the most strongly marked is that of color; and this, though presenting slight variations in each tribe, separates the population of Madagascar into two great classes, and is by some supposed to allow of its being traced to only two sources—the one distinguished by a light, exquisitely formed person, fair complexion, and straight or curling hair; the other more robust, and dark colored, with woolly hair. In one or the other of these two classes, the several tribes inhabiting the island may be included. In fact, so far as color is any indication, there are but two distinct races in Madagascar, the olive and the black; and the people may be supposed to be derived from a mixture of these two, forming all kinds of varieties of which their complexion, hair, and features are capable. From the character of the language, it may be presumed that the population is composed partly of the Malay and partly of the African race. But how the mixture came about, whether by colonization from the Malayan peninsula, the darker race being aboriginal to the island, or else introduced by emigration from the African continent, or perhaps brought in as slaves by the Malay settlers, or by Arab traders, we are left solely to conjecture.

As a means of throwing some light upon this subject, the language of the people is the only one upon which we can at present rely. It belongs, beyond a doubt, to that class of languages frequently denominated Malayan, but to which the term Polynesian appears far more appropriate. The fact that there was a great similarity in all the languages spoken in the islands of the eastern seas had been remarked by Cook and other voyagers, and from the commercial and political ascendency formerly held by the Malays in those parts, the name “Malayan” was given to all which resembled that language. A more extensive acquaintance, however, with them, has led to the conclusion that these dialects are not to be regarded as descended from the Malay, but as sustaining the relation of sisterhood to it, and to each other.

The living Malay language now spoken, or the vernacular dialect in the Malayan peninsula, and other parts of the Eastern Archipelago, is itself only related to the great and comprehensive Polynesian language, just as that of New Zealand, Tahiti, or Madagascar, may be related to it. The two most remarkable circumstances, belonging to this Polynesian language are, the wide extent to which it has been carried and the tenacity with which it has retained its hold, even in the contiguity of other more copious and cultivated languages, spoken by immensely larger numbers, such as the Arabic, Hindoo, Chinese, and Indo-Chinese.

With regard to the extent of region over which it has traversed, and still prevails, it is scarcely needful to do more than to glance at the fact, that from Madagascar in the West, to Easter Island in the East, embracing more than half the circumference of the globe at the equator, and from the Sandwich Islands in the North, to the extremity of New Zealand in the South, being 4,000 miles of latitude, there is a manifest connection between many of the words by which the inhabitants of these islands express their simple perceptions, and in some instances of places the most remote from each other, a striking affinity; insomuch that we may pronounce the various dialects, in a collective sense, substantially one great language. One original language seems in a very remote period to have pervaded the whole Indian Archipelago, and to have spread (perhaps with the population) towards Madagascar on one side, and the islands of the South Sea on the other.

The origin of this one great language is veiled in an impenetrable obscurity; nor are there any satisfactory data on which to build conclusions respecting the era when, or the circumstances under which, it obtained so wide a dissemination. An attempt to ascertain which of the Polynesian dialects should be considered as the parent stock, from whence the others branched out, must prove as fruitless as would be that of determining which of the Teutonic dialects gave birth to the others. Some have been inclined to fix upon Java as the seat of this Polynesian language, but its original seat, may, for aught that is known to the contrary, have been buried, by some great convulsion beneath the sea. If we reflect how few feet’s subsidence of the British Isles would entirely obliterate the center of the English power and language, leaving no trace save in the colonies that have sprung from that center, we can see how easy it might have been for a similar event to have occurred with the central source from which the people of Madagascar may have derived their native tongue.

We give a comparison between a few Madagascar and Malay words, so that the reader can judge himself of their resemblance and affinity:

Malagasy. Malay. English.
anaka, anaka, a child.
alona, alun, a wave.
ompa, ompat, calumny.
ova, ubah, change.
tahotra, takout, fear.
olitra, ulat, a worm.
voa, buah, fruit.
helatra, kulut, lightning.
taolana, tulang, bone.
hoditra, kulit, skin.
nosa, nusy, island.
lanitra, langit, sky.
tomotra, tumit, heel.
taona, taun, year.

There are many dialects spoken in the island, but that of the province of Ankova, the country of the Hovas, may be regarded as the standard one. The inhabitants of this province are industrious, ingenious, and comparatively wealthy. It is the center of the empire, the seat of the government, and the scene of the principal efforts hitherto made in the country to introduce education, European improvements, arts and sciences, and to promote civilization. Its climate is the most healthy in the island. In the external characteristics, the greater part of Ankova may be considered hilly, rather than mountainous. Few of its eminences rise above five or six hundred feet above the general level of its surface. The capital itself, Tananarivo, is situated on the summit of a long, irregular hill, about five hundred feet in height. The summits in the neighborhood are distinguished as the scenes of legendary tales, recounting the mighty achievements of giants, and other monstrous beings, supposed to belong to a fabulous age. The altars built by former generations on the summits of these heights, to the memory of such extraordinary personages still exist, and are visited by the people as appropriate places for prayer and sacrifice to the manes of the mighty dead. On the tops of some of these hills are still existing the vestiges of ancient villages. Altars are also met with throughout the whole of Ankova, and frequently the sites chosen for them are high places and groves, such as we may suppose existed in Judea in the days of Solomon. The usual name for these altars is Vazimba, i. e., altars raised to the Vazimba (Phoenicians)? the supposed aborigines of the central parts of the island. One of the most celebrated vestiges of antiquity is situated on the summit of the mountain Ambohimiangara. It is the ancient tomb of the renowned giant Rapeto. An altar is connected with the tomb, on which sacrifices are still offered.

The population of Ankova is widely scattered in numerous villages over the surface of the country, which usually contain from fifty to one hundred houses each. The capital, Tananarivo, was supposed to contain in 1836 about 20,000 inhabitants, but at the present time the population is probably somewhat larger. It is at the distance of some two hundred miles from Tamatave, the principal sea-port on the eastern coast of the island, between which two points the roads are kept designedly bad for the purpose of rendering the interior of the country difficult of access to Europeans. Most of the villages are situated on eminences, and are generally encircled, for security, by a deep fosse; the earth from which being thrown up on the inner side, forms a bank round the village, which renders it difficult to scale the sides of the ditch, and adds to the safety of the people. The Hovas belong to one of the tribes of straight hair and olive complexion. But there are some evidences that the dark colored tribes were the earliest settlers in the island, and may perhaps therefore be considered as the aborigines of the country, as tradition respecting the settlement of the fairer race invariably represents them as having, at the time of their arrival, found the country inhabited.

The peculiarities of the dark race are, a black complexion, and a taller stature than the olive colored tribes, stouter body, thick and projecting lips, curly or frizzly hair, a frank and honest bearing, or a grave or timid expression of countenance, exhibiting a full bust and resembling the Africans of the Mozambique shore.

The fairer race are distinguished by a light olive or copper skin, smaller stature, long hair, hazel or black eyes, erect figure, courteous and prepossessing address, active movements, with an open, vivacious aspect.

Although the intellectual capacities of the people of Madagascar appear equal to their physical qualities, which are equal to those of other portions of the human race, yet they are generally characterized by apathy, want of decision, and excessive indolence. And these qualities, taken together with the oppression of the government, may be regarded as the fruitful source of much of the extreme poverty that prevails in the country, and of many of the seasons of famine from which they suffer so severely. The mass of the people seem alike destitute of forethought and enterprise, and hence are unprepared for any failure of their crops, and unable to extricate themselves from any unforseen calamity. Nothing is a greater impediment to the advancement of civilization than indolence; and nothing shows this more distinctly than the state of starvation in which the people are sometimes found, while a small amount of labor on the rich soil of the country around them, would supply provisions in abundance for a greatly augmented population. They are also far from being cleanly in their persons, and bathe but seldom. They are not quick in avenging injuries, but cherish for a long time the desire of revenge for the most trifling insults, while they exult in the distress of others. The public executions exhibit more painfully, not only the absence of all the finer sensibilities of our nature, but the worse than brutalized state of the public mind. The unhappy victims of the treacherous ordeal of poisoned water which is used for detecting wickedness and witchcraft, are savagely dragged away, their bodies mutilated in a most horrid manner, or they are hurled down a fearful precipice, in the presence of multitudes of spectators, who look on without the least emotion of pity; while the children who mingle with the crowd, amuse themselves by throwing stones at the lifeless bodies, which the dogs are rending to pieces. Yet this species of savagery would be likely to attend slave institutions, or a belief in witchcraft among any people.

They are exceedingly attached to their homes. The Hovas often, when setting out on a journey, take with them a small portion of their native earth, on which they often gaze when absent, and invoke their god that they may be permitted to return to restore it to the place from which it was taken. When returning from a foreign land to their native island, or from a distant province to their own, every countenance beams with gladness, they seem to be strangers to fatigue, and seek, by singing and dancing on their way, to give, vent to the fullness of their joy.

It is curious to see how many traits in common these barbarous people have with those people of Christendom who boast of having the highest order of refinement and civilization. Duplicity is one of their most conspicuous traits of character. The natives will invent the most specious pretences, and assume the most plausible air, to impose on the credulity of others, and ingratiate themselves into favor, while their real designs are hid for weeks and months in their own bosoms. If they wish to make a request, they will preface it by so complimentary a speech, and so many thanks and blessings for a kindness yet to be done, and by such servile flattery for a virtue to be illustrated in the forth-coming gift, that one might imagine the whole nation a tribe of office seekers and politicians. It is often impossible to understand their object for an hour or more, as they will talk on the most apparently dissimilar subjects, but with a visible restlessness, until, after all the windings of plausability are traveled through, they hit, as if by accident, on the point designed from the beginning.

In bartering, every trader asks, at least, twice as much as he intends to take; and they never forget to boast of any instance of successful fraud. The best sign of genius in children is esteemed a quickness to deceive, over-reach, and cheat. The people delight in fabulous tales, but in none so much or universally as those that relate instances of successful deceit or fraud, though involving loss of life, as well a property, to the injured person.

Falsehood is a common vice among all. To lie, is esteemed clever and pleasant, and more likely to serve one's purpose of interest or pleasure than to tell the truth. Their constant aim in business is to swindle, in professed friendship to extort, and in mere conversation to exaggerate and fabricate. The laws regard the testimony of witnesses as mere circumstantial evidence. There seems to be no idea of vice unless it is defined by law. Their sensuality is universal and gross, though generally concealed; continence is not supposed to exist in either sex before marriage, consequently it is not expected, and its absence is not regarded as a vice.

Many of the Malagasy seem to think that expediency alone determines the character of actions, and act as if they had no conception of what is vicious. But while they regard theft and other acts of darker moral turpitude as almost harmless, innumerable, unmeaning ceremonies, such as abstaining from this or that habit, or from sitting in this or that particular posture, are enjoined as a duty and the neglect of them regarded as criminal. And in this respect the degeneracy of civilized man touches hands with the barbarian. Involved in the snaky folds of our own cunning, we forget the necessity of moral principle, and ascribe all our calamities to the departure from some mere expediency, and seek to attain to all good by external and demonstrational observances, which are often puerile and absurd, and worse than useless to those who perform them.

The Malagasy are also great talkers and speech-makers. Often even when about to cross a river they have to make a long oath, or enter into an engagement, to acknowledge the sovereignty of the crocodile in his own element, and make a speech to deprecate his ire. An instance is related of an old man, who, having spent nearly half an hour upon the banks of a river in pronouncing an oath, then addressed the crocodile in "a neat and appropriate speech," urging him to do him no injury, because he had never done him, the crocodile, any; assuring him that he had never engaged in war with any of his species; but on the contrary, that he had always entertained the highest veneration for him, and if he came to attack him, sooner or later vengeance would follow, for all his relatives and friends would declare war against him. After about a quarter of an hour of such speechifying as this, the old man then plunged into the stream, feeling as fully assured, probably, that he had averted an impending evil, as modern speech-makers often do when they descend from the stump.