In Madagascar, One of the Deadliest French Colonial Wars in History is Remembered*
By Abdoulaye Bah
Translated by: Jane Ellis
Seventy years ago on March 29, 1947, a war began between the French colonial government and Malagasy nationalist groups that by its conclusion two years later would see over 100,000 Malagasy residents dead, according to the High Commissioner of Madagascar. The number of deaths is remarkable in its sheer number, especially in light of the fact that the total population at the time was 4 million. This figure makes this conflict one of the deadliest of the French colonial period. The repression that the French unleashed vanquished the Malagasy nationalists and Madagascar remained a colony until 1960.
The war came not long after the end of the Second World War in which many Malagasy soldiers fought alongside the French army. The colonized joined the ranks of soldiers in the fight against Nazism and fascism, as well as for the liberation of France. In the Madagascar section of the French Defense Ministry website on the history of WWII called Chemins de Mémoire, French officials note:
“Between the two wars, Madagascar’s resources were exploited as the island was modernized. However, the demands of the Malagasy people, as was the case with other colonies, were not met. Despite everything, from 1939 onward the Malagasy people responded to France’s request, with 10,500 of them participating in France’s 1940 campaign and one-third of that number dying in combat. The 3rd and 11th Colonial Infantry Regiments and the 42nd Malagasy Machine Gun Battalion particularly distinguished themselves, while the infantrymen fought bravely within African units.”
For many Malagasy soldiers, this participation coupled with the increased political maturity of young intellectuals strengthened their desire for freedom. Following the victory over Nazism and fascism, the Malagasy people demanded greater autonomy within the French Union, as other colonies had achieved. The collaborative website Histoire coloniale et postcoloniale (Colonial and Post-Colonial History), which is written by French colonial historians stated:
“In March 1946, two young Malagasy deputies, Joseph Raseta and Joseph Ravoahangy, members of the Democratic Movement for the Renovation of Madagascar (MDRM), lodged a bill with the National Assembly in Paris demanding independence for the island from the French Union. Vincent Auriol, the Assembly president at that time, refused to have the text printed because “it was an indictment against France and actually a call to revolt.” The bill was rejected.
During the next parliamentary elections, in November 1946, the three second college seats (reserved for “indigenous people”) were won by the MDRM leaders, Joseph Ravoahangy, Joseph Raseta and Jacques Rabemananjara.”
Against that backdrop, on March 29, 1947, two secret societies unleashed a wave of violence overnight in many locations around Madagascar. Instead of negotiating, however, the French government chose to suppress the uprising, and war began. In an article on the collaborative website Matiere et Evolution (Matter and Evolution), which is managed by history scholars, R. Paris recalled:
“The government sent reinforcements to Madagascar, mainly colonial troops (Senegalese infantrymen), a total of 18,000 men by early 1948. The suppression led to many acts of violence and war crimes such as torture, summary executions, forced resettlements and torching of villages.
Among the worst crimes was that of May 6, 1947, when the commandant of Moramanga camp, fearing an attack, had over a hundred MDRM militants, who were imprisoned in wagons, shot. The French army also experimented with a new psychological warfare technique in which suspects were thrown alive from planes to terrorize the villagers in their area.”
Wondering “how many were victims of the suppression?” an activist progressive website from southern France, Midi Populaire et Citoyen, attempted to answer, exploring the different attempts to nail down a number:
“The numbers quoted before the National Assembly at that time were around 80,000 deaths, an estimate which would be altered by specialists such as Jacques Tronchon. More recently, writer Claude Simon spoke of “Madagascar, where it has been hidden for so long that they killed 100,000 indigenous people in three days during 1947.”
However, according to the latest estimates of certain historians, these numbers could be wrong. Paris Sorbonne University lecturer Jean Fremigacci stated, like other historians, that the number killed during the uprising did not exceed 10,000 (including 140 white people) and that the number of Malagasy who died from malnutrition or disease in zones held by the insurgents had been added to this total.
The number of deaths is still extremely hard to assess, and is probably around 20,000 to 30,000 people,” wrote Mr. Fremigacci.”
Erick Rabemananoro, previously a journalist with the Madagascar Tribune, paid tribute to these victims of colonial wars, one of whom was his paternal grandfather. On Facebook, Rabemananoro stated:
“I’m honored to tell you about my paternal grandfather, Rabemananoro. In 1942, he was placed in front of a firing squad by France, during the chaos of battles between Vichy France and Allied France, in sight of the Diego Suarez checkpoint and Mahajanga, where he worked.
After this first execution, France reoffended in 1947, having his son and eldest daughter, both MDRM militants, killed by firing squad. The impact of these tragedies had on the family’s life was immense, as were the problems my grandmother had with meeting the needs of the seven orphans left behind.
Regarding that March 29th day when everyone was roused to action, rightly or wrongly, I would just like to spare a thought for all the families who know that they paid a price in spilled blood for the country in the fight against the colonial power. Far from the great theories, grand speeches and other patriotic activities under the guise of anti-colonialism and patriotism.”
We need to go back to 1885 to see how the stage was set for this conflict. In a treaty signed by Queen Ranavalona III (Ranavalo-Manjaka III), France had defined its occupation of the island as a protectorate and not a colony. Jean-Claude Legros, a French historian and author of a book on Madagascar called Les flamboyants de l’exil (The Flamboyants of Exile), explains:
“A treaty was signed on December 17, 1885, which saw protectorate status (implying management of Madagascar foreign relations by France) imposed upon (although the word ‘imposed’ was not used) Madagascar along with payment of a ten million franc indemnity.
In return, the Sakalava territories would revert to the authority of the Malagasy government and the queen given the right to “rule over the administration of the whole island.” In 1888, the queen was even awarded the Grand-Croix of the Légion d’Honneur.”
The queen believed that the previous treaty she signed on October 1, 1895, with general Jacques Charles René Achille Duchesne representing France, would guarantee her crown and that the centuries-old Malagasy monarchy would be preserved. However, for the colonial power wishing to expand their empire, the treaty was nothing but a ruse. In the end, the queen was removed from power and exiled in Algiers.
“The taking of Madagascar by France, however much it has cost us, whatever the faults or mistakes in preparing the expedition, has been a great and beautiful work. A question, nevertheless, must be asked at this time, when it is important to make the right decision while there is still time. Should we really be the masters of the great southern island? Has the treaty between France and Queen Ranavalona given us specific, uncontested, full entitlement for interior administration as well as with respect to foreigners, the British, Americans, Germans? Have we in fact acquired a domain burdened with many constraints, more or less constant, for which we will have to meet all the expenses but without reaping any advantages with respect to profits?”
“More than a century later, during a November 2016 conference between the heads of state of the International Organization of La Francophonie at Antananarivo in Madagascar, French President François Hollande recognized that atrocities had been committed by colonial troops during the war:
“It’s really because there was this engagement of Malagasy people for France, but also for freedom, that after the Second World War many started to dream about independence and about the growing ambitions of the people. This movement caused an uprising across the whole island in 1947 which was brutally suppressed by France. I pay homage to all the victims of these events, to the thousands of dead, and to all the militants who fought for independence and who were arrested and condemned for their ideas.”
It is one thing for the French leaders to recognize these war crimes, but asking for forgiveness and paying out compensation are another. France has claimed its debts from Germany, but so far has neglected to face the consequences of wars started by itself.