A fleet of thirteen Portuguese vessels under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral set sail from Lisbon for the East Indies just two years after Vasco da Gama first rounded the Cape of Good Hope. In late May 1500, inclement weather at the Cape separated the vessel commanded by Diego Diaz from the others, blowing it well south of its intended course. Steering north to regain their way, Diaz and crew caught sight of land on 10 August along the coast of Anosy, Madagascar's southeast extremity (fig. 1). The day was the Feast of São Lourenço, and Diaz named the big island (Madagascar) for European cartography after the feast.1 As far as it is known, this was the first sighting of Madagascar by seafarers hailing directly from the Atlantic via the Cape route. European sailors and mapmakers continued to identify Madagascar as São Lourenço (Portuguese) and Saint-Laurent (French) for centuries to come. From the early decades of the sixteenth century to the French abandonment of Madagascar in 1674, Anosy in southeast Madagascar was an important site of European-Malagasy interaction. The meeting grounds of Anosy played a significant role in the early modern history of the southwest Indian Ocean, much as the Cape of Good Hope or Kilwa and Mombasa did, but they are poorly known outside a close circle of francophone Madagascar experts. At the same time little secondary literature on Anosy and its Europeans in any language is broad and comparative in outlook, setting them in wider and interconnected historical narratives of the region.2
In part the early history of relations between the people of southeast Madagascar and transient Europeans is not well known by scholars of southeast Africa and the Indian Ocean because colonial linguistic legacies have separated francophone, lusophone, and anglophone scholarship in this region of overriding British influence from the late eighteenth century and in part because, espied across the waters by its neighbors, Madagascar can seem aloof from the main currents of the region's history and modern economies. Long-distance airline flights linking South Africa and Australia, Mauritius, and Southeast Asia, for example, sometimes leave their telltale vapor trails high over Anosy's coasts, dazzling children—including this author in his childhood—who often gather below to observe them. Madagascar has yet to appear in African history textbooks treating the early era of European ventures about the [End Page 345] continent or as a regular component of graduate syllabi in southern and East African history.
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|Figure 1 |
Madagascar and the southwestern Indian Ocean. Map drawn by author
It is tempting to hypothesize that no satisfying and broadly conceived synthetic histories of early Portuguese and French colonization in Madagascar exist because publications on the Big Island are typically specialized in some way or because European colonizing efforts foundered when thrown up against the hierarchical agrarian societies of Anosy. Intruders from the Atlantic could not incorporate or push the people of Anosy off into the interior, as they did at the Cape, or squeeze a manageable profit from them, as happened in many parts of South Asia where land and maritime trade in local products generated considerable wealth. The histories of colonial "successes" in settlement, production, and commerce in places such as the Cape, South Asia, the Mascarene Islands, and locations along the East African coast tend to populate early modern histories of the region and find pride of place in historical narratives of the western Indian Ocean. But colonial "failures" are as important to understanding a historical era as are successes, and in any case, success and failure are positioned, if not also rather coarse, judgments. Is little known about southeast Madagascar in the first centuries of European navigation in the Indian Ocean because the people of...