- Histoire et voyages des plantes cultivées à Madagascar by Philippe Beaujard
The book's French title translates as "the history and travels of the cultivated plants in Madagascar", which is an understatement of the wealth of information it provides. It is written by one of the most prolific and versatile scholars of Malagasy culture and language and consists of a 30-page long historical introduction, three actual "chapters" focusing on cultivated plants of Madagascar, a conclusion, and various indexes and lists. The chapters respectively deal with edible plants cultivated on cleared land and rice fields (chapter 1); edible and medicinal plants cultivated in home gardens (chapter 2); useful plants cultivated in other ways (chapter 3).
In the Introduction, Beaujard gives a splendid overview of the origins of agriculture in the world, early maritime and trade history of Eurasia and Africa, and the history of Madagascar in pre-colonial times. His theoretical framework is informed by the ideas of the historians Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein (among others), using the concept of a world-system with the Indian Ocean as its stage, and empires such as China and Rome in the Mediterranean world as centers of political and economic gravity in respectively its westernmost and easternmost peripheries.
Beaujard first presents an overview of the history of agriculture. Recent research shows that it originated independently in more than ten places all over the world.
He also discusses contacts between East Africa and Insular South East Asia (henceforth Indonesia), which go back to ancient times (possibly 25 centuries ago) and are much older than the actual settlement of Madagascar by speakers of Austronesian and Bantu languages (8th century CE). As it turns out, many of the twelve edible foodstuffs that reached Africa from Indonesia and New Guinea listed by G. P. Murdock (1959) had already been introduced to Africa long before the actual settlement of Madagascar, and the early Indonesian migrants to the island did not always play an important role in this. While the big yam (Dioscorea alata L. or Malagasy ovy), rice (Oryza sativa L. or vary), coconut tree ([voa]nio) and Indian saffron (tamotamo), were introduced by these migrants, plants and animals such as taro (Colocasia esculenta [L.] Schott, or saonjo), bananas (Musa sp. or akondro) and chickens (akuhu) had already been introduced from South East Asia and New Guinea to Africa in pre-migratory times. From there they found their way to Madagascar only later [End Page 143] on, rather than directly from their ultimate source. The author holds it for possible that rice was also introduced directly from the African mainland.
This is followed with a very detailed account of the precolonial economic and maritime histories of the Indian Ocean and the regions surrounding it, drawing in such diverse factors as social stratification and religions of the peoples involved as well as climatological fluctuations and the effects of slave trade. Many ethnic groups living in these regions are discussed, although the main emphasis is on the groups that had a more direct relation to Madagascar's history, namely "Austronesians" (read: Indonesians), Bantus, Indians, and Muslims (Arabs, Persians, Comorians, Zanzibarese). I find this almost global approach entirely justified. While Madagascar may not have played a central role in the history of the Indian Ocean world, it was certainly in touch with most ethnic groups and regions pertaining to it. The inclusion of the Roman empire makes sense considering that Egypt, which was more directly involved in East African trade, became a Roman province in 31 BC. As to connections with China, this is not only a consequence of the economic and political role of the Chinese in Indonesia, but also in East Africa itself, evidenced, among others, by the arrival of a Chinese fleet under admiral Zheng He to East Africa in the early 15th century CE.
Beaujard then zooms in on the history of Madagascar itself, discussing the first human inhabitants of the island (who were pre-Austronesian and pre-Bantu hunter-gatherers and...