Sunday, January 15, 2023

S4E4: Andriamanelo - King of Alasora

Fortified gate at Ambohimanga, likely similar to those which defended the settlement from Andriamanelo and his army

While there are earlier named monarchs in the history of Imerina, the rule of Andriamanelo, which took place in some era of the mid-to-late 16th century, is generally considered the gateway between mythology and history in the kingdom's history. While segments of his reign are clearly mythological, he is the first ruler of the Malagasy highlands whose biography generally reflects historical reality.
19th century photograph of the Malagasy circumcision ritual, including blessed water to cleanse the wound

Andriamanelo is credited with numerous achievements. He expanded the nascent kingdom of Imerimanjaka by marrying the princess of Ambohitrabyby, a nearby city-state. The king is credited with numerous technological and cultural innovations, such as the introduction ironworking technology, the invention or introduction (traditions vary) of Sikidy divination, and the creation of several unique Malagasy wedding traditions.

Sikidy is a form of divination which relies on the use of complex boolean algebra equations. Check out our premium episode about it on our Patreon page.

Andriamanelo's rule is a difficult period to analyze. While the wide variety of fairly reliable oral histories of his reign generally mark it as "true history" rather than mere legend, the exact achievements and developments of his rule are questionable. Even questions as simple as when Andriamanelo ruled are unknown, while some common elements of his story, like the introduction of ironworking, are outright contradicted by archaeological evidence. Regardless, he is a watershed figure in Merina history.  

Andriamanelo's tomb in Alasora

Monday, January 2, 2023

S4E3: The Vazimba, Hova, and Merina

The tomb of Rangita, located in Imerimanjaka

Indigeneity is a complex modern concept, one which is often difficult or even impossible to apply to societies from the pre-modern era. This is especially true on an island like Madagascar, with its melting-pot population. Merina legend records the existence of a people who lived on the Highlands of Madagascar before the arrival of migrants from the southeast coast. These first people of inland Madagascar are called the Vazimba. 

Analyzing the mythology surrounding Vazimba is a difficult task, since the description of who and what Vazimba are changes dramatically depending on the context. In the Tantara Ny Andriana, Vazimba are depicted as barely human-like creatures. They possessed glowing red eyes, enormous hanging ears, gigantic mouths full of sharp teeth, as well as dark skin and very short stature. The Vazimba also lived animalistically in this version of the myth. They have yet to discover riziculture and proper animal husbandry, preferring to drink milk directly from feral cattle rather than domesticating the animals, and used clay tools due to lack of metal-working technology. 

While some myths frame the Vazimba as subhuman creatures, others are more humanizing in their portrayal. These stories typically involve Vazimba women, particularly those who are the ancestors to later Merina families. These women are depicted as intelligent, beautiful, and privy to valuable secret knowledge. Curiously, Vazimba are also sometimes regarded as objects of veneration - ancestors who warrant praise and worship, especially when trying to initiate a business venture or conceive. What's going on with these very contradictory narratives?
Mahafaly statuette depicting a Vazimba, carvdd circa 1960
While many Vazimba legends depict them as semi-human monsters, historians believe that Vazimba represented a real population of humans that existed in the Malagasy highlands prior to the inland migration of coastal Hova classes in the 13th and 14th centuries. The origin of these first Malagasy, however, is highly disputed. Originally, European scholars that the Vazimba were part of the "African pygmy race" due to descriptions of their small stature. This assumption also aligned well with a dominant European ideology of racial darwinism, in which superior races conquered and subsumed inferior races like the pygmies.

Along with racial darwinism, the purported pygmy origins of the Vazimba has fallen out of favor in recent years. While there is evidence for some kind of pre-Austronesian population existing in Madagascar, the lack of place names deriving from pre-Bantu East African language families contradicts this hypothesis. Additionally, beyond their supposed shortness, there's really no similarity in the myth to any extant people groups.
Another Mahafaly statuette of a Vazimba, 1961
Among historical scholars, the predominant view of Vazimba mythology origins is that they represent an Austronesian population, albeit one from an earlier settlement wave. Berg wrote convincingly in his scholarly article about how the mythology of Vazimba originates from a cultural synthesis of Malagasy traditions and western/christian ideology, which sought to negatively frame the ancestral veneration practiced by pre-christian Malagasy due to its competition with Christian conversion campaigns.

In our next episode, we will examine two semi-historical figures from the earliest stage of Merina history. Like many aristocratic Merina, they were the product of a mixed marriage between Vazimba and Hova. One of these brothers, Andriamanelo, will go down in history as the first king of the Merina. 

Monday, December 19, 2022

S4E2: Settlers from All Shores


An example of the type of outrigger canoe used by Austronesian sailors, later introduced to East Africa

This episode focuses on tracking the settlement of Madagascar by multiple groups of people, including a (possible) short-lived hunter gatherer population from East Africa before 500 BC, followed by the more concretely evidenced arrival of Austronesian and Bantu people in the 6th Century AD.

The status of human settlement on Madagascar prior to the later settlement of the island by Austronesian and Bantu colonization is not especially clear. In fact, it's unclear if there was even a sustainable population of people on the island.

Some examples of the purported tools found at Lakaton'i Anja

Some archeologists claim that evidence exists to establish the presence of some kind of hunter-gatherer population in pre-settlement Madagascar. While the evidence is fairly convincing, it's not clear as to whether these remains evidence a permanent population or a transient one. The lack of archaeological evidence for long-term shelter construction seemingly indicates that these people may have been transient nomads from the mainland who counted Madagascar among the territories they roamed. Regardless, if such a population did exist by the period of settlement, it was likely small enough that it had a marginal impact on Malagasy history. While some increasingly marginalized theorists believe that there is a link between these hunter gatherers and the semi-mythical Vazimba of early Madagascar, such a link is doubtful for reasons we'll get into in the next episode. 

An engraved image of a Javanese ship found at the temple of Borobodur

There is compelling genetic and linguistic evidence that the bulk of Austronesian settlers in Madagascar were from the Dayak peoples, particularly the Maanyan people of Western Borneo. Different narratives surrounding these Dayak arrivals argue that they were either enslaved workers for a larger Javanese state that sought to use them as labor on the burgeoning settlements in Madagascar, or that they were refugees fleeing the expansion of Indianized kingdoms on their home island.

Example of Tana Pottery
The arrival of Bantu people to Madagascar is similarly contentious, with scholars debating whether they were brought to Madagascar through slave raiding or migrated to the island of their own volition. While enslaved workers, some of whom were Bantu, were certainly traded by Austronesian merchants, there is good reason to be skeptical of the idea that the entirety of the Bantu arrival in Madagascar can be chocked up to enslavement. For example, the high prevalence of Bantu loanwords to describe domesticated animals implies that Bantu herdsmen were the dominant pastoralist culture on the island at some point, something you would certainly not expect from enslaved workers.

By the 13th century AD, the stage of Malagasy civilization was set, since much of the island was settled. Sadly, this had a devastating effect on island wildlife. Elephant birds were driven to extinction by diseases brought by domesticated poultry, while giant lemurs succumbed to a combination of habitat loss and overhunting.

 Next episode, we will see how the narrative based on archaeology and genetic data conflicts with and supports numerous ideas surrounding the islands mysterious first inhabitants according to Malagasy legendary histories: the Vazimba. 

Monday, December 5, 2022

S4E1: Madagascar - the Eighth Continent


A (simplified) map of Madagascar's climate zones

Due to its natural and climactic diversity, Madagascar is sometimes nicknamed the "eighth continent." Despite being a relatively small landmass, Madagascar hosts an unusually varied array of climate zones. 

Malagasy spiny forest
These climate zones consist of a tropical coastal rainforest, a largely treeless tropical highlands, a semi-arid savanna, dry broadleaf forests, and a unique type of semi-arid forest landscape dominated by succulents and other tall shrubs called the spiny forest. The landscape also features unique formations associated with the island, such as Lavakas: a unique form of erosion that forms a canyon-esque gorge in a hillside.
The unique broadleaf forests of northwest Madagascar. Notice the relative lack of undergrowth. Credit: Damon Ramsey
A Malagasy to Rhett Butler
While Madagascar is still known for its unique flora and fauna today, the island once hosted even more unusual animal life. These included enormous flightless birds: the aepyornids. They are better known by their common name of Elephant Birds, due to their enormous eggs likely serving as the inspiration to Marco Polo's claim of enormous elephant consuming eagles residing on the island. Madagascar also once hosted species of giant lemurs, the largest of which could grow to the size of a silverback gorilla.

Size comparison between a human, elephant bird, and ostrich.
In our next episode, we will examine the many contradictory theories and narratives surrounding the arrival of Madagascar's first permanent human inhabitants.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Sokoto E4: A West African Caliphate


Kano, one of the largest cities in the Sokoto Caliphate, pictured in 1860

By the 1810s, Shehu Usman Dan Fodio had succeeded in besting many of his enemies. The kingdoms of Kasar Hausa were conquered, while several other neighboring regions were also integrated into the growing imamate. With the "jihad" complete, now the next steps of Fodio's revolutionary playbook were on the agenda. Together with his allies in the Jamaa, Fodio began the steps of creating a society based on his ideals.

The new state that Fodio and his allies birthed into the world was one with an immensely complex political system. Arguably, the Sokoto governmental system is easier to understand if you think of the state as a series of aligned polities rather than a single unitary government. 

The head of state and (theoretically) of government was the Amir al-Muminin, or Commander of Believers. This position was intended to be chosen via electoral consensus by the Islamic community, and then serve for life. Of course, Usman Dan Fodio retained his title of Commander of Believers and served as the first leader of the new government. Additionally, to provide his state with further legitimacy and to clarify his mission, the Shehu declared that his new state was a caliphate. In an earlier writing, Masail al-Muhimma, Fodio defined a caliphate as any state governed by someone who sought to act as a successor to the Prophet Muhammad. As a result, the declaration of the Sokoto Caliphate did not represent any attempt by Fodio to position himself as the leader of the entire Islamic world, but rather to state that the mission of his government was to rule in the style of the Prophet Muhammad. Fodio himself rarely even referred to himself as caliph, preferring to retain his old title of Commander of Believers.

The Commander of Believers was largely uninvolved from direct statecraft. Rather, the true executives of the Sokoto Caliphate were the two viziers. The vizier of the west was Usman's brother Abdullahi, who ruled over the regions of Kebbi, Zamfara, and other western regions of the caliphate from his capital at Gwandu. Meanwhile, the eastern portions of the caliphate were overseen by Muhammad Bello from his capital at Sokoto. 

Gwandu remains the capital of its own emirate within modern Nigeria. Pictured here is the entrance to the Gwandu emir's palace.

Each vizier was given the power to appoint a qadi, or judge, for each region, and an emir. The emir essentially acted as the "face of government", performing and overseeing all of the typical responsibilities of the state, such as collecting taxes, enforcing laws, and distributing services. Unlike in the pre-jihad era, where most cities were run by heriditary Sarkis, the emir was, at least in theory, appointed based on merit rather than familial connections. Meanwhile, the qadi was meant to not only oversee judicial functions, but also to ensure that the emir's laws were all within the scholarly consensus of shari'ah.

The nascent caliphate initiated several new sets of reforms, including the creation of a new education system, a grain dole to help poor residents afford food, tax cuts on the working classes, and new regulations to ensure fair trading in the market. 

While the Sokoto Revolution may have seemed like an unimpeachably positive development, this was not necessarily true. Even during the life of Usman Dan Fodio, but especially after his death, the state soon began to slip away from its mission of creating a righteous and Quranic society. Perhaps the most visible failure occured in the immediate aftermath of Fodio's passing. While the succession of the position of Commander of Believers was, in theory, an elected one, the Shehu went out of his way to ensure that his son, Muhammad Bello, ruled the kingdom after him. While Fodio argued that Bello was still the most meritocratic option regardless of his descent, the decision set into motion the transformation of the Caliphate into a de facto hereditary monarchy. Almost immediately, Muhammad Bello implemented a series of new policies clearly designed to ward off potential rivals for power. He centralized the military while dramatically increasing its funds, forcing him to raise taxes on the working classes to compensate.

An 1857 illustration depicting a slave raid by a nobleman living in the caliphate

From a moral perspective, the issues of slavery and militarism forces us to reckon with the otherwise quite positive perception of the Caliphate. The successful conquests of the Caliphate in the south, especially in the former Oyo Empire, produced enormous numbers of war captives. The Sokoto Caliphate maintained the old system of slavery present in Kasar Hausa, involving large communities of enslaved workers concentrated in plantation-esque rural townships. Unlike in some other regions of Africa, slavery in the caliphate was often of the chattel variety, while notions of religious endorsement and psuedo-racialized concepts of "animalistic" southern populations justified the system's existence. In many ways, the economic boom of the early caliphate can be attributed to the system of human misery that underpinned it.

A "slave village" in rural Sokoto

If your interest in the Sokoto Revolution was motivated by a desire to find a historical revolution without hypocrisies, then I'm sorry to disappoint you. However, rather than motivating us to lose interest in the past and its denizens, I believe that morally complex figures like Usman Dan Fodio can be useful guideposts in evaluating our own moral standing. When viewing the past, it is tempting and easy to self-righteously decry the evils some by men and women of yesteryear. What is more challenging but far more enlightening is to remember that we will be in the same position someday, and to use our knowledge of history to better ourselves. Our perceptions are shaped by the paradigms of our day. History can help us identify these paradigms, their moral strengths and shortcomings. What are some things we do today that will provoke similar self-righteous condemnation from our descendants? 

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Sokoto E3 - From Shehu to Revolutionary

Map of the Sokoto Imamate at its height
In the latest episode of the History of Africa podcast, we cover an abridged summary of Usman and Abdullahi Dan Fodio's war against Gobir, and the gradual expansion of the Sokoto Jihad from a minor local rebellion into a region-wide upheaval.

This episode was a little bit shorter and more summary focused than I prefer. This is because, on my first draft of the series, we ended up spending almost two hours discussing the military history of the Fodio and his allies conquests of his neighbors. While that history is certainly interesting, I wanted to speed through it so that we could more quickly get to the far more interesting elements of the history, including the details of the civic, religious, educational, and economic changes that followed the Sokoto Jihad.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Sokoto E2: Fodio, Student and Teacher


This 18th Century West-African manuscript on mathematics is the type of material that Usman Dan Fodio studied during his youth.

In this episode, we learn about the early life and education of the future Mujaddid, Usman Dan Fodio. While the exact location of his birth is unknown, Usman Dan Fodio's family had long roots in Kasar Hausa, with their migration into the area likely dating back at least 300 years. In his first years, Fodio's family moved to the city of Degel, a small town with a mid-sized Islamic University. His father, a wealthy merchant, ensured that Fodio received the best available education by hiring a series of private tutors. These tutors strongly influenced the young Fodio's views. One, a Hausa scholar named Jibril ibn Umar, was a controversial and radical figure in Sahelian Islamic academia. Umar had previously worked in the nearby sultanate of Agadez but had been kicked out of Agadez after the local sultan suspected that he was encouraging Muslims to rebel against their king. Umar was, in some ways, even too radical for his young student, as Fodio disagreed with his teacher's unorthodox views on polygamy, how to view Muslims who struggled with following the faith's rules, and other matters of Islamic law.

Alongside Umar, numerous scholars and teachers played a role in influencing the views of Fodio on matters of Islamic law and theology. Around this time, he was also initiated into the Qadri Sufi order, a major Sufi organization active in multiple regions throughout the Islamic world. By the time he completed his education, Fodio was considered educated enough to begin teaching in his own right. He worked as an iterant scholar, traveling from school to school and into rural villages to spread Islamic education. During this time, Fodio began to develop the beginnings of what would eventually become a major following. This early following was the first step in the formation of the Jamaa, the close followers of Usman Dan Fodio who would eventually serve as his revolutionary vanguard.

At first, Fodio tried hard to brand his teachings as ostensibly apolitical, avoiding criticism of specific kings or nobles and refusing to attend in-person meetings with these elites. At the time, the elites that ruled Degel were subservient to the most powerful Hausa kingdom of its era: the Kingdom of Gobir. Since before the birth of Fodio, Gobir enjoyed a long period of gradual empowerment at the expense of its neighbors. Surrounded by warlike enemies on all sides, the Hausa of Gobir had been forced to develop their own martial culture. 

An example of lifida - the quilted armor worn by mounted noble cavalry in the eastern Sahel

The kings of Gobir used this army to become a center of local power in their own right. Throughout the mid to late 18th century, Gobir's armies overwhelmed several of their neighbors, including the equally martial kingdoms of Zamfara and Kebbi. Gobir armies also raided south and east, extracting tribute from the kingdom of Bornu, as well as fellow Hausa cities like Kano, Katsina, Zazzau, and more.

Map of Kasar Hausa (purple) and its surrounding kingdoms (blue)