The Merina Nation

      At the dawn of the third millennium, the world seems to look for a new direction. The development of globalization is threatening the very foundation of the old empires based upon nation-state centralism. Oppositely, new alliances based on more natural affinities, especially ethnic-based affinities which had been neglected or even prohibited, are now taking place. On the one hand, it is the fear of depersonalization that ignites the rehabilitation of one's ancestral identities. On the other hand, the need to join with competent partners to face the present frontierless world requires a connection with those sharing the same fundamental interests. From now on, as distances constitute little barrier to exchanges, the prospect of new alliance can be invoked.

      One immediately does realize how much this new situation can be advantageous to the Nusantarian World. Until now, direct communications between the various countries belonging to this human group, spreading throughout two oceans over thousands years, were hindered by the distances. Moreover, during the last centuries, the European colonization and its aftermath discouraged us from pursuing such unity. For each newly independent country, the consolidation of national unity was its prime concerns.

      In order to better define the role and the significance of Madagascar within the future of the nusantarian world, it is necessary to begin by recounting some of the major features of that world.

  The Nusantarian Motherland

      Among the major ethnolinguistic groups in the world, the nusantarian family (also called "Malayo-Polynesian" or "Austronesian" by western authors) undeniably occupied the largest geographical territory prior the modern era. From east to west, this vast territory covered the area from Rapa-nui (Easter Island) to Madagascar, approximately 60% the circumference of the earth.

From north to south, it included the island of Taiwan (Pekan, for the Nusantarian natives), the archipelago of Hawaii (from "Hava-iki" or "Little Java", to recollect the ancestral homeland of the Polynesian), and New Zealand (Aotearoa in Maori language). Beyond this heartland, other regions were frequented by Nusantarians navigators, including the major part of the Pacific Ocean (to South America) and the Indonesian Ocean, as far as East Africa. [1]

      Today, there are approximately 300 million Nusantarians. Their communities are traditionally present in 34 officially recognized countries in Southeast Asia (including Taiwan and Hainan where the Cam Utsat people live), Oceania, and the Indonesian Ocean.

      In recent years, many authors concluded that the Nusantarians originated from the present coastal area of eastern China (well before the rise of the Chinese Empire).[2] Understandably, it was by seafaring, approximately 6,000 or 7,000 years ago, that our ancestors began to slowly occupy their historical territory. In so doing, they precociously mastered an extraordinary technique of navigation. Indeed from the beginning of our era, it is known from testimonies found in Chinese texts that the Nusantarians of Southeast Asia were using ships (the Chinese *b'ak, related to the *bangkah of Melayu) capable of transporting several hundred of tons of goods and hundreds (or even a thousand) passengers.[3] That is hardly surprising if we know that in Oceania the big double canoes (waka or pahi, corresponding to bagan and to ancient bandung of Indonesia), although a lot less equipped in terms of tools, were capable of transporting together up to 500 persons.[4]

      Subsequent to this common origin, the Nusantarian heritage is characterized by three affinities, namely linguistic, cultural and racial.

      Throughout the Nusantarian domain, the basic vocabulary and many typologic resemblances are preserved in all languages, among which three major sub-sections can be distinguished: a) the archaic language group of Taiwan; b) those of the western nusantarian world and countries of Southeast Asia, from Madagascar to the western part of Micronesia (Marianas, Guam and Belau/Palau Islands); c) those of the oriental nusantarian part, including the whole of Polynesia and the major part of the Melanesia.[5]

       The Nusantarian civilization is characterized by many common features found in their social organization, technology, beliefs and artistic expressions. Finally, from the anthropological point of view, the majority of the Nusantarians (the Melanesians excepted) are sharing the same human form, characterized by the "classic Melayu" model : in which the skull is mesocephalic or moderately brachycephalic, the brown skin color or sawo matang, the wavy hair, less or not at all slit eyes, etc.[6]

      Taking account of these elements, we should re-appraise the status and the importance of Madagascar in the Nusantarian domain.

  Madagascar, a part of Southeast Asian history

      Within the Nusantarian World, Madagascar stands apart for many reasons. First, geographically, this island is the farthest from any other Nusantarian territory. Its closest neighbors, the islands around Sumatra, are more than 6,000 km distant. It is thus the only part situated in the western Indonesian Ocean, close to the African continent. Also by its size, Madagascar is relatively large. Among all the Nusantarian islands, it is second only to Kalimantan. However, its most surprising originality is found in its cultural and historical aspect.

      In all likelihood, the island was discovered in the first centuries of the common era by seafarers from central Indonesia, related to the ancestors of the present people of Southeast Kalimantan.[7] One wonders what drove them so far to the west. In the current state of knowledge, there is obviously no answer to that question. However, it is likely that those people were not the only Nusantarians who frequented the western part of the Indonesian Ocean during that era. In fact, the Melayu traders (namely, the Melayu speaking Nusantarians kingdoms, the most prominent being one named "Funan" by Chinese authors) traded between the Sea of China and the coastal countries of the Indonesian Ocean, as far as the Roman empire, to the northwest.[8] And probably, presence of Melayu in that region might have contributed to the process of hinduization of Southeast Asia.

      While the Merina's ancestors slowly undertook the exploration and colonization of Madagascar, others Nusantarians traded actively with the African coasts and the Middle East. The items traded were mostly spices, ivory, cowries, pearls, hides, slaves, and perhaps silk. It is highly probable (as referenced in some Arabic texts) that Melayu trading posts were established on the coasts of Africa.[9]

      The presence of Melayu in western Indonesian Ocean began to decline from the 8th century under the pressure of the emerging Muslim competition. However, by the 10th century, the Malays tried to reconquer the African coasts with an enormous expedition (Arabic texts talk about a thousand ships) but without success.[10] Since then, they had ceased to frequent the region. It should be mentioned that even their old maritime hegemony in Southeastern Asia - represented at that time by the empire of Srivijaya - was then contested not only by the new power of the southern Indians of Chola, but also, by a growing Chinese power. Concurrently, the Merina's ancestors began their migration to the highlands of Madagascar to avoid the threat of the Islamized emigrants and their numerous African slaves who rapidly took control of the northern and eastern part of Madagascar. In respect to several traditions, their prime motive for leaving the coastal areas was their refusal to mingle with their new neighbors.[11]

      It was from that time that the Merina, as a people completely isolated from Southeast Asia, started on a different historial path. Meanwhile, some Nusantarians, especially the Bugis - as mentionned in the epic of Sawerigading of La Galigo -, might have continued to sporadically visit the region.[12] Also by the 13th century, the Melayu of Tambralinga (present southern Thailand) organized a certain number of expeditions to the Southern India and to Ceylan for reasons related to Buddhism.[13] But to our knowledge, there is no indication that any of those late nusantarian expeditions might have influenced the course of Madagascar's history.[14]

      However, during the entire first millennium, the history of Madagascar is simply integrated with the presence of Southern Asian Nusantarians in the western part of the Indonesian Ocean. Therefore, it is difficult to isolate that island. Perhaps in the future, the progress in archaeological research and the advance of cultural and linguistic studies will help us to better understand that past.

  The importance of Madagascar in the future of the Nusantarian World

      The exceptional importance of Madagascar in the history of ancient nusantarian navigation in the Indonesian Ocean is perfectly known here. Moreover, it remind us that for 4,000 to 5,000 years, untill around the 10th century, the nusantarian peoples were the greatest navigators of the world. It is true that similars achievement can be attested to the peoples of the Oceania, but, as far as it concerns the Southeast Asia, Madagascar is ethnologically and historically closer to them. Oceania indeed belongs to the prehistory of Southeast Asia, while Madagascar is an integral part of its "old", or more exactly, pre-modern history; from the glorious period prior the Islamisation, the arrival of Chinese emigrants and the influx of European colonizers. Furthermore, unlike the Indo-Javanese culture for example, the civilization of Madagascar developed out of the sole ethnic ingenuity of the Nusantarians, without any direct foreign influence. Even if words of sanskrit origin are found in Madagascar's native languages, they all seem to have been borrowed through the old Malay.[15] Similarly, the Arab-African influence on the Merina people is, not only very limited, but also considered as a corruptive rather than formative late addition.

      In this regard, Madagascar constitutes one of the best examples demonstrating the dynamism and the potentiality of traditional nusantarian civilization. Even if the countries of Southeast Asia had not borrowed from foreign cultures, they would have been quite able to achieve extraordinary status. To us, it is significant that the king Andrianampoinimerina (who ruled from 1783 to 1809), was a pure bearer of the traditional Merina civilization. He no doubt could be considered as one of the greatest nusantarian sovereigns of all time.[16]

      In conclusion, the rediscovery of Madagascar represents to the South Asia nusantarian countries a kind of an encounter with their own history. The look of a Merina should remind them how great navigators were their ancestors, and how they were proud of their identity that they really did matter to preserve it above anything else.[17]

      But the most startling is that besides recalling the Nusantarians' past, Madagascar is holding great promises for their future. As already pre-announced by the creation of the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), indicators suggest that the Pacific basin will be the real economic heart of our planet, and also, to a larger extent, its cultural and political heart. In these conditions, those countries occupying the most propitious locations are suceptible to play highly decisive roles.

      From now on, it is for the interests of the Nusantarian countries of Southeast Asia to contemplate themselves, not as being on the periphery of Asia and the Pacific Ocean, but as in the very heart of the oceanic domain. The Pacific Ocean itself is not an empty space, but a crossroad and a field of expansion for the peoples from its bordering continents, a territory for self-development for the peoples who occupied it for millennia, and who beforehand were Nusantarians. So, it is timely that Melayu, Javanese and Tagalog peoples, among others, reassert their real attributes, as representatives of the Nusantarians, the Islands people, traditional masters of the Ocean, and not just a mere variety of "non-typical" and marginal Asians. For that purpose, they absolutely have to position themselves in regard to their own "peripheric surroundings", and also determine the boundaries of their actual inner dimensions.

      For that matter and for their interest, the Nusantarians of Southeast Asia should integrate in their world vision as well as their political policy that the Merina, on the one hand, and the Micronesians and Polynesians, on the other hand, are in fact the extensions of their own identity.

       These indeed are the peoples testifying their own history, especially the most authentic part of it. There is scant need to mention that for these "peripheral" Nusantarians, the new interest brought by their South Asian kin will finally help them to exit out of their isolation and to take control of their own destiny. Henceforth, with the support of their kin, they will no longer be considered as just small islanders, lost in the middle of the ocean. They will no longer be the coveted objects by those foreigners thinking only of taking advantage of their vulnerability, but a member of a vast community of peoples sharing the same ancestors, the same basic identity, and together, sharing the same hopes in planning their own future.

      In other words, within that perspective, Madagascar somehow might also have within it the actual keys to the future of the Nusantarian world.

Andriantefinanahary & Yanariak (October, 1997)


     [1] Cf. BELLWOOD, Peter, Man's Conquest of the Pacific. The Prehistory of Southeast Asia and Oceania, Auckland : Collins, 1978. SLAMETMULJANA. Asal Bangsa dan Bahasa Nusantara. Jakarta : Balai Pustaka, 1975. (Back to Text)

     [2] Among others, cf. LING, Shun-sheng. A Study of the Raft, Outrigger, Double, and Deck Canoes of Ancient China, the Pacific, and Indian Oceans. Taipei: The Institute of Ethnology, 1970. BELLWOOD, Peter. Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago. Sydney: Academic Press, 1985 et "A Hypothesis for Austronesian Origins", Asian Perspectives, XXXVI,1, 1984-1985: 107-117. BLUST, Robert. "The Austronesian Homeland: A Linguistic Perspective", Asian Perspectives, XXXVI,1, 1984-1985: 45-67. REID, Lawrence A. "Benedict's Austro-Tai Hypothesis - An Evaluation", Asian Perspectives, XXXVI,1, 1984-1985: 19-34. ZHANG Guang-zhi. "Archaeology in the Southeastern Coastal China and the Origin of the Austronesian", Nanyang Minzu Kaogu, 1987, 1: 1-14. XING, Gongwan. "On the Genealogical Relationship between Han Language (Chinese) and Austronesian Languages", Minzu Yuwen, 3, 1991: 1-14.(Back to the text)

     [3] MANGUIN, Pierre-Yves, "The Southeast Asian Ship: An Historical Approach", Journal of South-East Asian 0Studies, IX, 2, 1980: 266-276; "Sewn-plank Craft of South-East Asia. A Preliminary Survey", in Sewn Planked Boats, Archaeological and Ethnographic papers, S.McGrail & E.Kentley, eds. Oxford, 1985:319-343. DORAN, Edwin Jr. Wangka: Austronesian Canoe Origin, Texas A .& M. University press, 1981. (Back to the text)

     [4] HADDON, A.C. & HORNELL, James, Canoes of Oceania, Honolulu: P.Bishop Museum, 1975. LEWIS, David, We the navigators. The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific, Canberra: Australian National University Press,1972. NEYRET, Jean. Les pirogues océaniennes, Paris: Musée de la Marine, 1976-1977. (Back to Text)

     [5] WURM, S.A. & HATTORI, Shiro, eds. Language Atlas of the Pacific area, Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, 1981. KERAF, Gorys. Linguistik Bandingan Historis, Jakarta: Gramedia, 1984. (Back to Text)

     [6] Cf. HOWELLS, William. The Pacific Islanders, London, Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1973. BELLWOOS, Peter. 1978, op.cit. GLINKA, J.: "Racial History of Indonesia", in Rassengeschichte der Menschheit, 8, Lieferung Asien I: Japan, Indonesien, Ozeanien, München: Oldenbourg, 1981: 79-113. (Back to Text)

     [7] Cf. DAHL, O.C. Malgache et Maanjan. Une comparaison linguistique. Oslo, 1951 et "La subdivision de la famille Barito et la place du malgache", Acta Orientalia, 38, 1977: 77-134. (Back to Text)

     [8] WHEATLEY, Paul. The Golden Khersonese: Studies in the Historical Geography of the Malay Peninsula Before AD 1500, Kuala Lumpur, University of Malay Press, 1961. WOLTERS, Olivier W. Early Indonesian Commerce: A Study of the Origins of Srivijaya, Cornell U.P. 1967 et The Fall of Srivijaya in Malay History, Oxford U.P. 1970. MILLER, J.I. The Spice Trade of the Roman Empire 29 B.C. to A.D. 641, Oxford, 1969. Nia KURNIA SHOLIFAT IRFAN, Kerajaan Sriwijaya, Jakarta: Girimukti Pasaka, 1983. (Back to Text)

     [9] FERRAND, Gabriel. "Le K'ouen-louen et les anciennes navigations inter-océaniques dans les mers du sud", Journal Asiatique, 1919, XIII:239-333, 431-492; XIV: 5-68, 201-241. "L'empire sumatranais de Srivijaya", Journal Asiatique, 1922, 1-104, 161-246. (Back to Text)

     [10] MAUNY, Raymond. "The Wakwak and the Indonesian invasion in East Africa in 945 A.D.", Studia (Lisboa), 1965, 15, pp.7-16. MOLLAT, Michel. "Les contacts historiques de l'Afrique et de Madagascar avec l'Asie du Sud et du Sud-Est: le rôle de l'Océan Indien", Archipel, 21, 1981: 35-53. (Back to Text)

     [11] Cf. Tantara ny Andriana eto Madagascar, Antananarivo, 1908 : 62-64 et DELIVRE, Alain. L'histoire des rois d'Imerina. Interprétation d'une tradition orale, Paris: Klincksieck, 1974. (Back to Text)

     [12] KERN, R.A. Catalogus I. Catalogus van de Boeginese, tot de I La Galigo-cyclus behorende handschriften v. Jajasan Matthes te Makassar, Makassar, 1954. (Back to Text)

     [13] PARANAVITANA, S. Ceylon and Malaysia, Colombo, 1966. SIRISENA, W.M. Sri Lanka and South-East Asia: Political, Religious, and Cultural Relations from A.D. c. 1000 to c. 1500, Leiden 1978. (Back to Text)

     [14] Concerning others approaches, cf. ADELAAR, K.A. "Malay Influence on Malagasy: Linguistic and culture-historical Implications", Oceanics Linguistics, 28,1, 1989: 1-46. DAHL, O.C. Migration from Kalimantan to Madagascar, Norwegian University press, 1991. (Back to Text)

     [15] DAHL, O.C. op. cit. 1951, 1991. BERNARD-THIERRY, Solange. "A propos des emprunts sanskrits en malgache", Journal Asiatique, 1959: 311-348. (Back to Text)

     [16] On king Andrianampoinimerina and his works, cf. Tantara ny Andriana eto Madagascar, Antananarivo 1908. (Back to Text)

     [17] Cf. NAZIF, Mohamed. De val van het Rijk Merina. (La chute du Royaume de Merina), Buitenzorg (Bogor), 1928. TASRIF, S. Merina. Pasang surut Keradjaan Merina. Sedjarah sebuah negara jang didirikan oleh Perantau² Indonesia di Madagaskar. Jakarta : Balai Buku Media, 1966. (Back to Text)

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