Social Disorder, Witchcraft and Murder in Madagascar: cultural legacies and an uncertain future

Madagascar made a rare, albeit unwanted, appearance in international newspapers today with the news that two European men were burnt to death accused of trafficking children’s organs for witchcraft rituals.

An isolated island in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of South Africa, Madagascar is better known for its lemurs and other endemic fauna than any of its people. Yet this incident brings to light some of the issues facing Malagasy society in the lead-up to a crucial general election and how ancient traditions continue to dictate ways of life in the impoverished nation.

Diogo Dias, brother of the more famous Bartolomeu, was the first European mariner to set foot on Madagascar, in the year 1500. Hoping to establish a series of trading posts for the fledgling Carreira da India – the treacherous journey from Europe to India around the Cape of Good Hope – Dias was frustrated in his attempts.

Subsequent ventures by other Portuguese and, later French, traders to establish waystations on Madagascar floundered. The country remained devoid of significant European colonization and thus its people retained many of their traditional cultural practices. This included witch-doctors (ombiasi) and shamans who were thought to play a crucial part in staving off evil spirits and other forms of devilry thought to be rife amongst ‘outsiders’.

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, Madagascar was a haven for piracy. Arabic corsairs, in particular, raided the East African spice and slave markets, operating out of Madagascar, and the unruly reputation of the island further discouraged European colonization. Simultaneously, it encouraged a closer relationship between Madagascar’s rural poor and their spiritual guides, convinced as they were of the practice of witchcraft and sorcery by the foreign intruders.

Madagascar's geography and lack of European colonial rule encouraged pirates to settle its coasts
Madagascar’s geography and lack of European colonial rule encouraged pirates to settle its coasts

It was only in the 19th century that the Malagasy came under the control of an indigenous kingdom. The Merina Kingdom had been in existence since the 16th century but only really achieved centralised control in the 1800s. The new royal family, monopolising the national wealth, sought to eradicate vestiges of witchcraft from the island and initiated a purge of all suspected witches.

Dubious enough as this persecution was, it was given legitimacy by the ruling elite who claimed that mosavy – a mystical force of evil – was harming society and preventing its development. In reality, preying on traditional beliefs in this way was a way for the elite to rid themselves of undesirable elements of society and weaken the dependence of the rural poor on their ombiasi and instead pledge allegiance to the crown.

Finally, in 1897, Madagascar became a European colony as the French took over following the brutal Hova War (1883-1896). This occupation was detestable to the Malagasy which had for so long avoided direct colonization. Unsurprisingly, the French did not react well to the traditional ombiasi and when many were imprisoned as the Europeans sought to impose Christianity.

In keeping with the times, the Hova Wars were portrayed as a heroic venture by the French
In keeping with the times, the Hova Wars were portrayed as a heroic venture by the French

Even so, fears of witchcraft persisted. Writing in 1947, Mary Danielli described how Malagasy villagers told her that “one or more witches would run dementedly to and fro…knocking haphazardly on doors” when a person was nearing death.

French rule finally ended in 1958, by which time the white Europeans themselves had become associated with witchcraft and devilry, whose existence was embedded in Malagasy cultural thinking.

This psychology persists to an extent today for there is a great mistrust of the outsider in Madagascar, which remains fiercely isolated at the expense of social development. Troubles have been more acute since the 2009 political crisis, when Andry Nirina Rajoelina ousted President Marc Ravalomanana. Opposing factions of supporters have fought each other ever since, with the general population suffering the consequences.

Not all witchcraft is evil to the Malagasy, many of whom continue to engage in pagan acts such as the Famadihana – ancestral bone turning – ceremony. In times of crisis, people increasingly resort to familiar cultural practices and outsiders become associated with national ills.

The Famadihana festival remains an important cultural tradition in rural Madagascar
The Famadihana festival remains an important cultural tradition in rural Madagascar

In a nation with a comparatively short colonial history, age-old traditions are yet to be eradicated and acts of violence brutally out of touch with the modern world (such as the burning of the European men) are considered wholly justifiable based on historical principle.


Different Stages of Progress: Munitions Policy as an Indicator of Development

Every nation is concerned with development, that phenomenon measuring the progress of a state. Whilst it is clear that global states are at separate stages of development, we often express this notion through studying their comparative political and economic systems. Yet examining a state’s policy towards the production, storage and use of munitions also points to differing stages of progress.

Chemical Weapons

The first widespread use of chemical weapons came during World War One. Poison gas had been used experimentally during 19th century warfare and this had led to the Hague Convention of 1907 which forbade its use.

This did not stop the German use of mustard gas, phosgene and other blistering agents which had such a devastating affect on the troops of the Entente powers during the early stages of WWI, herded as they were into almost inescapable trenches. The British and French eventually retaliated with their own chemical attacks on the Germans and by the end of the war it was no secret what horrific injuries this ‘new’ form of warfare could provoke.

Mustard gas blown across the Western Front during WWI
Mustard gas blown across the Western Front during WWI

The experiences of the nations involved with chemical weapons during the trench warfare of WWI prevented them from repeating their use during WWII. Even Hitler, unconcerned with gassing Jews and other ‘undesirables’ in his concentration camps, held back from using chemical weapons. After all, he had served on the front line during WWI and knew the potential ramifications of an Allied retaliation should the Wehrmacht engage in chemical warfare.

Japanese forces, meanwhile, were prolific in their use of chemical weapons against the Chinese both in the lead-up to and during WWII. Having not yet experienced first hand the affects of chemical warfare, there were less reservations amongst the Imperial Army command about its use.

The Japanese, whilst a rapidly modernising nation, had yet to reach the economic and political development experienced by the Western European powers and the USA, and their later use of chemical weapons partly reflects this.

Three of a reputed 700,000 chemical munitions left in China by Japanese forces
Three of a reputed 700,000 chemical munitions left in China by Japanese forces

Similarly, post-WWII examples of chemical warfare employed by Iraq during the Gulf War, and recently by the Syrian Army, are partly a result of these nations stunted development in comparison to the Western world. These are states which were introduced relatively late to modern warfare because of their lack of economic power and technological expertise, with citizens’ only previous experience having come in the armies of colonial powers.

Their employment of such munitions, whilst unforgivable, is understandable given historical precedent.

Locations of Munitions Factories and Depots

One of the most notorious disasters in the history of London occurred on the 19th January 1917 when the TNT factory at Silvertown exploded, killing 73 people and injuring over 400. Most notable was the high percentage of civilian deaths, for the explosives factory was in the heartland of East London, surrounded by terraced housing in one of the country’s most densely populated areas.

Devastation at Silvertown
Devastation at Silvertown

Similar tragedies occurred at Low Moor, Bradford in August 1916 (38 dead) and Ashton-under-Lyne in June 1917 (43 dead). The high death tolls were a direct result of the government policy of converting city centre factories for the production of explosives and munitions.

By WWII, such policies were already outdated and the British government made a point of building ordnance factories at purpose-built sites away from civilian habitation. Disasters still occurred, of course, but casualties were largely restricted to factory employees.

Compare this policy change to the munitions disasters that have occurred in African cities since the turn of the century. In January 2002, high explosives were accidentally detonated at an armament depot in Lagos, Nigeria. The huge blast and subsequent fires killed some 1,100 people.

In March 2007, 93 people were killed when an explosion at an arms depot in central Maputo, Mozambique’s capital, destroyed surrounding houses.

More recently, in March 2012, a series of blasts at arms dumps in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, killed at least 200 and sent debris across the Congo River into Kinshasa.


Indigenous experience counts. No matter what has happened elsewhere in the world, government policy and social norms rarely change without an event occurring specifically within that country.

That we can still be having munitions factories in the centre of capital cities, nearly a century after Silvertown, seems astonishing, yet it is a further indicator of delayed development.

It is for this reason that so-called developed nations should avoid moralising and dictating terms to the developing world. As with political and economic development, the path to progress is a slow and turbulent one. Sometimes it requires tragedy for that progress to be made.