In Madagascar, some among the older generations refer to it as the “tabataba” in Malagasy, the country’s national language, which means noise, or commotion, while others call it the “événements”, meaning the “events” in French, the second official language on the island. The euphemisms allude to an armed insurrection by the islanders, between March 1947 and the end of 1948, against France’s colonial rule, and which was brutally suppressed by a French army force of almost 20,000 soldiers.
The numbers of those who died during the violence – which included massacres (on both sides), torture and bombings – and from famine and disease among those who were displaced, varies according to different accounts, ranging from 30,000 to 89,000 (the latter was the initial estimate by the Union française, an official political organisation regrouping France and its colonies).
At the time, the total population of the Indian Ocean island, which lies off south-east Africa and which was ruled by France from 1896 until it was granted independence in 1960, numbered about 4 million.
The events are today little-known outside of Madagascar, even in France where this month a documentary film about the uprising, Fahavalo, directed by French-Madagascan filmmaker Marie-Clémence Andriamonta-Paes, began showing in cinemas. The first screenings are in Paris, before it moves to theatres in several cities around the country in March.
In her 90-minute documentary, Andriamonta-Paes tells the story of the insurrection through the accounts of those who lived through the events, including surviving rebels. “Fahavalo” means enemy in Malagasy, and was the word used to describe the independence fighters, in the sense of “enemies of the French”.
Until now, few of those who survived have had the opportunity to speak in detail about the period, even to their own families. “Those who were arrested for the crime of rebellion stayed a long time in prison, then were placed under house arrest for many years far from their homes,” said Andriamonta-Paes. “When they came back, ten or fifteen years had passed and people and their families had lived through other things in between times. This traumatised generation therefore didn’t find the opportunity give an account. By not talking, they no doubt also wanted to preserve their children from the suffering and shame they were subjected to.”
While a number of historians have chronicled the events, the authorities in both countries have largely avoided the subject; it was only in July 2005 when, during an official visit to Madagascar by then French President Jacques Chirac, that a degree of shame was finally acknowledged by France. During an official dinner with his Madagascan counterpart, Chirac referred to “the tragic events” of 1947-1948 and the “unacceptable character of the repression caused by the excesses of the colonial system”. In Madagascar, there have been few efforts to maintain a detailed memory of the insurrection, beyond a yearly national holiday, every March 29th, the date of the start of the events in 1947, and a museum in the east-central town of Moramanga, one of the early hotbeds of the uprising.
The former rebels tracked down and interviewed by Andriamonta-Paes mostly come from eastern Madagascar, a region of forests and high-lying plateaux which is delimited by two railway lines that branch out from the centrally located capital, Antananarivo. One of these leads due east, and then north, over some 350 kilometres to the coastal town of Toamasina, travelling through Moramanga on the way. The other heads south-east almost 600 kilometres, via Fianarantsoa, to the port of Manakara. Andriamonta-Paes says that one of the reasons why the rebellion was largely concentrated in this eastern pocket of the island is that, “It was a centre for forced labour which was above all used to build the railways, which were to transport the coffee and tapioca harvests of colonial plantations”. Meanwhile, the plantation workers were peasants who struggled with their modest salaries to pay taxes imposed by the colonial administration.
Almost 40,000 Madagascans were called up to serve in the French army in WWII, and there had been a vain hope, after the war, that the island would be given back its independence. “Many left, few came back, and those who did come back became our comrades in arms,” comments one former insurgent interviewed in Fahavalo. The returning demobilised troops, who had to wait until August 1946 to arrive back on their island, “were sent to the coffee plantations” recalls another veteran of the rebellion.
Late in 1945, three Madagascan politicians were elected to the French parliament’s lower house, the National Assembly, the first time the island was represented. The three, Jacques Rabemananjara, Joseph Raseta and Joseph Ravoahangy, were from the pro-independence party, le Mouvement démocratique de la rénovation malgache (MDRM), and lobbied to convince Paris to grant independence. But their efforts were dismissed and by 1947, the pro-independence movement had become hardened, with underground militant groups. The unrest spilled over into open revolt. “We were obliged to spill blood,” recounts a former insurgent in the film. “To send home the vazaha, who stole our land,” joins in another, using the Malagasy word for the white colonial settlers, who numbered more than 30,000.
A number of Madagascan WWII veterans became leaders of armed pro-independence groups. Their weapons were largely inadequate – often spears and agricultural tools – and they were outgunned by a French army which also had air support. The insurrection involved massacres committed by both sides. There were mass killings of Madagascans who had supported the colonial regime, and greater massacres, including of the civilian population, by the French army, whose numbers included Madagascan troops and units from other colonies such as Senegal. Along with carrying out mass executions and torture, the army burnt down entire villages, while many incidents of rape were reported.
“Those who weren’t afraid went to fight, those who were afraid said ‘I won’t go’ and looked for a hiding place,” recalls Bebe ny Dadoa, now aged 103, interviewed in the documentary. “The others, who were neither with the Whites nor with the rebels tried to find a third way.” Ny Dadoa recounted the many months he spent hiding in forestland to escape the violence and also the combing operations of the French army which, at the height of the fighting, counted 18,000 men. Thousands of Madagascans died from an ensuing famine, and others in internment camps.
By the summer of 1948 most of the leaders of the insurrection were either killed or captured, and by December the revolt was largely over. “We didn’t succeed in defeating them,” says a former rebel in Andriamonta-Paes’s film. “We had to accept their conditions.”
When the island finally became independent in June 1960, the country was ruled by an administration made up largely of those who had previously collaborated with the colonial powers.
The documentary, which includes musical extracts by the late Madagascan accordionist Régis Gizavo, presents many bitter and oppressing accounts of the violence and suffering of the rebellion. “The oral remembrance, the recollections of the elders, works in a circular or spiral manner,” says Andriamonta-Paes. “Things turn and return. We begin with what we know today, and travel backwards, towards the more profound. The more profound in this case is the beginning of the colonisation, why there was colonisation, how a tax system was created for that, and so on. With this construction, I wanted to attract another form of thought, to reach hearts and urge people to question themselves.”
While the elements of the past are delicately wound together in long threads, they finish by meeting the present day. For the land-grabbing from the island’s peasants during the colonial period, and which was one of the issues that fuelled the 1947 revolt, is being repeated today in a different form of land appropriation: over recent years, the government has granted numerous leases for the use of rural land, farmed by local peasants, for mining, industrial, agricultural, tourism and property development projects, many of them involving foreign companies and funding.
A 2005 law was introduced to allow peasants who had managed farmland, since independence, for decades, without certified ownership, to officially claim the land as their own, but many failed to do so. This was notably because the administrative offices that distribute the deeds are few and far between on the island, which is larger than the size of Spain.
“Madagascar is today living through a situation of extremely violent land appropriation,” says Andriamonta-Paes. “With the difference that it was, before, simpler to identify who was doing the grabbing. The interests concerned, often foreign, are now multiple, and it is difficult to know who owns what. But, like in the past, everything being done is detrimental to subsistence crops, to self-sufficiency of food. The result is that people are hungry, like in 1947.”
“It’s no accident that the film ends with the words of a former rebel, who comments, ‘They are completely mad to stop planting rice, what’s happening to them?’"
Fahavalo is showing in Paris every day until and including February 26th at the Espace Saint-Michel (7, Place St. Michel 75005), after which it will also be shown in theatres in Toulouse, Strasbourg, Nantes, Aix-en-Provence, Metz, Marseille and Lyon. More details are available here.
- The French version of this article can be found here.
English version by Graham Tearse