Madagascar – The East Coast

IT is almost four hundred miles from St. Denis to Tamatave. The voyage takes about two days on our slow-going steamer, and it is early morning when the cabin boy tells us to get up, for we are in sight of Madagascar. We jump from our beds and look out of the portholes. Our vessel is sailing along a low coast, densely wooded, and backed by high mountains covered with green and half hidden in low-hanging clouds. That coast is a part of Madagascar, an island almost as long as Sumatra and of the same general shape, although wider.

Madagascar consists of two great natural divisions : an interior plateau rising several thousand feet above the sea, with mountain peaks, some of which are almost two miles in height, extending above it; and a comparatively level country surrounding the highlands and sloping down to the sea. The interior plateau, owing to its altitude, has a good climate ; but the low coast lands are unhealthy and malarious. They are bordered with a dense belt of forest which extends far up the slopes of the plateau; and upon the plateau itself are rolling prairies covered with grass and spotted with farms. The island is rich. Its soil is fertile, and its mountains have deposits of gold, copper, iron, sulphur, and lead.

We are now about halfway down the eastern coast, approaching Tamatave, its principal port. Now our steamer turns and moves slowly in toward the shore. We pass through an opening in the coral reef, and come to anchor at a long pier in an excellent harbor before a town unlike any we have yet seen.

There are cocoanut, mango, and bamboo trees close to the beach, and back of it is a city of one-storied and two-storied, bright-colored houses, with a church tower or steeple here and there rising above it. Off at one side are many thatched huts, the homes of the natives, and behind are cultivated lands extending to the hills. The town is low and sandy, and right on the beach.

Boats rowed by black-skinned men with white sheets wrapped around them come out to the steamer and take us ashore. As we land, other white-gowned men lay hold of our baggage, and carry it upon their shoulders or their heads up the sandy road to the hotel. The way is well shaded ; it is lined with little peaked roofed houses with gardens about them.

The street is crowded, and we move in and out of a throng of whites, yellows, browns, and blacks, all curiously clad. The whites are the French and other Europeans who live here to do business or take part in the government ; some of the yellows are East Indians engaged in trade ; and the browns and blacks are natives of Madagascar, some from the interior and some from along the coast.

How odd they look ! Many have woolly hair and black skins, and are almost negroes in features, while others are brown, and more like the Malays or East Indians. The blacks are Betsimisarakas (bet-sim-is-a-ra’kas), a tribe found along the east coast; the others are Hovas, a more civilized people who live on the plateau which forms the most of the interior, and of whom we shall see more later on.

Notice how the natives are dressed. The men wear great straw hats, and they have white cotton cloths draped about their dark bodies, leaving the legs and feet bare. The women wear high-waisted gowns of bright-colored calicoes, which make them look tall. They are straight, and some are by no means bad looking. How their hair shines! They wear no hats, and their hair is put up in little braids which stand out all over their heads, or are fastened together with string. They grease the hair with cocoanut oil, the rancid odor of which is borne by the wind to our nostrils. See their bare feet! That wide space between the first and second toes comes from wearing sandals.

Some of the people are squatting on the streets chatting; others are moving to and fro carrying burdens. There comes a porter bringing hides to the steamer. The hides are hung upon a pole which rests on his shoulders. Be-side him walks a poor woman with a water jar on her head and some roots in her hand. Both stop as we pass them.

See that woman coming down street high up between poles on the shoulders of men ! She is a Hova woman, riding in a filanzana, the cab or carriage of Madagascar. The filanzana is merely a seat with a leather back, and a rest for the feet, swung between two long poles, and fastened to them by bars of iron. The poles are borne by men, two in front and two behind, who thus carry travelers through the streets and over the country. Until very recently there have been no wagon roads, and it is in filanzanas that we shall travel through some parts of the interior.