Madagascar – The Hovas And The Central Plateau

THE port of Tamatave where we now are is the chief gate to Madagascar. It is regularly visited by the steamers of several French shipping companies, and occasionally by boats from other parts of the world. At the extreme northern part of the island is the harbor of Diego-Suarez (de-a’go-swa’ras), and on the western side, the port of Majunga (ma-joon’ga), at the mouth of the Betsiboka River, from where we sail to Zanzibar after crossing the island.

Much of Madagascar is so wild and unexplored that the exact population is not known, although it is supposed to be about three or four millions. Along the coast, and north of where we are now, live the Betsimisarakas and other tribes ; on the west coast are the Sakalavas (sak-ala’vas), whose ancestors probably came across Mozambique Channel from Africa; while on the plateau to the south are the Baras and Betsileos, who are also of African descent.

The most important people are the Hovas, in the central part of the great plateau, who number at least one third of the whole population. They have brown skins and straight or wavy hair ; they look not unlike Malays, and are sup-posed to be the descendants of. Malays who emigrated to Madagascar centuries ago.

The Hovas were, for a long time, the ruling race of Madagascar. Their territory was large, and they administered it in a semicivilized way. They had their own monarchs, and held more or less intercourse with other nations of the world. Within the past few years, however, the French, who have long laid claim to Madagascar, have taken possession of the island and subdued the natives, making it a French colony. They have deposed and banished the queen of the Hovas, and have chosen the old Hova capital, Tananarivo (ta-na-na-re’vo), which is almost in the center of the island, as their seat of government.

We find French custom officials at Tamatave, and learn that there are French soldiers at all the ports, and that the French have an army to keep the country in order. Many of the soldiers are natives, who evidently feel very important as they march about with guns in their hands. They are dressed in zouave uniforms, and their black skins and bare feet stand out in strange contrast to their bright-colored clothing. They are said to be good soldiers, and we need have no fear in making a journey across Madagascar, by way of the capital, through the lands of the Hovas.

Tananarivo is about one hundred miles in a straight line from Tamatave, and the railroad to it runs some distance along the coast and then winds its way up the hills. We travel more slowly in order that we may study the country and people. We use pousse-pousse cars, little carriages not unlike the jinrikshas of Japan. Each carriage has three men to help it along, one in the shafts and two pushing behind. We start early in the morning and travel for miles along the edge of the sea, finding the salt air very refreshing.

As we leave Tamatave, we pass men and women coming into the city to market. They all carry umbrellas, and many of them look gay in their bright-colored clothing. There are cocoanut trees here and there along the road, and when we become tired, we sit down and drink the sweet water from the green nuts which our porters get by climbing the trees. Now and then we see other species of palms, and frequently the traveler’s palm. This is a tree like a great open fan. It has long leaves extending out on each side of its lean trunk. The stems of the leaves are hollow where they join the trunk, and they form troughs, as it were, in which the rain water collects in such quantities that one can always have a drink if he finds such a tree. We prefer, however, to quench our thirst from the water in the cocoanuts and from the many brooks we cross on the way.

We travel rapidly, now and then passing through a village of thatched huts, consisting of one long street shaded by mangoes, palms, and other trees. The huts are made of the traveler’s palm. The huts are made of the travellers leaves form the roof, and the walls are of the leaves sewed to a pole framework. The floor is made of the ribs of the leaves, and it is raised off the ground by a foundation of palm trunks.

The houses are rude. They have but little furniture, and the people usually sit and sleep on the floor. In one corner of each hut is a fireplace, a box filled with sand, with stones so laid upon it that they raise the pans and kettles up over the fire. The water buckets are bamboo logs such as we saw in the Philippines, the ordinary bucket being as big around as a man’s arm, and often eight feet in length.

We stay over night at such villages, hiring a hut or so for our party. We sleep on the floor, rolling up our coats for pillows, and spreading our traveling rugs on the rough mats to make our beds softer. Nevertheless, our sleep is not sound. The floors of the huts are several feet from the ground, and the fowls and dogs are kept under the houses. We hear the hens cackling and clucking; and the roosters crow long before morning. There are spiders and lizards crawling about, and we are charged to walk carefully in our bare feet lest we may step on a scorpion or other dangerous insect. The first part of the night the people chatter and sing in the neighboring houses and also outside in the streets. They stay up late, making up for lost sleep by resting at midday.

As we go farther inland and climb the hills to the plateau, we pass through forests. The trees are tall and bound together with creepers and vines. There are many tree ferns and beautiful orchids. The air grows cooler and more bracing as we rise.

We wind about up the hills through valleys covered with rice fields, now crossing a stream, and now climbing places so steep that our human horses ask us to get out of the carriages and walk.

At last we are through the forest and on the plateau. We travel over rolling prairies covered with grass upon which humped cattle are feeding. We pass many small farms where men are plowing with humped oxen, four oxen often being hitched to one plow. We finally come to a hill where we have our first view of Tananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. The city is situated almost a mile above sea level in the heart of this mighty plateau. It is built upon the top and sides of a ridge that is about a mile and a half long, and nearly five hundred feet high. The country is covered with rice fields, with rich pastures upon which cattle are feeding, and with corn and other crops. There are many villages scattered over it, and away off in the distance is Tananarivo on its mighty hill.

We show some money to our pousse-pousse men, and tell them to hurry. They go on the trot, running so fast that the perspiration stands out upon their black skins. As we come nearer, the town takes on a reddish tint. Many of its houses are of red brick and red stucco, which give it a rose color under the strong rays of this far southern, sun.

At last we reach the edge of the hill and cross the wide drive which has been made about it. We wind our way up through one narrow street after another, finding the city less beautiful at closer view than it was in the distance. Most of the streets are narrow with innumerable alleys crossing them in every direction. Many of the houses have mud walls about them; there are frequent gulleys, and all together the town looks exceedingly rough.

And still Tananarivo is a great city for this far-away island. It has all together about one hundred thousand people; it has many comfortable two-storied houses with porches and galleries about them, and some fine public buildings. We visit the old palace of the queen, a great stone structure with galleries on all sides of it, and then go to the palace of the French governor general and several other government buildings. We visit the schools and spend some time in the churches, learning that most of the people are Christians, and that missionaries have long been at work among them.

Friday is the great market day when the natives come in from all parts of the country to buy and sell. We go to the market place at that time. It is filled with strange-looking people among whom are some of the uncivilized blacks, the Baras and Betsileos from the south. The wares are of every description, including beautiful silks and cot-tons woven in Madagascar, native pottery, and all sorts of food and grains. There are most delicious pineapples, bananas, and oranges, and bushels of peanuts quite as good as those we have at home.

In one part of the market cattle are sold, and in another hides. We learn that hides are among the chief exports of Madagascar, and that some are shipped from here to the United States. We see the queer-looking natives hand-ling the skins, and wonder as we do so whether parts of our shoes may not have scampered over this great plateau on the back of a humped cow like the ones now offered for sale.

The workings of commerce are such that we can hardly tell from what strange parts of the world come the things we eat and wear. In Reunion we saw the vanilla which flavors our ice cream and soda water, in Sumatra we tasted the pepper which seasons our food, and in Australia watched men shearing the wool which may possibly form our clothes for next winter. If this leather under our feet could talk, it might tell tales of the soil we are tramping just now ; it might sing a song of a South American republic, or possibly describe how it covered a tenderloin steak which once galloped over a Texas prairie with a cowboy behind it. If all things about us could talk, we should not need to travel to learn how strange the world is.