In the real world, the Kingdom of Imerina was a state which grew from the central highlands of Madagascar to encompass the entire island. It was occupied by France following the Franco-Hova Wars and was annexed outright in 1897. This alternate universe concerns a world where independence was retained into the modern era. The point of difference occurs in 1863. The alleged regicide of Radama II is avoided and the French diplomat Joseph-François Lambert is murdered in his place. I intend to start drawing ships from this period and slowly progress to the present, with other scales appearing from time to time. This alternate universe is not meant to be entirely realistic, but I do hope to avoid exceptionally outlandish scenarios.
Hery class torpedo boat (1871)
Antananarivo class monitor (1876)
Ant class gunboat (1870/1883)
Andevo, tug (1867/1879)
Alasora class cruiser (1896)
The Death of Ranavalona and the Fall of Radama II (1861 - 1863)
- 1861: Following the death of his authoritarian mother, Prince Rakotosehenondradama ascends the throne as Radama II. The influence exerted by foreign advisors on the new monarch immediately sours his relationship with the nobility. Of particular concern is the French diplomat and entrepreneur Joseph-François Lambert. The so-called ‘Lambert Charter’, signed by Radama in 1855, grants Lambert the exclusive right to exploit all mineral, land, and forestry resources in the kingdom. The monarchy is to receive a meager ten percent royalty in return. The charter threatens to undermine the economic independence of Imerina, and nobility's exclusion from the agreement does little to quell opposition.
- 1863: Tensions between the Radama II and the nobility reach their breaking point. An insurrection led by prime minister Rainivoninahitriniony storms the royal palace and imprisons the monarch. A number of loyal advisors are also arrested. Lambert's own residence is assaulted by a smaller force and he is killed in the ensuing chaos. Word of his death slowly spreads to France. Radama is spared the fate of Lambert. He is, however, forced to sign an agreement with the nobility. He is to possess absolute authority no longer, with greater responsibility afforded to nobles. The controversial Lambert Charter is declared null and void, and the leaders of the insurrection are declared heroes of the kingdom.
- 1865: In response to the murder of Lambert, the French government dispatches a force of 800 men to Madagascar. Moving by river, the punitive expedition reaches the capital at Antananarivo. It is repulsed by a larger force led by Rainivoninahitriniony's brother, Rainilaiarivony. Lacking the mobility and naval support of the French, Rainilaiarivony allows the expedition to withdraw. A peace settlement is soon reached. Imerina is forced to recognise the Lambert Charter. However, in doing so, it stresses that the agreement applied to Lambert alone. It also agrees to pay reparations to the French administration in Hell-Ville. This covers the cost of the expedition and incurs an additional fee for the murder of Lambert. The expedition leads to the emergence of a debate among the nobility. Some feel that Imerina should modernise on its own terms, while others call for the protection of old traditions. Those favouring the former reconcile with Radama. Rainilaiarivony, in contrast to his borther, is among them.
- 1871: With the support of Radama II, Rainilaiarivony purchases four spar torpedo boats from the Great Britain. These vessels form the foundation of the future Royal Merina Navy. It is hoped that the torpedo boat threat might discourage future French expeditions, and the acquisition of more warships is planned in the future. This coincides with modernisation and reorganisation of the land forces. However, funding limitations restrict the extent of this programme. Only the most experienced and loyal troops will receive the latest weapons. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Merina industry remains quaint by European standards. It must, therefore, depend on Europe for much of its materiel.
- 1874: Prime minister Rainivoninahitriniony attempts to force the hand of the monarch a second time after Radama II calls for the abolition of slavery. In a public meeting, Rainivoninahitriniony orders the monarch to protect in the existing caste system. Instead of backing down, Radama rebukes Rainivoninahitriniony and forces his resignation. This allows Rainilaiarivony to ascend to the post of prime minister. He supports modernisation, but his victory over the French makes him popular with both factions. The issue remains contentious, however, and Radama concedes to the wishes of the conservative faction. Slavery remains an integral component of the caste system, and will not be abolished until 1888.
- 1876: Two monitors are ordered from Great Britain to supplement the four spar torpedo boats acquired five years earlier. They are named Antananarivo and Ambohimanga after the political and spiritual capitals of the nation. A small boat yard is also established in Toamasina. This will, in time, build new torpedo boats with engines and weapons imported from Great Britain. It is an experiment originating from the mind of Rainilaiarivony. The construction and initial cost of the yard will be covered by the monarchy. It will then be transferred to a member of the nobility, who will continue to run the enterprise. The yard is not the first sign of modern industry in Imerina. Several European factories exist. However, Rainilaiarivony hopes that it may present a Merina-controlled model for future endeavours.
- 1879: Using the yard in Toamasina as a model, Rainilaiarivony embarks on an industrialisation programme. Factories are created with government support and passed to members of the nobility. Imerina manufacturing cannot compete with that of Europe, but it can meet local needs in critical areas while excess material is exported across the globe. A disproportionate number of conservatives benefit from this scheme, leading to discontent among the modernists. This forces Rainilaiarivony to abandon another plan which would establish public education throughout the kingdom. With support from Radama II, he is able to secure the tax reforms necessary to support the industrial programme. However, many nobles opposing the reform find ways to circumvent the new system.
- 1887: Citing the Lambert Charter as justification, France invades the Kingdom of Imerina for a second time. However, this is no mere punitive expedition. France aims to overthrow the government and annex all of Madagascar. The invasion begins in January with the bombardment of Toamasina. Five torpedo boats attack the French fleet in broad daylight, but three are lost in return for a single sloop. The port is soon occupied by a force of 1,000 men. A second force occupies Mahajanga in February, but soon finds itself surrounded by three times as many Merina troops. The monitors Antananarivo and Ambohimanga succeed in scattering the now reduced French naval presence at Toamasina that same month. In April, Merina forces converging on the two occupied ports are forced to diverted north to suppress a Boina uprising. A number of other smaller uprisings also occur. This allows the French force at Mahajanga, reinforced with an additional 13,000 men in June, to break out with relative ease before the start of July. A night attack by torpedo boats and gunboats against the French fleet at Mahajanga inflicts heavier losses than expected, but does little to stem the tide. A second attack four days later, supported by monitors, fails badly. The Royal Merina Navy largely withdraws from the conflict. The French advance stalls in September against fortifications at Andriba. A French column is sent ahead to capture Antananarivo, but is intercepted by Merina troops preparing to march on Toamasina. Heavy losses are sustained near the outskirts of the capital, but victory is achieved. Troops are withdrawn from Andriba immediately thereafter, allowing the French to capture the town. In October, the main French force is stalled a second time along a defensive line 20 kilometres northwest of Antananarivo. However, heavy losses are once again sustained by the forces of Imerina. Defeat is only avoided when troops returning from the northern rebellions harass the French supply line. This forces their withdrawal to Ankazobe.
- 1888: The French invasion force is reinforced by 4,000 men in early January. Though insufficient to replace those men lost to combat and disease, it does provide security to French lines of communication. An assault on Antananarivo scheduled that month is postponed by rain. Indeed, the rainy season has delayed French efforts since November. In February, the French garrison at Toamasina is routed by a force of Merina troops. The attack is supported by Ambohimanga. It is the first contribution by the Royal Merina Navy in several months. Despite this victory, the government of Imerina calls upon Great Britain to restore peace. Though additional manpower is available, the loss of experienced troops and material over the course of the war has seriously weakened the Merina army. While the Kingdom might hold off a second attack on its capital, it no longer possesses the ability to push the French back. A peace agreement is signed in March. Known as the Treaty of Tolagnaro, this document cedes part of Mahajanga to Britain and the coast around Nosy Be to France. In return for British protection, Imerina also agrees to emancipate the Andevo people and to offer British citizens an opportunity to purchase resource extraction rights before all other foreigners. A final clause, unknown to the French, is included. If any British colony in southern Africa is attacked by another European power, Imerina agrees to provide military support.
- 1890: The emancipation of the Andevo is not well received among conservative members of the nobility. A small force attempts to seize Radama II in August. Hoping to repeat the success achieved in 1863, they are instead routed by an elite guard dispatched by Rainilaiarivony. The prime minister’s efforts are not, however, enough to avert civil war. Drawing support from disaffected conservatives and those elements which rebelled in the war against France, the rebel faction raises an army of 10,000 men in the north and west. The forces of the government suffer greatly from desertion and are hard-pressed to contain the rebellion. Fortunately, the rebels lack the logistical expertise and manpower to support large-scale inland operations. This provides the capital, Antananarivo, with a degree of protection.
- 1891: The tide turns against the conservative faction in February during their assault on Mahajanga, one of the few large towns on the western coast still under government control. An artillery battery accidentally shells HMS Icarus while it is taking on coal in the British concession. The ship and a detachment of Royal Marines join loyalist forces in defence of the town. Rainilaiarivony had not requested military aid from Britain, fearing that it would weaken his own country’s position. Britain now had a reason to intervene without any formal request from Radama II. Rainilaiarivony directs his men to move westward and northward from the interior, severing lines of communication and isolating rebel forces at key points. Once isolated, they can be defeated in detail. This campaign is supported by British landings along the coast. The Royal Merina Navy, still weakened from the war with France, provides what little firepower it can. The last of the rebels surrender in November, leaving the modernists in control of the nation.
- 1896: Rainilaiarivony dies of fever at the age of 68. His death has a profound impact on Radama II, who subsequently retreats from public life. Rakatoarilova, a student of Rainilaiarivony, is appointed prime minister. With the conservative faction still recovering, the new government introduces a wave of reform. Most of this effort is directed at flaws in earlier reforms introduced by Rainilaiarivony. Removing loopholes in existing tax legislation is of particular importance. However, some of the more controversial measures which were not implemented in Rainilaiarivony's tenure, such as public education, are now pursued. Unfortunately, the rebuilding of the armed forces limits the extent of more costly development programmes which do not offer long-term financial benefit.
On the 16th of August 1861, Queen Ranavalona of Imerina died in her sleep. Her 33-year reign was one of triumph and failure. Following in the footsteps of her predecessor, she had sought to industrial key sectors of the economy. Royal foundries produced artillery, muskets, and gunpowder for a time. However, a mill explosion in 1853 severely restricted the availability of domestic gunpowder. The expulsion of the Jean Laborde, a French industrialist, in 1857 brought artillery production to a halt. Other industrial enterprises were severely hampered by the lack of domestic market. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that widespread use of forced labour reduced the amount of capital flowing from new industries to the general population. Ranavalona succeeded in expanding the European-influenced army into a force of nearly 100,000 men at its peak. However, the cost of this force and constant war imposed extreme financial strain on the nation. Her administrative council and a network of regional governors facilitated centralisation and domination, but Ranavalona’s suppression of Christianity undermined the schools which made such bureaucracy possible. Upon her death, Imerina controlled two-thirds of Madagascar. Only remote areas of the northwest and south were independent. Administration was not, however, uniform. Large rural areas were administered indirectly, with local leaders retaining much power. Other regions were nominally independent, retaining autonomy in law only. The island of Nosy Be, off the northwestern coast, had been under French control since 1840.
Prince Rakoto, the son of Queen Ranavalona, succeeded his mother. He was crowned king on the 23rd of September 1862, by which time he had adopted the name Radama II. He was fascinated with European innovation and reversed many of the protectionist policies enacted by his mother. Treaties of friendship were established with Great Britain and France. Other agreements soon eliminated the trade barriers which had prevented the complete collapse of domestic demand. These actions soon placed Radama at odds with the andriana, Imerina’s noble class. Many did not appreciate the growing influence of European diplomats and businessmen, while others felt that the monarchy was hoarding revenue. The Lambert Charter was of particular concern. During his mother’s reign, Radama had granted French entrepenuer Joseph-François Lambert extensive resource rights. Lambert later claimed that he was entitled to all mineral, forest, and unoccupied land resources in Imerina. Radama’s decision to replace older members of the administrative council with his friends did not help matters.
Tensions between Radama II and the andriana reached their breaking point in May 1863. Acting on the orders of prime minister Rainivoninahitriniony, a group of armed insurrectionists stormed the royal palace at Antananarivo on the 12th and imprisoned the monarch. Three members of the administrative council appointed by Radama were killed, while others were placed under arrest. Elsewhere in the kingdom, Lambert’s own residence was assaulted. Rainivoninahitriniony had requested Lambert’s capture, fearing that his death would lead to French reprisals, but he did not survive the ensuing chaos. On the 15th, an agreement was reached between Radama and his captors. Radama was allowed to retain his crown. However, the administrative council no longer served at the behest of the monarch. It now possessed power in its own right and could enact laws with the approval of the king. Furthermore, the controversial Lambert Charter was declared null and void. The imprisoned members of the administrative council were branded as traitors and most were poisoned during trials by ordeal. Rainivoninahitriniony and his allies were declared heroes. According to the government statements that followed, they had protected Radama from a European plot to overthrow the monarchy and conquer Imerina.
The French Punitive Expedition (1863 - 1864)
Word of Lambert’s death soon spread to Nosy Be. The governor of the island dispatched a sloop to Egypt. The captain of the vessel sent a telegram to the French government in July 1863 from the port of Suez. It detailed the events of May and requested further instructions. Most officials demanded compensation for the death of Lambert and the transferral of his concessions to other French interests. The means of achieving such an outcome was in question. Édouard Drouyn de Lhuys, the French foreign minister, called for a limited show of force. He believed that the occupation of one or two important ports would bring Imerina to the negotiating table. It would severe the kingdom’s link to foreign gunpowder and artillery, severely restricting their ability to wage war. Napoleon III, however, desired the installation of a new monarch. Such a move would place Imerina in the French sphere and provide a foundation for future imperial ambitions in Madagascar. As the Emperor of the French, Napoleon was able to overrule his foreign minister and ordered the formation of a punitive expedition in September.
The expedition could not be large. One-sixth of the French army was already fighting in Mexico and few ships could be spared. From February 1864, France also had to keep an eye on Prussian ambitions in the Second Schleswig War. However, French commanders had little faith in the fighting value of the Merina soldier. He was armed with an obsolete musket, was not part of a standing force, and lacked a logistical train. Artillery was a concern, but Imerina lacked roads. If a battle did occur, most believed that only one or two guns could be brought to bear. A force of 600 men departed France in November 1863. They docked at Hell-Ville on the southern coast of Nosy Be in late February. They were joined by 300 men gathered from various French colonial possessions in the region. The invasion force, embarked on a flotilla of ships led by the frigate Didon
, departed Hell-Ville on the 1st of March. Their objective was to capture the port of Mahajanga, journey along the Betsiboka and Ikopa rivers by boat, and assault the capital at Antananarivo.
A fisherman spotted the French fleet of Mahajanga on the evening of the 3rd. After being informed, the local governor dispatched a messenger to Antananarivo. Didon commenced firing on the town the following morning. The bombardment, lasting 30 minutes, was a show of force. There was no standing military presence in the town, nor were there any fortifications to be destroyed. A contingent of 50 marines landed and marched on the residence of the governor. In less than two hours, Mahajanga was under French control. As the rest of the French force landed, small bands of men began departing the town without their families. French officers soon noticed the strange behaviour and established a cordon. These men were enlisted in the Merina army and had been ordered to leave by the governor before his surrender. There were reports of looting and rape, but the lack of combat appears to have limited the extent of these acts.
News of the French expedition reached Antananarivo on the 6th. Radama met with his council that same day, but no action was taken. The King wished to negotiate with the leader of the French expedition, believing the invasion to be a misunderstanding. The council was not interested in negotiating and called for the raising of an army. However, two of its members were absent and the council refused to approve any decision until it was represented as a whole. Thus, the mobilisation of the Merina army was not ordered until the 14th. Radama used this time to convince his council that a defensive strategy was desirable. If the invasion was a misunderstanding, it would not be inflamed by aggressive action. It would also limit the damage sustained by the Merina army and reduce the likelihood of a decisive defeat. This fact had been pressed by Rainilaiarivony, prime minister Rainivoninahitriniony’s brother, quelling calls for offensive action against Mahajanga itself.
The French expedition, meanwhile, had not been idle. 400 French troops occupied Mahajanga as the rest of the force moved toward the Merina capital by boat. When Radama ordered the raising of an army in Antananarivo, French parties were already camped in the town of Antanimbary more than 200 kilometres upriver. Fortunately for Imerina, progress was slow. Supplies could not be moved in large quantities, boats had to be carried across shallow stretches of water, and malaria was already affecting some of the men. Imerina had no standing army. While it could theoretically raise a force of 30,000 men, doing so took time. These delays were immensely valuable Rainilaiarivony, who had been selected to lead whatever could be gathered. The bands of men who had left Mahajanga were questioned about the size and composition of the French expedition upon their arrival in the capital, but their testimony had little value. Rainilaiarivony was able to ascertain that the French had few artillery pieces, if any. Using this information, he chose to make his stand on a tall ridge 18 kilometres to the west of the capital. It overlooked a bend in the river and would prove to be an excellent location for his own artillery, which was admittedly limited too. It would also allow him to move his forces rapidly onto neighbouring hills if the French chose to traverse the last leg of the journey over land.
The army of Imerina met the expedition of France on the 2nd of April. The French force had dwindled to 400 men, some of whom were in questionable health. Four guns accompanied them. Rainilaiarivony had successfully gathered 3000 men and six guns. The bulk of this force was camped behind the ridge, but smoke from their fires could be seen for miles. The French commander, unaware of Imerina’s artillery, believed he could goad Rainilaiarivony into a costly assault across the Ikopa River. Considering the size of his force, it was an opportunity he could not ignore. He ordered his guns into position. From a small ridge on the bank opposite Rainilaiarivony’s commanding position, they overlooked a shallow stretch of the river used by locals as a ford. They commenced firing at around 13:00, targeting the Merina troops visible on the near side of the larger ridge. Meanwhile, the French infantry formed into an extended line along their side of the river. Rainilaiarivony replied to the French guns with four of his own, choosing two keep two concealed. The fire was slow and sporadic, so as to conserve ammunition, but it was enough to significantly reduce the effectiveness of the French bombardment. He would not be forced to cross the river in a desperate effort to silence the French guns.
The French commander was surprised by the presence of artillery in Merina hands, but he was undeterred. His forces still possessed an arms advantage. He ordered his men along the river bank to open fire. Their Minié rifles could shoot farther than the muskets possessed by Imerina, allowing them to supplement the ineffective artillery. Rainilaiarivony, standing atop his ridge, was shocked when a subordinate standing nearby was killed in one of the first volleys. He had to act or abandon his position. The Merina artillery crews intensified their fire at 13:40 as two thousand men marched down to the river. Rainilaiarivony was among them and observed the futility of the assault. Swarms were cut down on the approach. This was to be expected, but order was breaking down rapidly. When the attackers reached the river, Rainilaiarivony ordered half his men to suppress the French infantry while the other half crossed. Few were willing to cross in the face of intensifying French fire and coordination was non-existent. At around 14:00, Rainilaiarivony ordered his men to withdraw.
The guns of Imerina ceased firing. The crews were panicked by the infantry’s failure and chose to flee the field. A large portion of the one thousand men held in reserve, watching from the ridge, did the same. The French commander, emboldened by his success, ordered his infantry to pursue the enemy. Stragglers on the Merina side soon found themselves at the end of a French bayonet. In the chaos, total defeat seemed imminent. While withdrawing from the river, Rainilaiarivony convinced some of his men to form a line atop the ridge. Joined by around 300 men of the reserve, Rainilaiarivony was able to regain control of around 600 men. The rest scattered into the countryside, leaving muskets and ammunition in their wake. Observing the formation of a new line, an officer in the French infantry ordered his men to charge the ridge. He was soon accompanied by the rest of the pursuing force. Despite his best efforts to raise morale, Rainilaiarivony’s remaining force was shrinking as the French moved in for the kill. When the French closed to within 300 metres of the Merina line, the two remaining Merina guns opened fire from their concealed positions in enfilade. Round shot and grapeshot bounced along the French ranks, imparting heavy casualties. The ensuing confusion shattered the attacker's spirit and they fled as Rainilaiarivony counter-charged with his remaining men.
By 14:30, the battle was over. The smaller French force had endured too many casualties in its final charge and was forced to leave the field. Rainilaiarivony remained on the ridge and chose not the pursue. His own force had barely survived the battle. Nonetheless, he had achieved victory. The French punitive expedition was broken and in full retreat. With little medical care available, many of the wounded French soldiers perished. Disease, once a concern, was now a plague which spread like wildfire. Fewer than a 150 remained when the force arrived at Mahajanga on the 28th of April. A sloop was dispatched at once to Nosy Be requesting further orders. The remnants of the expedition sought to hold the town until reinforcements arrived or a formal order to evacuate Imerina was received. A force of 5000 soldiers under the command of Rainilaiarivony surrounded Mahajanga on the 15th of May, but did not attack. Rainilaiarivony had nothing to counter the French warships in the harbour and Radama, personally accompanying the army, wanted peace.
Radama met with the French commander the following day, only to be informed that the officer had no power to negotiate. The Merina monarch would have to wait for the return of the sloop dispatched earlier. The ship in question had been sent on by the governor of Nosy Be to Egypt, where its captain could apprise the French government of the situation. It returned to Mahajanga on the 23rd of June with the governor of Nosy Be on board. He had been instructed to act as a negotiator on behalf of Napoleon III, who wished to erase the failure of the punitive expedition before it could tarnish the war in Mexico. Prime minister Rainivoninahitriniony had, by then, also arrived to represent the administrative council and rein in Radama. Imerina agreed to recognise the validity of the Lambert Charter. However, in doing so, it stressed that the agreement only applied to Lambert and not the French nation. Radama initially favoured recognising the Charter in full, hoping that it would bring industry to Imerina, but Rainivoninahitriniony forced him to back down. Imerina also agreed to cover the cost of the expedition and pay reparations for the murder of Lambert. These terms were codified in the Treaty of Mahajanga on the 1st of July, formally ending the conflict.
Peace, Conquest, and Modernisation (1864 - 1887)
Following the French expedition, two schools of though developed among members of the Merina nobility. Some felt that Imerina should modernise on its own terms. France, or another European power, would return sooner or later. If Imerina was to achieve victory in future conflicts, industrialisation and political reform would provide the requisite tools. Others felt that the traditions of Imerina, including the status of the nobility and the existing caste system, required protection. They viewed European influence as a cancer to be excise. Radama and Rainilaiarivony fell into the former group and were known as modernists. Prime minister Rainivoninahitriniony and his allies formed the latter group and became known as conservatives. Despite their differences, both groups favoured an expansionist policy. For the modernists, conquest would provide important resources. Iron and copper, for example, was found in its largest quantities to the south of Imerina. For the conservatives, expansion would increase the power of existing nobles and bring a large number of traditionally-minded people into the fold. For both factions, any independent kingdom in Madagascar could serve as a foothold for European invasion. Thus, after achieving peace, Imerina turned to war.
The first victims of the Merina expansion were those territories which were nominally sovereign but had little independence in practice. They included the lands around Ranohira in the south and the kingdom of the Antankarana people in the north. These two places were swiftly conquered in 1867 and 1868 respectively. Other kingdoms soon followed, though there was generally a period of peace between each campaign. While few independent rulers could resist the artillery-armed forces of Imerina, war was not inexpensive. The modernists, in particular, believed that a constant state of war would seriously jeopardise other projects. Furthermore, peace was an opportunity for diplomacy. Radama and the administrative council were not unaccustomed to indirect rule. Large tracts of land in the west were administered in such a fashion. In exchange for fealty, independent rulers were allowed to partially retain their status and power. In many instances, conflict was avoided. By 1885, almost all of Madagascar was part of Imerina in one way or another.
The modernists were not inactive during this period of expansion. In 1871, four spar torpedo boats were ordered from Great Britain. Though small, these vessels appeared to be the perfect deterrent to future French aggression. They were inexpensive and could theoretically sink large warships. The boats would eventually serve as the foundation of the Royal Merina Navy. This acquisition coincided with a modernisation of the land forces. Imerina’s diverse collection of muskets was replaced with a standard rifle pattern and new rifled muzzle-loading guns were purchased. Radama proposed the formation of a true standing army at this time, but he received little support. Many modernists felt that it was an unnecessary expense, while most conservatives believed that a standing army was a threat to the nobility.
Radama called for the abolition of slavery in 1874. A small but respectable domestic market would significantly reduce the risk associated with industrialisation, but such a market could not exist while a substantial section of the population received no monetary compensation for their work. It was a deeply unpopular move, especially in conservative circles. Some modernists even distanced themselves from the monarch, feeling that abolition was a step too far. The response from prime minister Rainivoninahitriniony was uncompromising. In a public meeting, he ordered the monarch to protect the existing caste system. Radama remained steadfast and ordered Rainivoninahitriniony’s dismissal. The prime minister had overstepped his authority, despite the increase in power afforded to the administrative council since 1863. Rainilaiarivony was his successor, and perhaps the best choice available to Radama. As the architect of victory during the French Punitive Expedition, he held favour among the conservatives despite his own modernist views. Though Radama had replaced an enemy with an ally, he was forced to back down. Further confrontation would have been destructive rather than productive. Slavery and its related institutions in Imerina would survive until 1888.
1876 was a significant year for the modernist faction. The nation’s small torpedo boat force, now organised into the Royal Merina Navy, was supplemented by two breastwork monitors. Named Antananarivo and Ambohimanga after the political and spiritual capitals of Imerina, the two ships were built in Great Britain. While no match for the battleships of Europe, they represented a substantial increase in capability. In June, the first brick for a small boat yard in Toamasina was laid. This facility would build torpedo boats and other small craft with weapons and engines imported from Europe. The yard was an experiment formulated by Rainilaiarivony. Construction was funded by the government, but the yard would be passed to a local member of the nobility before its opening. In December, a 20 kilometre stretch of railway opened between Antananarivo and the town of Farariana. High transport costs were a significant barrier to industrialisation. Queen Ranavalona refused to support her industrialisation efforts with a road network as it would prove a great asset to any invader. Radama had, to a certain extent, continued this policy. Railways provided an alternative. They could transport large quantities between key centres and could be severed easily in times of war. Furthermore, the 2 foot 6 inch gauge chosen for Imerina was sufficiently narrow that most normal carts could not traverse the paths on which track was laid. The railway was operated by an organisation that became known in Europe as the Imerina State Railway.
Using the yard in Toamasina as a model, Rainilaiarivony and Radama embarked on an ambitious industrialisation programme in 1879. Construction of five factories began that year, a number which included two powder mills and a sugar refinery. A number more were planned. As was the case with the Toamasina yard, each factory was constructed with government funds and then passed to a member of the nobility. In order to fund the programme, Radama’s administrative council chose to reform the tax system. This move would have been opposed by the conservative faction in normal circumstances. However, a disproportionate number of conservatives benefitted from the programme. Some modernists were disgruntled by this blatant bribery and stalled plans to offer schooling to all Merina children. Even with the tax reform, the industrialisation programme was expensive. A number of foreign loans were secured in this period, with creditors in Britain and France being the most common source. This decision would later haunt Radama and the administrative council.
The first census in Merina history was completed over a two-year period between 1881 and 1883. A number of similar efforts had preceded it over the past century, but it was the first to cover the entire population and one of the most comprehensive to that point. It was an integral component of the tax reform proposed by Rainilaiarivony and Radama in 1879. A young British advisor, John Robert Grey, was placed in charge of the census. The questions posed examined name, class, occupation, and literacy. Grey had included a given name and a family name in European fashion for administrative purposes. This contrasted with traditional Merina names, which normally consisted of a single compound word. It was one of the first times Merina citizens were required to define themselves in such a manner. It was not the only flaw. Illiteracy was common among those who did not belong to the noble class, and many census officials failed to accommodate those who could neither read nor write. Others simply eschewed their duties or refused to ask questions when a noble presented a picture which might prove beneficial for tax purposes. There were also riots in a number of southern villages which had recently come under Merina control.
Franco-Merina War (1887-1888)
The ambitious industrialisation programme pursued by the modernists was not without cost. Neither was the modernisation of the military. Even with a reformed tax system, national debt skyrocketed. By 1886, the Merina government owed £50,000,000 to various lenders and investors, a figure which exceeds seven trillion in modern American dollars. It soon became evident that Imerina could not pay its debts. Thus, in January 1887, the French nation set its sights on Imerina once again. A force of French cruisers and gunboats appeared off Toamasina on the 8th. The fleet was commanded by Paul-Émile Miot aboard the cruiser Duguay-Trouin
. Miot was a veteran of the Tunisian campaign and had been elevated to the rank of vice-admiral immediately prior to his departure for Imerina. He was authorised to act on behalf of the French government and, upon arriving, issued an ultimatum to Radama and the administrative council. The Merina government was to appoint a permanent French resident, initially Miot, who would oversee foreign affairs and 'guide' other policies. The powers of the monarch would be reduced, granting the administrative council full control over legislative matters. Furthermore, the Lambert Charter was to be recognised in full. Imerina would become a protectorate of France with little control over its own destiny. In exchange, the French government would erase all existing debt. The alternative was war. Imerina had until noon on the 10th to respond. For the Merina government, the ultimatum was a complete non-starter. The conservatives would not subjugate themselves to a foreign power, and the modernists were unwilling to sacrafice their most powerful ally: Radama. An appeal was made by telegraph on the 9th to the British government, but Lord Salisbury and the Foreign Office were apathetic.
While the modernist faction had expanded and modernised the military since the French punitive expedition two decades earlier, many European observers doubted Imerina’s ability to achieve victory. There were, in all likelihood, racial undercurrents to these concerns. However, the military of Imerina was objectively week. The Royal Merina Navy possessed two breastwork monitors, eleven torpedo boats, six gunboats, and a tug. Miot’s squadron had two first class cruisers, three second class cruisers, one third class cruiser, and a number of transports. The French colony at Nosy Be was protected by a second force of four gunboats and four torpedo boats. The Merina warships were smaller and qualitatively inferior in comparison to their French counterparts. To make matters worse, France had committed a force of 20,000 men to the invasion. In theory, Imerina could raise 60,000 men. However, half of this number would be reservists with obsolescent or obsolete weapons. Furthermore, while the army trained regularly, it was not a true standing army. It would take time to organise.
Four torpedo boats and a gunboat of the Royal Merina Navy were docked at Toamasina during the crisis. On the evening of the 9th, the torpedo boats managed to slip through the French cordon. Sambirano
, the gunboat, was spotted by a French cruiser and received a warning shot across the bow. Not wishing to confront the French fleet alone, her crew turned back. In the town, a force of 250 men was raised. This was a second-rate force armed with older rifles and a pair of muzzle-loading mountain guns. Military stores not assigned to the formation were evacuated by train. Among the stores was a pair of 6-inch coastal guns, removed from their disappearing mounts. They had been deemed overly vulnerable. Rainilaiarivony, directing the situation from Antananarivo, demanded a stand a Toamasina. As a final diplomatic measure, he hoped to demonstrate Imerina’s willingness to fight. However, he knew that victory at Toamasina was virtually impossible. A large force could not be assembled in sufficient time, and the guns of the French fleet were a significant threat. Thus, it would be a token stand.
On the morning of the 10th, Miot dispatched a message to the commander of the Merina garrison. His squadron of cruisers would open fire on Toamasina once the French ultimatum expired. If the town's defenders left peacefully before the deadline, they would not be pursued. Miot was ignored and, with no response from the Merina government, his cruisers opened fire at noon. Miot was ignored. At noon, the six French cruisers began a two-hour bombardment of Toamasina. The gunboat Sambirano
responded with a single 10-inch gun, but her crew abandoned ship after being straddled by a French salvo. The French focused the bulk of their fire on fortifications hastily constructed by the Merina garrison, which were abandoned soon after the start of the bombardment. Shells were also directed at the emplacements of the evacuated 6-inch coastal battery, but it soon became apparent that the Merina guns were silent. The bombardment ceased at 14:00 and a force of 600 French marines landed. Sambirano
was boarded by a detachment of French marines at around this time. Around 60 men of the garrison had been killed or wounded during the bombardment. The rest of the force re-occupied positions along the town’s canal and waited. After encountering no opposition during their initial landing, the French marines marched confidently into Toamasina. One French company suffered heavy casualties in an ambush. While crossing a bridge over the canal, they were fired upon by a force of 40 men supported by one of the mountain guns. The marines were forced to retreat, but were soon able to reorganise and dislodge the Merina defenders. With the element of surprise lost, other ambushes were less successful. Sporadic fighting continued until 18:00, but the French flag flew over Toamasina before dusk.
The French marines formed a perimeter around Toamasina and the rest of the French army began disembarking on the morning of the 11th. This process would not be completed until the 14th, a delay which gave the Merina government time to organise. The railway linking Toamasina to the capital was dismantled beyond the town of Didy. Rainilaiarivony ordered the best-equipped units of the Merina army to gather in Antananarivo and Mahajanga. Those in the capital would be sent east to prevent an advance from Toamasina, while those in Mahajanga would be divided. 10,000 men would protect the city against a French landing, while 4,000 would march north to prevent incursions around Nosy Be. These numbers were, of course, dependent on the assumption that the entire army could be raised. Second-rate units would be mobilised in regional capitals for detachment elsewhere as required. Like the army, the Royal Merina Navy was not idle during this period.
Weak and ineffectual gunboats, like the one captured at Toamasina, were moved upriver and placed in reserve. The torpedo boat was the Royal Merina Navy’s most important weapon, and a group of four mounted launched Imerina’s first counterattack on the 13th. While stores and men were still being unloaded by French forces at Toamasina, the flotilla which had escaped on the 9th returned. The torpedo boats had planned to attack at dawn but were delayed until 10:00 by engine trouble. Miot had expected their return at some point and many French anti-torpedo boat guns were already manned. Thus, in broad daylight, the Merina torpedo boats steamed at flank speed into the clutches of a prepared enemy. Six torpedoes were successfully launched. One of the torpedo boats exploded before it had the chance. Two torpedoes struck the enemy, one slamming into the side of a cruiser and another into a sloop. The former failed to detonate, leaving nothing more than a dent. The latter did explode, and the damaged sloop sunk an hour later. A sloop, however, was hardly a worthy prize. In return, the French fleet claimed two more torpedo boats. The surviving torpedo boat quickly broke contact with the enemy and started steaming south towards Tolagnaro.
French forces started moving west on the 16th. A detachment of 400 men travelled by boat along the Ivondro river. This allowed them to move quickly and reconnoitre ahead of the main force, which followed the route of the railway. There were not enough boats to move and supply the entire army by river, and there were complications. The detachment encountered sporadic resistance from reserve and irregular units along the Ivondro. While never serious, these threats had to be prosecuted, as they could threaten the line of communication back to Toamasina. Further delays were encountered when the detachment moved deeper into the mountains. The depth of the river decreased, and the boats had to be dragged across shallow sections of river. Despite these difficulties, the detachment reached Didy on the 31st. The Merina garrison, reinforced from Antananarivo by rail, was large and dug in. The commander of the French detachment, now aware of the disposition of Imerina’s army in the region, withdrew along the river. He sent a small force ahead to Toamasina, allowing the rest of his men to probe along the route of the railway on the return journey. The advance force informed Miot of the situation on the 14th of February.
Progress was slow for the main force. The path of the railway was expanded during the advance to accommodate wagons. This was a time-consuming task and French commanders were wary of moving their men too far ahead. Porters were available, but they had trouble moving heavy loads like artillery and ammunition. On the 26th of June the main French column assaulted Merina positions around the town of Didy. The Merina army stood around 20,000 strong and the French committed approximately half that number to the battle. Attacking at dawn, the French achieved a number of early successes. French batteries were able to suppress the Merina artillery, allowing soldiers and marines to advance and overrun the outer perimeter. Disaster struck when French artillery units advanced to support a final assault on the town. The 6-inch coastal guns evacuated from Toamasina, mounted in makeshift carriages, opened fire along the valley of the Ivondro. The French artillery was caught in the open and lacked the range necessary for a response. They were ordered to withdraw. Not willing to risk an assault without artillery support, the rest of the French force dug in. However, the rest of the Merina artillery soon returned to action and a fierce counter-charge reclaimed the outer perimeter from the French. Rainilaiarivony, personally commanding Merina forces during the battle, chose not to pursue the retreating French army. The loss of the outer perimeter had left the bulk of his force in disarray and he could not risk sacrificing his reserves.
Following the battle, Miot established a fortified camp 10 kilometres northeast of Didy. His intention was to tie down Merina forces in the area until he could organise a second offensive. The camp would be garrisoned with 3,000 men while the rest of the army retreated to the coast. However, news of the defeat reached Toamasina on the 30th of June. From there, it travelled to Réunion by ship and Paris by telegraph. The French press was not sympathetic and Miot was relieved of command on the 10th of July. He was succeeded by Jacques Duchesne, an officer of the French army who had served admirably in the recent Sino-French War. Unfortunately, it took some two months for Duchesne to arrive in Toamasina. French forces were able to hold their ground and crack down on insurgent activity in the intervening period, but Merina troops were also given time to breathe. French forces were able to hold their ground and crack down on insurgent activity in the intervening period, but it also gave the Merina army an opportunity to breathe. Rainilaiarivony reduced the garrison in Mahajanga to 5,000 and pulled 6,000 men from the area around Didy to form a second army. If French forces broke through at Didy, this force would outflank and encircle them from the south. At the same time, he endeavoured to bring reserve and irregular forces up to standard.
Duchesne arrived on the 14th of September. He brought with him an additional 10,000 troops and an ambitious plan. A battalion of infantry would march around the Merina position at Didy and cut the rail link to Antananarivo. This would force Rainilaiarivony to abandon or seriously weaken his existing position. At the same time, amphibious landings would occur at Ambanja and Mahajanga, with the latter consuming the bulk of Duchesne’s reinforcements. None of these targets were the main objective, however. Duchesne’s intention was to distract and disperse the Merina army. He believed that a flying column of 3,000 men could storm and capture the capital while Merina troops were spread thin elsewhere. This action would ultimately force the capitulation of Radama II and the Merina government.
The offensive began with the arrival of French ships off Mahajanga and Ambanja on the morning of the 22nd. Rainandriamampandry, the commander of Merina forces in the west, chose to defend the former at all costs. It was an awkward proposition. A pair of small hills offered a somewhat amicable defensive position. However, they were close to the shore and vulnerable to French naval gunfire from all sides. Furthermore, as the town was surrounded on three sides by water, French troops could easily isolate the defenders. It was the strategic importance of Mahajanga which encouraged Rainandriamampandry to ignore the risks. Arms and ammunition from Britain had flowed through the port since the capture of Toamasina. Protests by the French government were largely ignored by London, which argued that it could not be held accountable for the transactions of private individuals. Other ports existed. Taolagnaro was probably the best alternative, but it was far to the south and its use would double the distance supplies had to travel. The importance of Mahajanga was underscored by Rainandriamampandry's decision to recall the 4,000 men dispatched to Ambanja once it became clear that the French intended to land.
French warships maintained a steady bombardment of Mahajanga from the dawn of the 22nd to the following morning. A similar strategy was planned for Ambanja, but the bombardment was terminated after it became clear that Merina forces in the town were withdrawing south. French marines landed at around noon and captured Ambanja with little opposition. The landing at Mahajanga commenced at dawn on the 23rd. The 6-inch coastal battery protecting the town, which had remained silent during the bombardment, opened fire on the first wave. The ensuing disarray allowed Merina troops to occupy forward positions which had too exposed during the bombardment. The French suffered heavy casualties, but the coastal battery was soon suppressed. Fighting was fierce, but Merina forces were steadily pushed back to the two hills on which their defence was centred. By evening, the road northeast was cutoff and the Merina army was encircled. Rainandriamampandry tried to break out during the night, but his attack was repulsed. A second bombardment commenced at dawn and continued until noon, at which point the French army attacked again. The line collapsed within an hour and Mahajanga was soon in French hands. Rainandriamampandry disguised himself as a civilian and managed to escape the following evening.