Painful memories of the revolt of 1947: Deafening silence on a horrifying repression

By Philippe Leymarie, Le Monde diplomatique, March 1997

We used to say ‘bird’, and if the other person replied ‘fire’, they were friend. Anything else and they were foe and got killed: this was Monja Jaona, one of the rebel chiefs, remembering. On the Saturday night of 29 March 1947, there had been surprise attacks on the Tristani police camp at Moramanga, which was on the railway line between Antananarivo and Tamatave, along with areas along the Bas-Faraony river and on the east coast town of Manakara. In spite of the element of surprise, the uprising failed elsewhere as the majority of the population did not follow suit.

Father Jacques Tronchon, coordinator of the Episcopal Conference (whose book, L'Insurrection malgache de 1947, is still a seminal work), recalls that it took place during the rainy season, on the night of Palm Sunday. It was also fandroana time (the festival of bathing), a time for national commemoration of the era of the queens with its celebration of the mystique of fatherland, renewal, ancestor worship and traditional Malagasy values (1). France had been defeated by Germany and, no longer invincible, had to turn to its empire for support to join the Allies. General de Gaulle made a speech in Brazzaville pledging that union with France would bring citizenship rights for its peoples overseas: which did not stop the French army from carrying on with torture and massacres from Sétif to Haiphong (2).

In Indochina, Ho Chi Min already felt betrayed. In Madagascar, all the settlers (irrespective of class) and some of the civil servants were worried about possible British or South African designs on the island and found the spectacular rise of the Democratic Movement for Malagasy Reform (MDRM) particularly hard to swallow. This movement, with its three Malagasy deputies, was both nationalistic and pacifist. Jacques Rabemananjara, the youngest of the three, remembers that the atmosphere was electric and everybody was spellbound by nostalgia for their country. Their aim was to become ever more French, without losing their Malagasy identity (3). The MDRM was led by a decadent aristocracy of grand hovas (4), as Paul Ramadier, the French socialist head of government, put it. In January 1947 it won the local elections and announced a council meeting for the coming April.

There were two main secret societies at the time, both formed in the tide of the anti-colonialist movement: Panama (Malagasy National Patriots) and Jiny (named after a red bird which flutters from valley to valley). These intended to seize independence by force. With hindsight, however, they thought that they were prematurely drawn into battle since a group, under the control of the police had launched the signal for action, forcing them to follow suit. Most researchers now accept the theory of provocation, whether by the police or the settlers—or even the Anglo-Saxons.

Jaona, Jiny's founder in the south, is one of the few nationalist chiefs to acknowledge his responsibility in triggering what the settlers called the rebellion and what the Malagasies themselves were later to refer to as the events. He explains: My ancestors were killed during the French occupation, shot by Senegalese firing squads. I had to fight to avenge my father. I was angry. I told myself: we went to France, fought the Germans, defended France, country of the French. Why aren't we defending our own country? Let's stand up and be counted. Let's abolish forced labour. I called the people out on strike (5).

Two guerrilla zones were formed in the dense, mountainous forest of the east and then spread. A railway battle ensued with the collusion of some of the railway workers. Several armies were formed with their own generals and war ministers; and newly-demobilised soldiers led the rebels, as did many of the mpanjakas (traditional chiefs).

An 18,000 strong French expeditionary force—subsequently increasing to 30,000—landed in April. It took them a whole year to crush the nationalist guerrillas. Twenty-one months after the start of the insurrection, the last remaining rebels came out of the forest, starved and without arms, leaders or supplies. They were trying to eliminate all the officers and you only needed a pair of trousers and shoes to be a suspect, recalls Gisèle Rabasahala, then secretary to the French lawyers of the MDRM (which subsequently took control of the committee responsible for the defence and rehabilitation of the prisoners. It was a real bludgeoning, adds Father Tronchon; They called it pacification once they'd flattened everything.

According to the General Staff reports, which Father Tronchon uses as the basis of his figures, the so-called pacification led to 89,000 deaths, not to mention torture, summary executions and villages forcibly evacuated and torched. At the National Assembly, the French high commissioner gave a more comprehensive estimate: 90,000-100,000 dead. Many Malagasies say the slaughter was even more extensive. The French were then perfecting new techniques of colonial warfare, particularly in terms of psychological action. Just as the French forces had tested some of their weaponry in Madagascar at the time of the 1895 conquest less than 20 years before the first world war—orchestrated by Generals Gallieni, Joffre and Lyautey, the future victors of the Marne.

The rebels themselves were responsible for the deaths of 550 Europeans and of approximately 1,900 Malagasies. In fact, against the backdrop of the colonial war, an appalling civil war was played out in the first weeks between the nationalists and members of the Party of the Malagasy Disinherited (Padesm). This group was supported by the colonial authorities. It recruited chiefly among the mainty (blacks) and the descendants of slaves from the High Plateaux and among the inhabitants of coastal provinces. It accused the MDRM of having fomented the rebellion in order to restore the former monarchy and the hova hegemony (6).

The three MPs from Madagascar were arrested. During their trial, Paris dismissed the charge of police provocation and retained the theory of an MDRM-organised plot: the members of parliament were sentenced to death (though later reprieved) and the movement was outlawed. In Madagascar, as in Indochina and Algeria, all contact with the nationalists was broken. Six years later came the fall of Dien Bien Phu in Indochina and the Toussaint rouge insurrection in Algeria.


(1) See Jacques Tronchon, L'Insurrection malgache de 1947, Karthala, Paris, 1986. The author compiled 140 testimonies and accounts and by luck had access to 22 bundles of secret archives in France.

(2) See Yves Benot, Massacres coloniaux, 1944-1950: la IVe République et la mise au pas des colonies françaises, La Découverte, Paris, 1994.

(3) Extract from L'Insurrection de l'île rouge, Madagascar 1947, La Sept/Arte co-production, Point du jour, 1994 documentary by Danièle Rousselier and Corinne Godeau.

(4) Like many politicians during French rule, Paul Ramadier confused the hovas, the bourgeoisie from the High Plateaux who held real power, with the andrianas, the nobility. An example of this was the deputy Ravohangy-Andrianavalona who was sentenced to death following the 1947 uprising. The French, particularly the socialists, tried to present themselves as the defenders of the oppressed Malagasies against their upper-class exploiters. This was the ideological justification for the French support for Padesm, initially an anti-nationalist movement and subsequently a model for President Philibert Tsiranana's impending social democratic party, which allowed France to keep Madagascar in its fold during the First Malagasy Republic (1958-1972).

(5) Monja Jaona, who died in 1994, fought unceasingly against foreigners in all forms from the 1930s onwards. He founded the Monima Party (Madagascar for the Malagasies) in 1958 and instigated a revolt in the south in March 1971. This was severely repressed by Philibert Tsiranana, the first president of the independent republic. He went on to support the Second Republic before fighting it. He was seriously wounded by the military in 1992 while leading a demonstration calling for a federalist constitution for the island.

(6) See Lucile Rabearimanana, Les événements de 1947 à Madagascar, Omaly Sy Anio, Arts Faculty review, University of Madagascar, 1988-2, Antananarivo.