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The State and Pre-Colonial Demographic History: The Case of Nineteenth-Century Madagascar1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 January 2009

Gwyn Campbell
University of the Witwatersrand


This paper analyses the demography of nineteenth-century Madagascar in the light of the debate generated by the demographic transition theory. Both supporters and critics of the theory hold to an intrinsic opposition between human and ‘natural’ factors, such as climate, famine and disease, influencing demography. They also suppose a sharp chronological divide between the pre-colonial and colonial eras, arguing that whereas ‘natural’ demographic influences were of greater importance in the former period, human factors predominated thereafter. This paper argues that in the case of nineteenth-century Madagascar the human factor, in the form of the Merina state, was the predominant demographic influence. However, the impact of the state was felt through natural forces, and it varied over time. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Merina state policies stimulated agricultural production, which helped to create a larger and healthier population and laid the foundation for Merina military and economic expansion within Madagascar. From the 1820, the cost of such expansionism led the state to increase its exploitation of forced labour at the expense of agricultural production and thus transformed it into a negative demographic force. Infertility and infant mortality, which were probably more significant influences on overall population levels than the adult mortality rate, increased from 1820 due to disease, malnutrition and stress, all of which stemmed from state forced labour policies. Available estimates indicate little if any population growth for Madagascar between 1820 and 1895. The demographic ‘crisis’ in Africa, ascribed by critics of the demographic transition theory to the colonial era, stemmed in Madagascar from the policies of the imperial Merina regime which in this sense formed a link to the French regime of the colonial era. In sum, this paper questions the underlying assumptions governing the debate about historical demography in Africa and suggests that the demographic impact of political forces be re-evaluated in terms of their changing interaction with ‘natural’ demographic influences.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1991

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