The distinguishing feature of the Malagasy slave trade in the nineteenth century was the co-existence of two competitive slave networks, the one feeding Malagasy slaves to meet the demand of long-distance and regional markets in the western Indian Ocean, and the other channelling Malagasy war captives and East African slaves on to the markets of Imerina. The export of slaves from Madagascar had long existed, but the import of slaves was a new and distinctly nineteenth-century phenomenon, the result of the rise of the Merina empire, whose economy was based on a huge, unremunerated and servile labour force. As the empire expanded, so its labour requirements grew, to conflict sharply with the increasing demand for labour on the neighbouring plantation islands as they shifted over to the production of sugar. Creole merchants found themselves obliged to find alternative labour supplies, and from the 1830s they were moving rapidly down the west coast of Madagascar, where they purchased slaves from chiefs independent of Merina control. Until the outbreak of the Franco-Merina war of 1882–5, the slave-trade networks remained remarkably stable, despite local rivalries. This was due largely to the presence of the Arab Antalaotra, an experienced body of middlemen, and the Indian Karany who supplied the capital for the trade. The war effectively broke the power of the Merina regime, and as the imperial economy crumbled, so security of trade collapsed across the island. Though the disruption of legitimate commerce initially spurred the slave trade, it also strengthened creole calls for French intervention. This occurred in 1895, and the following year the French authorities abolished slavery in Madagascar. This, and the effective military occupation of the island by the French, reduced the Malagasy slave trade to a trickle by the first years of the twentieth century.
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