Safeguarding the political history of precolonial Madagascar: the archives of Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony (1864-1895) (EAP856)

Aims and objectives

This project will digitise the archives of the nineteenth-century prime minister of Madagascar, Rainilaiarivony. Written in Malagasy, the Prime Minister's archives use the Latin alphabet introduced in 1823 and, once digitised, will allow researchers to understand how a precolonial kingdom managed to dominate the whole of Madagascar and how it was influenced and later colonised by the Europeans.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, the island was divided into different polities before the Merina King took the title of 'King of Madagascar' in 1817 (Treaty between Great Britain and the Merina Kingdom), and his successors tried to unify and modernise the island prior to the European colonisation in 1895. The prime minister, whose position was created in 1833, was in charge of these centralising policies and can be considered as the instrument and symbol of the precolonial political modernisation of the island.

The most successful figure of Prime Minister under the royal government was the younger brother of Prime Minister Raharo, Rainilaiarivony, commander in chief, who discredited and replaced him in 1865 as the queen’s official lover and Prime Minister (1864-1895). He was the head of the government under three successive queens, Rasoherina, Ranavalona II and Ranavalona III, whom he married until his arrest after the capture of the royal capital by the French expeditionary force on 1 October 1895.

The archives have been inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register since 2009. They have never been systematically studied and will offer researchers invaluable insights into the history of precolonial Madagascar and the role played by this man who was in charge of the day-to-day government of the kingdom, but who also commanded its armies. In addition, his attempts to re-organise the government along Western lines will provide historians interested in Western imperialism with the tools to analyse the political evolution of a kingdom which was not directly colonised by the Europeans but which was simultaneously caught between British and French expansionisms. These documents will thus illustrate British abolitionist and religious policies and French territorial ambitions in the Indian Ocean. Knowing that the French heavily relied on the institutions of the kingdom of Madagascar during the colonial period, the archives of the prime ministers will shed new light on the precolonial times and the construction of the colonial state.

This project will digitise the 24 registers of Rainilaiarivony, creating over 3,000 images, and will train three technicians of the National Archives of Madagascar in digitisation techniques. The equipment acquired will be available for a future research and/or digitisation project.