Betsimisaraka people

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Femmes Betsimisarakas puisant de l'eau, 1890-1910.jpg
Betsimisaraka women
Total population
5, 000 000
Regions with significant populations
East coast of Madagascar
(Malagasy Northern Betsimisaraka)
Related ethnic groups

The Betsimisaraka ("the many inseparables") make up approximately fifteen percent of the Malagasy people and are the second largest ethnic group in Madagascar after the Merina.[1] They occupy a large stretch of the eastern seabord of Madagascar, from Mananjary in the south to Antalaha in the north.

Ethnic identity[edit]

Distribution of Malagasy ethnic groups

Like the Sakalava to the west, the Betsimisaraka are composed of numerous ethnic sub-groups united by historical circumstances under the same denomination. Most Betsimisaraka are of mixed Bantu African and Asian Austronesian descent. The Betsimisaraka area has included the port of Toamasina, Fénérive Est and Maroansetra. The territory today is a thin area of land that stretches along the east coast of Madagascar from the River Bemarivo to the River Mananjary in the south.[2][3]


Until the beginning of the 18th century, the peoples who would constitute the core of the Betsimisaraka were the Tsikoa (or Betanimena) of the south, the Varimo of the central east coast, and the Anteva of the northeastern coast. Each of these groups was culturally and linguistically distinct and would periodically enter into conflict with one another. These conflicts were actively encouraged by Europeans, a presence that dramatically increased from the 17th to 18th centuries. Europeans engaged with locals to sell arms in exchange for slaves and other forms of trade and conflict between locals could work to the Europeans' economic advantage.

With increased European presence there emerged a class of mulatto Malagasy (malata or zana-malata) issuing from unions between European men and Malagasy women. Ratsimilaho, the founder of the Betsimisaraka kingdom, was a malata.[4] His father, named either Tom Tew (according to Guillaume Grandidier) or Thomas White (according to J.-M. Filliot) was an English pirate who was married in 1695 to Rahena, an Anteva princess of the Zafindramizoa family of Foulpointe.

Around 1710, after much effort and several failures, Ratsimilaho united the northeastern coastal people and led them in a successful resistance against incursions by the powerful king Ramanano who wished to secure control over a greater portion of the lucrative commerce with Europeans. Upon Ramanano's defeat, Ratsimilaho was able to establish himself as king over his people as well as Ramanano's (the latter taking the name Betanimena - "those of much red soil," in reference to burial or violent death - upon the loss of their king and sovereignty). The Betanimena continued to resist his rule, however, leading him to extend his southern alliances and territory through marriage to the daughter of King Kaleheka, whom he persuaded to join in his long and bloody but ultimately successful war to subdue and unite the eastern coast. But after his death in 1750, his queen Bity and then his son ended up losing the power that Ratsimilaho had once commanded. The union dissolved into warring clans, facilitating the campaign to bring them under the rule of Merina king Radama I. This campaign, which began in 1817, was successful and the Merina maintained their authority over the Betsimisaraka until the beginning of the French colonial period in 1896.


The Betsimisaraka speak several dialects of the Malagasy language, which is a branch of the Malayo-Polynesian language group derived from the Barito languages, spoken in southern Borneo.[5]


  1. ^ Madagascar: A Country Study, Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Library of Congress, 1994., accessed 14 August 2008
  2. ^ Bradt & Austin 2007.
  3. ^ Ogot 1992.
  4. ^ Ratsimilaho, Encyclopædia Britannica, accessed 13 August 2008
  5. ^ Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online, accessed 14 August 2008


(Parts of this article are translated from the corresponding article on the French Wikipedia.