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The Bezanozano are believed to be one of the earliest Malagasy ethnic groups to establish themselves in Madagascar, where they inhabit an inland area between the Betsimisaraka lowlands and the Merina highlands. Their name means "those of many small plaits" in reference to their traditional hairstyle, and like the Merina they practice the famadihana reburial ceremony. There were around 100,000 Bezanozano living in Madagascar in 2013.
The Bezanozano were only briefly an organized polity and do not share a strong internal cohesive identity. Their name means "those of many small plaits" in reference to their traditional hairstyle, and like the Merina they practice the famadihana reburial ceremony. The center of the Bezanozano community at its height in the late 18th century was the town of Ambatondrazaka. There were around 100,000 Bezanozano living in Madagascar in 2013.
The Bezanozano inhabited the fertile forested land between the plains of Imerina to the west and the lowland coastal rainforest to the east in an area historically called Ankay. They lived in fortified villages governed by local chiefs. Their original source of unified identity was the worship of 11 protective sampy (idols) said to have been brought from Sakalava territory. According to popular belief, the Bezanozano may be descendants of the island's earliest inhabitants, the Vazimba. Oral history relates that the Bezanozano historically lived in small communities governed collectively by village elders. Matters of justice were handled collectively through public deliberation to reach consensus.
Bezanozano society reached its golden age in the 18th century, acting as intermediaries in trade between the Merina in the highlands and the European and Arab slave traders and merchants that landed along the east coast. Occasionally Bezanozano villagers would negotiate directly with French traders; some of these were captured and sold into slavery themselves. This intermediary trading role allowed the Bezanozano to amass considerable wealth in slaves and cattle. The population of slaves owned by the Bezanozano had grown so large by the mid-18th century that in 1768 a slave rebellion erupted; the Bezanozano solicited the aid of Europeans to put it down. To further strengthen their economic position, the Bezanozano entered into an alliance with the powerful Betsimisaraka Kingdom to the east. They were in regular enough contact that they were able to offer Spanish piastres in addition to slaves in exchange for the guns provided by European traders. The villages neighboring Bezanozano territory were in many instances invited to assist in transporting Bezanozano trade goods because the demand for Bezanozano services exceeded the manpower available to satisfy it. In the late 18th century the Bezanozano were spread out over a territory twice the size of the area they consider their homeland today, extending from Angavokely in the west to the Betsimisaraka cliffs to the east, and southward to around twelve kilometers beyond Beparasy. The first and only Bezanozano king, Randrianjomoina, emerged around this time.
The wealth of the region had encouraged several other kingdoms to attempt to conquer this territory, but none were successful until King Andrianampoinimerina of neighboring Imerina (d. 1810), who allowed Randrianjomoina and the Bezanozano chieftains to retain their positions but required them to pay an annual tribute to him. The Bezanozano demonstrated passive resistance to this vassalage in Ambatomanga by refusing to observe mourning customs upon Andrianampoinimerina's death. His son and successor, Radama I, retaliated by burning the town and slaughtering its inhabitants. Bezanozano territory was colonized and strictly managed by the Merina, who imposed the customary fanampoana (unpaid labor in lieu of taxes) to produce high volumes of rice, cattle and other goods that were to be given to the Merina king as annual tribute. Radama I opened a major transport road from his capital at Antananarivo that ran through Bezanozano territory to the coastal port at Toamasina. His successor, Queen Ranavalona I, established a munitions factory at Mantasoa in the region and a second transport road to Toamasina, effectively bounding the southern part of Bezanozano territory between these two major trade routes. Consequently the local population were heavily conscripted to provide unpaid labor for major public works projects like road maintenance and support to the trade caravans. In the 1830s a Bezanozano rebellion against this forced labor disrupted trade to between the capital and the east coast until it was put down by the Merina army. The natural resources of Bezanozano territory were more systematically exploited under Merina rule, including timber and iron; iron ore was abundant in Bezanozano territory in part because the local population had never learned to smith it. Merina culture also became assimilated during the 19th century, introducing the cultivation of peanuts and beans and the construction of stone tombs and trano gasy houses. Over the course of the 20th century other innovations from Imerina were introduced, like terraced irrigated paddy fields, ox carts and the fabrication of metal tools.
Funerals are celebrated by drinking large quantities of rum.
Dance and music
The Betatoato is a dance that is unique to the Bezanozano.
Honey is collected from the forest and sold at market or roadside stands. Historically honey had an important role in Merina royal rituals, and the Bezanozano were considered the best honey collectors.
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