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The Sakalava are an ethnic group of Madagascar numbering approximately 700,000 in population. Their name means "people of the long valleys." They occupy the western edge of the island from Toliara in the south to Sambirano in the north.
The Sakalava denominate a number of smaller ethnic groups that once comprised an ancient empire, rather than an ethnic group in its own right. The origin of the word Sakalava itself is still subject to controversy, as well as its actual meaning. The most common explanation is the modern Malagasy translation of Sakalava meaning long ravines, denoting the relatively flat nature of the land in western Madagascar. Another theory is that the word is possibly from the Arabic saqaliba, which is in turn derived from Latin esclavus, meaning slave.
During the Middle Ages, when the chiefs of the different settlements on the island began to extend their power through trade with Madagascar's Indian Ocean neighbors, the Sakalava chiefdoms of the Menabe, centred in what is now the town of Morondava, were principal among them. The influence of the Sakalava extended across what is now the provinces of Antsiranana, Mahajanga and Toliara. However, with the domination of the Indian Ocean by the British fleet and the end of the Arab slave trade, the Sakalava lost their power to the emerging Merina threat.
According to local tradition, the founders of the Sakalava kingdom were Maroseraña (or Maroseranana, "those who owned many ports") princes, from the Fiherenana (now Toliara). They may also be descended from the Zafiraminia (sons of Ramini) clans from the southwestern part of the island, possibly from Arab origin. They were in contact with European slave-traders, from whom they obtained weapons, mostly in exchange for slaves; they quickly sujugated the neighbouring princes in the Mahafaly area, starting with the southern ones. The true founder of Sakalava dominance was Andriamisara; his son Andriandahifotsy ("the White Prince") then extended his authority northwards, past the Mangoky River. His two sons, Andriamanetiarivo and Andriamandisoarivo, extended gains further up to the Tsongay region (now Mahajanga). At about that time, the empire's unity started to split, resulting in a southern kingdom (Menabe) and a northern kingdom (Boina). Further splits resulted, despite continued extension of the Boina princes' reach into the extreme north, in Antankarana country.
The Merina oral histories mention several attacks by Sakalava raiders against their villages as early as the 17th century and during the entire 18th century, although it is impossible to certify that these have a direct relationship with the coastal kingdom populations. It seems that in some cases, including this one, the term was used generically to design all the nomadic peoples in the sparsely settled territories between the Merina country and the western coast of the island. The Merina king Radama I's wars with the western coast of the island ended in a fragile peace sealed through his marriage with the daughter of a king of Menabe. Though the Merina were never to annex the two last Sakalava strongholds of Menabe and Boina (Mahajanga), the Sakalava never again posed a threat to the central plateau, which remained under Merina control until the French colonization of the island in 1896.
The historical formation process of the Sakalava kingdom explains the great diversity among its constituents, who continue to perpetuate distinctive regional customs, both culturally and linguistically. About the latter, the only real unifying factor of the different Sakalava dialects is their common membership to the western subgroup of Madagascar languages, which distinguishes them from central and East coast languages.
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- Portions of this article were translated from fr:Sakalava
- Goedefroit, Sophie (1998). À l'ouest de Madagascar - les Sakalava du Menabe. IRD Editions. ISBN 2-7099-1386-0.