Historical Foreign Interest in Madagascar

The following is excerped from the Country Studies--Area Handbook program of the U.S. Department of the Army. The original version of this text is available at the Library of Congress.
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The Indian Ocean has a long maritime history. Since approximately 2,500 B.C., traders, adventurers, and explorers from Egypt, China, India, Indonesia, Persia (Iran), and Ceylon conducted oceangoing commerce and at times maintained maritime empires in the Indian Ocean. Additionally, many peoples who lived in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf regions relied on the Indian Ocean for their livelihoods. The most notable local power was Oman. In 1841 the sultan of Oman moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar and established a trading empire along the East African coast based largely on ivory and slaves. In the wake of these activities, there was a migration of Asians into the western Indian Ocean. As early as 500 B.C., Dravidians and Sinhalese from India and Ceylon had settled in the Maldive Islands. By A.D. 1000, Malayo-Indonesians had established communities in Madagascar.

The emergence of the great European maritime empires marked an historical watershed in the Indian Ocean. In the sixteenth century, the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British quickly gained control over much of the region. To reach this goal, they used sophisticated ships and maritime strategies and exploited local rivalries to gain allies and territory. These activities signaled the beginning of the use of the Indian Ocean as a theater where European maritime nations competed with one another for power and influence in the area. This rivalry spawned many extraregional wars and alliances, many of which caused instability in the region's islands.

One of the most important personalities during the early European period was Alfonso d'Albuquerque, governor of Portugal's Indian Ocean possessions from 1508 to 1515. Rather than devoting his energies to territorial conquest, he used naval power to control trade routes. To achieve this goal, d'Albuquerque established a network of bases in the Indian Ocean; constructed forts at the entrances to the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Strait of Malacca; and concluded alliances with economically powerful rulers on the African and Asian coasts (see fig. 9, Indian Ocean: Five Island Countries). These tactics enabled Portugal to dominate commercial activity in the Indian Ocean from 1511 to 1641.

From the seventeenth century until the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, European and North American shipping relied on the western Indian Ocean and its islands for the transport of eastern goods and spices. As this shorter route quickly supplanted the longer Cape of Good Hope route and steam gradually replaced sail, the region's strategic importance diminished. The islands of Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoros, Seychelles, and, to a lesser extent, Maldives, all of which had been important way stations for international shipping, became remote colonial outposts.

Although it enabled the British to consolidate their hegemony over the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal also facilitated the entry of other European nations into the area. The latter development not only challenged British mastery over the Indian Ocean but also caused a scramble for colonies among the stronger European powers. The French established a presence in the Horn of Africa and Madagascar, both of which protected the route to their Southeast Asia empire. Additionally, the Italians, Germans, and Portuguese created colonies along the East African coast. Russia viewed the Suez Canal as a vehicle to achieve its goal of creating a network of warm water ports. However, Japan's 1904 victory over the Russian fleet ended this dream. Over the next several years, Japan and the United States posed a growing naval challenge to Britain's dominance in the Indian Ocean. Nevertheless, British seapower remained preeminent throughout the region.

During World War I, the Indian Ocean aroused international interest, as the British and the Germans battled one another for control of various colonies. Also, these nations sought to protect shipping routes that carried petroleum from the Persian Gulf, via the Suez Canal, to Europe. Despite the area's importance, Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoros, Seychelles, and Maldives managed to escape the ravages of World War I.

World War II played a more significant role in the western Indian Ocean, especially as far as Madagascar was concerned. On May 5, 1942, the British 121 Force defeated pro-Vichy French troops and then occupied Diego Suarez. This action denied an important naval base to Japan, which undoubtedly would have used the facility to threaten British maritime communications along East Africa with the Middle East. After occupying Majunga, Tamatave, and Tananarive (now Antananarivo), the British established a military administration over Madagascar, which functioned until mid-1943. Apart from these activities, German submarines harassed Allied shipping throughout the western Indian Ocean.

The most notable wartime event occurred at the 1942 Battle of the Java Sea, when the Japanese destroyed the British Royal Navy. This event marked the end of British hegemony over the Indian Ocean. During the postwar period, the British government lacked the ability and resources to reassert its maritime dominance over the region. However, in the absence of strong contending naval power, the British remained in nominal control of sizable portions of the Indian Ocean. France confined its activities mainly to the western Indian Ocean. Politically, World War II weakened British and French holds over their respective colonial empires. The rising tide of nationalism that swept through Africa and Asia accelerated demands for independence on the part of all the western Indian Ocean islands.

During the postwar period, several factors affected the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean. The onset of the Cold War increased superpower activity throughout the region. By 1964 the United States had developed ballistic missile submarines that could hit industrial targets in the Soviet Union from the Arabian Sea. Moscow also feared that Washington's announcement that it intended to deploy some ballistic missile submarines to the Pacific Ocean and to build a very low frequency communications station (designed for submarine contact) in western Australia signaled a military build-up in the Indian Ocean.

The changing nature of British power in the region caused London and Washington to devise a strategy to uphold the interests of both nations. In 1965, during talks with a Mauritian delegation, the British government made it clear that the island's independence was contingent on the sale of the Chagos Archipelago and the transfer of sovereignty to Britain. On November 8, 1965, the British government then created the Crown Colony of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). The BIOT consisted of the Chagos Archipelago, earlier administered from the British Crown Colony of Mauritius; and the Aldabra and Farquhar islands and �le Desroches, previously administered from the British Crown Colony of Seychelles. In 1966 Britain leased the approximately eighteen-kilometer island of Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago to the United States for a fifty-year period until the year 2016, with a twenty-year extension available if neither London nor Washington opposed continuation. For political and security reasons, the indigenous population of 1,200 who lived on Diego Garcia were resettled in Mauritius and Seychelles, and received US$8 million in compensation from the British government. The controversy surrounding these actions never has disappeared; even in 1993, the Mauritian government periodically attempted to reassert its sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago, especially Diego Garcia.

When the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War between Israel and Egypt caused the closure of the Suez Canal, shippers had to transport their goods around the Cape of Good Hope. This increased the importance of Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles, and, to a lesser extent, Mauritius, all of which had the potential to command the Cape route. After the Suez Canal reopened in 1975, these islands retained their significance because, to carry petroleum more economically over the longer route, many shippers had built supertankers that were too large to pass through the canal.

In early 1968, the strategic situation in the Indian Ocean changed again when the British government announced its intention to withdraw all its military forces from east of the Suez Canal by 1971. Two months after this declaration, the Soviet Union deployed four warships to the Indian Ocean, and arranged for them to call at ports on the Indian subcontinent, the Persian Gulf, and the East Africa coast. After 1969 Soviet naval units regularly visited the region. Throughout the 1970s, Moscow also succeeded in gaining access to several naval bases around the littoral and increasing the number of Soviet intelligence, research, and fishing vessels operating in the Indian Ocean. As a result, the number of Soviet naval craft in the area often exceeded those of the United States.

The British pullback from east of Suez also led to an increased United States military presence in the Indian Ocean. In 1972 a new agreement allowed the United States to build a naval communications facility on Diego Garcia for British and United States use. Also, in 1972 the United States naval element, Commander in Chief Pacific (CINCPAC) extended its operational area to cover most of the Indian Ocean. In 1976 the United States transformed Diego Garcia into a naval support facility with deep- water docks and an expanded runway.

For the next several decades, the United States and the Soviet Union competed with one another for strategic superiority in the Indian Ocean. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, President Jimmy Carter announced his intention to use military force to prevent any foreign power (i.e., the Soviet Union) from gaining control of the Persian Gulf region. To buttress this policy, the United States increased its military presence in the Indian Ocean to enhance its ability to respond quickly to any military contingency. After the downfall of Iran's imperial government in 1979, the United States deployed a second carrier task force to the area to join the one already on station. Additionally, the United States government concluded a series of military access agreements with Egypt, Kenya, Oman, and Somalia, and arranged to conduct joint military exercises with these countries. On March 1, 1980, President Carter also authorized the creation of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, later reorganized as the United States Central Command (USCENTCOM), whose area of responsibility includes Afghanistan, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

During the 1980s, the Indian Ocean continued to provoke competition between Washington and Moscow. The United States increased its presence on Diego Garcia by building new airfield facilities and an air force satellite detection and tracking station, initiating Strategic Air Command (SAC) operations, improving navigational aids, and increasing anchorages and moorings for pre-positioned warehouse ships stationed permanently at the island.

From Moscow's perspective, the Soviet Indian Ocean Squadron performed a defensive mission against the United States, and promoted Soviet foreign policy in the region. Apart from access to naval facilities in Seychelles, Mauritius, and Reunion, the Soviet Union also conducted long-range maritime surveillance flights over much of the Indian Ocean. Despite this activity, Moscow avoided a military confrontation with Washington in the Indian Ocean, largely because it lacked modern, high-performance aircraft carriers and the ability to defend long sea and air lines of communications to and from the region.

Throughout the Cold War years, France also remained active in the Indian Ocean. Until 1973, the headquarters of the French forces was in Madagascar. After Antananarivo severed military relations with Paris, French forces operated from Reunion, Comoros, and Djibouti. Throughout much of the 1980s and the early 1990s, France maintained the second largest naval fleet in the Indian Ocean. French naval forces normally consisted of a marine contingent attached to a carrier, two Polaris-type attack submarines, two or three destroyers, two or three frigates, minesweepers, and ten to fifteen landing craft and auxiliaries. Additionally, France maintained 5,000 troops and a small number of fighter aircraft in Djibouti.

Data as of August 1994

This is excerped from the Country Studies--Area Handbook program of the U.S. Department of the Army. The original version of this text is available at the Library of Congress.
Full index of Country Studies-Madagascar