Madagascar and the Future of the Nusantarian World



At the dawn of the third millennium, the world seems to look
for a new direction. The development of globalization is threatening
the very foundation of the old empires based upon nation-state
centralism. Oppositely, new alliances based on more natural
affinities, especially ethnic-based affinities which had been
neglected or even prohibited, are now taking place. On the one hand,
it is the fear of depersonalization that ignites the rehabilitation of
one’s ancestral identities. On the other hand, the need to join with
competent partners to face the present frontierless world requires a
connection with those sharing the same fundamental interests. From now
on, as distances constitute little barrier to exchanges, the prospect
of new alliance can be invoked.

One immediately does realize how much this new situation can
be advantageous to the Nusantarian World. Until now, direct
communications between the various countries belonging to this human
group, spreading throughout two oceans over thousands years, were
hindered by the distances. Moreover, during the last centuries, the
European colonization and its aftermath discouraged us from pursuing
such unity. For each newly independent country, the consolidation of
national unity was its prime concerns.

In order to better define the role and the significance of
Madagascar within the future of the nusantarian world, it is necessary
to begin by recounting some of the major features of that world.

The Nusantarian Motherland

Among the major ethnolinguistic groups in the world, the
nusantarian family (also called “Malayo-Polynesian” or “Austronesian”
by western authors) undeniably occupied the largest geographical
territory prior the modern era. From east to west, this vast territory
covered the area from Rapa-nui (Easter Island) to Madagascar,
approximately 60% the circumference of the earth. From north to south,
it included the island of Taiwan (Pekan, for the Nusantarian natives),
the archipelago of Hawaii (from “Hava-iki” or “Little Java”, to
recollect the ancestral homeland of the Polynesian), and New Zealand
(Aotearoa in Maori language). Beyond this heartland, other regions
were frequented by Nusantarians navigators, including the major part
of the Pacific Ocean (to South America) and the Indonesian Ocean, as
far as East Africa. [1]

Today, there are approximately 300 million Nusantarians.
Their communities are traditionally present in 34 officially
recognized countries in Southeast Asia (including Taiwan and Hainan
where the Cam Utsat people live), Oceania, and the Indonesian Ocean.

In recent years, many authors concluded that the
Nusantarians originated from the present coastal area of eastern China
(well before the rise of the Chinese Empire).[2] Understandably, it
was by seafaring, approximately 6,000 or 7,000 years ago, that our
ancestors began to slowly occupy their historical territory. In so
doing, they precociously mastered an extraordinary technique of
navigation. Indeed from the beginning of our era, it is known from
testimonies found in Chinese texts that the Nusantarians of Southeast
Asia were using ships (the Chinese *b’ak, related to the *bangkah of
Melayu) capable of transporting several hundred of tons of goods and
hundreds (or even a thousand) passengers.[3] That is hardly surprising
if we know that in Oceania the big double canoes (waka or pahi,
corresponding to bagan and to ancient bandung of Indonesia), although
a lot less equipped in terms of tools, were capable of transporting
together up to 500 persons.[4]

Subsequent to this common origin, the Nusantarian heritage
is characterized by three affinities, namely linguistic, cultural and

Throughout the Nusantarian domain, the basic vocabulary and
many typologic resemblances are preserved in all languages, among
which three major sub-sections can be distinguished: a) the archaic
language group of Taiwan; b) those of the western nusantarian world
and countries of Southeast Asia, from Madagascar to the western part
of Micronesia (Marianas, Guam and Belau/Palau Islands); c) those of
the oriental nusantarian part, including the whole of Polynesia and
the major part of the Melanesia.[5]

The Nusantarian civilization is characterized by many
common features found in their social organization, technology,
beliefs and artistic expressions. Finally, from the anthropological
point of view, the majority of the Nusantarians (the Melanesians
excepted) are sharing the same human form, characterized by the
“classic Melayu” model : in which the skull is mesocephalic or
moderately brachycephalic, the brown skin color or sawo matang, the
wavy hair, less or not at all slit eyes, etc.[6]

Taking account of these elements, we should re-appraise the
status and the importance of Madagascar in the Nusantarian domain.

Madagascar, a part of Southeast Asian history

Within the Nusantarian World, Madagascar stands apart for
many reasons. First, geographically, this island is the farthest from
any other Nusantarian territory. Its closest neighbors, the islands
around Sumatra, are more than 6,000 km distant. It is thus the only
part situated in the western Indonesian Ocean, close to the African
continent. Also by its size, Madagascar is relatively large. Among all
the Nusantarian islands, it is second only to Kalimantan. However, its
most surprising originality is found in its cultural and historical

In all likelihood, the island was discovered in the first
centuries of the common era by seafarers from central Indonesia,
related to the ancestors of the present people of Southeast
Kalimantan.[7] One wonders what drove them so far to the west. In the
current state of knowledge, there is obviously no answer to that
question. However, it is likely that those people were not the only
Nusantarians who frequented the western part of the Indonesian Ocean
during that era. In fact, the Melayu traders (namely, the Melayu
speaking Nusantarians kingdoms, the most prominent being one named
“Funan” by Chinese authors) traded between the Sea of China and the
coastal countries of the Indonesian Ocean, as far as the Roman empire,
to the northwest.[8] And probably, presence of Melayu in that region
might have contributed to the process of hinduization of Southeast Asia.

While the Merina’s ancestors slowly undertook the
exploration and colonization of Madagascar, others Nusantarians traded
actively with the African coasts and the Middle East. The items traded
were mostly spices, ivory, cowries, pearls, hides, slaves, and perhaps
silk. It is highly probable (as referenced in some Arabic texts) that
Melayu trading posts were established on the coasts of Africa.[9]

The presence of Melayu in western Indonesian Ocean began to
decline from the 8th century under the pressure of the emerging Muslim
competition. However, by the 10th century, the Malays tried to
reconquer the African coasts with an enormous expedition (Arabic texts
talk about a thousand ships) but without success.[10] Since then, they
had ceased to frequent the region. It should be mentioned that even
their old maritime hegemony in Southeastern Asia – represented at that
time by the empire of Srivijaya – was then contested not only by the
new power of the southern Indians of Chola, but also, by a growing
Chinese power. Concurrently, the Merina’s ancestors began their
migration to the highlands of Madagascar to avoid the threat of the
Islamized emigrants and their numerous African slaves who rapidly took
control of the northern and eastern part of Madagascar. In respect to
several traditions, their prime motive for leaving the coastal areas
was their refusal to mingle with their new neighbors.[11]

It was from that time that the Merina, as a people
completely isolated from Southeast Asia, started on a different
historial path. Meanwhile, some Nusantarians, especially the Bugis –
as mentionned in the epic of Sawerigading of La Galigo -, might have
continued to sporadically visit the region.[12] Also by the 13th
century, the Melayu of Tambralinga (present southern Thailand)
organized a certain number of expeditions to the Southern India and to
Ceylan for reasons related to Buddhism.[13] But to our knowledge,
there is no indication that any of those late nusantarian expeditions
might have influenced the course of Madagascar’s history.[14]

However, during the entire first millennium, the history of
Madagascar is simply integrated with the presence of Southern Asian
Nusantarians in the western part of the Indonesian Ocean. Therefore,
it is difficult to isolate that island. Perhaps in the future, the
progress in archaeological research and the advance of cultural and
linguistic studies will help us to better understand that past.

The importance of Madagascar in the future of the Nusantarian World

The exceptional importance of Madagascar in the history of
ancient nusantarian navigation in the Indonesian Ocean is perfectly
known here. Moreover, it remind us that for 4,000 to 5,000 years,
untill around the 10th century, the nusantarian peoples were the
greatest navigators of the world. It is true that similars achievement
can be attested to the peoples of the Oceania, but, as far as it
concerns the Southeast Asia, Madagascar is ethnologically and
historically closer to them. Oceania indeed belongs to the prehistory
of Southeast Asia, while Madagascar is an integral part of its “old”,
or more exactly, pre-modern history; from the glorious period prior
the Islamisation, the arrival of Chinese emigrants and the influx of
European colonizers. Furthermore, unlike the Indo-Javanese culture for
example, the civilization of Madagascar developed out of the sole
ethnic ingenuity of the Nusantarians, without any direct foreign
influence. Even if words of sanskrit origin are found in Madagascar’s
native languages, they all seem to have been borrowed through the old
Malay.[15] Similarly, the Arab-African influence on the Merina people
is, not only very limited, but also considered as a corruptive rather
than formative late addition.

In this regard, Madagascar constitutes one of the best
examples demonstrating the dynamism and the potentiality of
traditional nusantarian civilization. Even if the countries of
Southeast Asia had not borrowed from foreign cultures, they would have
been quite able to achieve extraordinary status. To us, it is
significant that the king Andrianampoinimerina (who ruled from 1783 to
1809), was a pure bearer of the traditional Merina civilization. He no
doubt could be considered as one of the greatest nusantarian
sovereigns of all time.[16]

In conclusion, the rediscovery of Madagascar represents to
the South Asia nusantarian countries a kind of an encounter with their
own history. The look of a Merina should remind them how great
navigators were their ancestors, and how they were proud of their
identity that they really did matter to preserve it above anything

But the most startling is that besides recalling the
Nusantarians’ past, Madagascar is holding great promises for their
future. As already pre-announced by the creation of the APEC
(Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), indicators suggest that the
Pacific basin will be the real economic heart of our planet, and also,
to a larger extent, its cultural and political heart. In these
conditions, those countries occupying the most propitious locations
are suceptible to play highly decisive roles.

From now on, it is for the interests of the Nusantarian
countries of Southeast Asia to contemplate themselves, not as being on
the periphery of Asia and the Pacific Ocean, but as in the very heart
of the oceanic domain. The Pacific Ocean itself is not an empty space,
but a crossroad and a field of expansion for the peoples from its
bordering continents, a territory for self-development for the peoples
who occupied it for millennia, and who beforehand were Nusantarians.
So, it is timely that Melayu, Javanese and Tagalog peoples, among
others, reassert their real attributes, as representatives of the
Nusantarians, the Islands people, traditional masters of the Ocean,
and not just a mere variety of “non-typical” and marginal Asians. For
that purpose, they absolutely have to position themselves in regard to
their own “peripheric surroundings”, and also determine the boundaries
of their actual inner dimensions.

For that matter and for their interest, the Nusantarians of
Southeast Asia should integrate in their world vision as well as their
political policy that the Merina, on the one hand, and the
Micronesians and Polynesians, on the other hand, are in fact the
extensions of their own identity.

These indeed are the peoples testifying their own history,
especially the most authentic part of it. There is scant need to
mention that for these “peripheral” Nusantarians, the new interest
brought by their South Asian kin will finally help them to exit out of
their isolation and to take control of their own destiny. Henceforth,
with the support of their kin, they will no longer be considered as
just small islanders, lost in the middle of the ocean. They will no
longer be the coveted objects by those foreigners thinking only of
taking advantage of their vulnerability, but a member of a vast
community of peoples sharing the same ancestors, the same basic
identity, and together, sharing the same hopes in planning their own

In other words, within that perspective, Madagascar somehow
might also have within it the actual keys to the future of the
Nusantarian world.

Andriantefinanahary & Yanariak (October, 1997)


[1] Cf. BELLWOOD, Peter, Man’s Conquest of the Pacific. The
Prehistory of Southeast Asia and Oceania, Auckland : Collins, 1978.
SLAMETMULJANA. Asal Bangsa dan Bahasa Nusantara. Jakarta : Balai
Pustaka, 1975. (Back to Text)

[2] Among others, cf. LING, Shun-sheng. A Study of the Raft,
Outrigger, Double, and Deck Canoes of Ancient China, the Pacific, and
Indian Oceans. Taipei: The Institute of Ethnology, 1970. BELLWOOD,
Peter. Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago. Sydney: Academic
Press, 1985 et “A Hypothesis for Austronesian Origins”, Asian
Perspectives, XXXVI,1, 1984-1985: 107-117. BLUST, Robert. “The
Austronesian Homeland: A Linguistic Perspective”, Asian Perspectives,
XXXVI,1, 1984-1985: 45-67. REID, Lawrence A. “Benedict’s Austro-Tai
Hypothesis – An Evaluation”, Asian Perspectives, XXXVI,1, 1984-1985:
19-34. ZHANG Guang-zhi. “Archaeology in the Southeastern Coastal China
and the Origin of the Austronesian”, Nanyang Minzu Kaogu, 1987, 1:
1-14. XING, Gongwan. “On the Genealogical Relationship between Han
Language (Chinese) and Austronesian Languages”, Minzu Yuwen, 3, 1991:
1-14.(Back to the text)

[3] MANGUIN, Pierre-Yves, “The Southeast Asian Ship: An
Historical Approach”, Journal of South-East Asian 0Studies, IX, 2,
1980: 266-276; “Sewn-plank Craft of South-East Asia. A Preliminary
Survey”, in Sewn Planked Boats, Archaeological and Ethnographic
papers, S.McGrail & E.Kentley, eds. Oxford, 1985:319-343. DORAN, Edwin
Jr. Wangka: Austronesian Canoe Origin, Texas A .& M. University press,
1981. (Back to the text)

[4] HADDON, A.C. & HORNELL, James, Canoes of Oceania,
Honolulu: P.Bishop Museum, 1975. LEWIS, David, We the navigators. The
Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific, Canberra: Australian
National University Press,1972. NEYRET, Jean. Les pirogues
océaniennes, Paris: Musée de la Marine, 1976-1977. (Back to Text)

[5] WURM, S.A. & HATTORI, Shiro, eds. Language Atlas of the
Pacific area, Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, 1981. KERAF, Gorys.
Linguistik Bandingan Historis, Jakarta: Gramedia, 1984. (Back to Text)

[6] Cf. HOWELLS, William. The Pacific Islanders, London,
Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1973. BELLWOOS, Peter. 1978, op.cit. GLINKA,
J.: “Racial History of Indonesia”, in Rassengeschichte der Menschheit,
8, Lieferung Asien I: Japan, Indonesien, Ozeanien, München:
Oldenbourg, 1981: 79-113. (Back to Text)

[7] Cf. DAHL, O.C. Malgache et Maanjan. Une comparaison
linguistique. Oslo, 1951 et “La subdivision de la famille Barito et la
place du malgache”, Acta Orientalia, 38, 1977: 77-134. (Back to Text)

[8] WHEATLEY, Paul. The Golden Khersonese: Studies in the
Historical Geography of the Malay Peninsula Before AD 1500, Kuala
Lumpur, University of Malay Press, 1961. WOLTERS, Olivier W. Early
Indonesian Commerce: A Study of the Origins of Srivijaya, Cornell U.P.
1967 et The Fall of Srivijaya in Malay History, Oxford U.P. 1970.
MILLER, J.I. The Spice Trade of the Roman Empire 29 B.C. to A.D. 641,
Oxford, 1969. Nia KURNIA SHOLIFAT IRFAN, Kerajaan Sriwijaya, Jakarta:
Girimukti Pasaka, 1983. (Back to Text)

[9] FERRAND, Gabriel. “Le K’ouen-louen et les anciennes
navigations inter-océaniques dans les mers du sud”, Journal Asiatique,
1919, XIII:239-333, 431-492; XIV: 5-68, 201-241. “L’empire sumatranais
de Srivijaya”, Journal Asiatique, 1922, 1-104, 161-246. (Back to Text)

[10] MAUNY, Raymond. “The Wakwak and the Indonesian invasion
in East Africa in 945 A.D.”, Studia (Lisboa), 1965, 15, pp.7-16.
MOLLAT, Michel. “Les contacts historiques de l’Afrique et de
Madagascar avec l’Asie du Sud et du Sud-Est: le rôle de l’Océan
Indien”, Archipel, 21, 1981: 35-53. (Back to Text)

[11] Cf. Tantara ny Andriana eto Madagascar, Antananarivo,
1908 : 62-64 et DELIVRE, Alain. L’histoire des rois d’Imerina.
Interprétation d’une tradition orale, Paris: Klincksieck, 1974. (Back
to Text)

[12] KERN, R.A. Catalogus I. Catalogus van de Boeginese, tot
de I La Galigo-cyclus behorende handschriften v. Jajasan Matthes te
Makassar, Makassar, 1954. (Back to Text)

[13] PARANAVITANA, S. Ceylon and Malaysia, Colombo, 1966.
SIRISENA, W.M. Sri Lanka and South-East Asia: Political, Religious,
and Cultural Relations from A.D. c. 1000 to c. 1500, Leiden 1978.
(Back to Text)

[14] Concerning others approaches, cf. ADELAAR, K.A. “Malay
Influence on Malagasy: Linguistic and culture-historical
Implications”, Oceanics Linguistics, 28,1, 1989: 1-46. DAHL, O.C.
Migration from Kalimantan to Madagascar, Norwegian University press,
1991. (Back to Text)

[15] DAHL, O.C. op. cit. 1951, 1991. BERNARD-THIERRY,
Solange. “A propos des emprunts sanskrits en malgache”, Journal
Asiatique, 1959: 311-348. (Back to Text)

[16] On king Andrianampoinimerina and his works, cf. Tantara
ny Andriana eto Madagascar, Antananarivo 1908. (Back to Text)

[17] Cf. NAZIF, Mohamed. De val van het Rijk Merina. (La
chute du Royaume de Merina), Buitenzorg (Bogor), 1928. TASRIF, S.
Merina. Pasang surut Keradjaan Merina. Sedjarah sebuah negara jang
didirikan oleh Perantau² Indonesia di Madagaskar. Jakarta : Balai Buku
Media, 1966.

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