Emergence of the Merina Kingdom Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the 1600’, the Merina kingdom emerged as the dominant power in the central highlands of Madagascar. The early kings laid the foundation for the eventual unification and control of most of the island in the nineteenth century.

Summary of Event

By the thirteenth century, Vazimba tribes, most likely of African or Afro-Indonesian origin, were living in the central highlands of the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar Madagascar . Each village had its own king or chief. By the mid-sixteenth century, the Hova, most likely Indonesian immigrants, began invading Vazimba territory. With the help of sages known as Marinh, some of the Vazimba and Hova resolved their disputes and consolidated power to form the early Merina society. Andriamanelo, son of a Vazimba queen, was the first king of the Andriana, or Merina, dynasty. He reigned from 1540 to 1575 and introduced the use of iron spears to the culture. [kw]Emergence of the Merina Kingdom (c. 1601) [kw]Merina Kingdom, Emergence of the (c. 1601) Government and politics;c. 1601: Emergence of the Merina Kingdom[0150] Expansion and land acquisition;c. 1601: Emergence of the Merina Kingdom[0150] Africa;c. 1601: Emergence of the Merina Kingdom[0150] Madagascar;c. 1601: Emergence of the Merina Kingdom[0150] Merina kingdom

Andriamanelo’s son, Ralambo Ralambo , ruled from 1575 to 1610. Ralambo is considered the true founder of the Merina kingdom, which he consolidated through centralized rule, successful wars, territorial expansion, and new political and social institutions. He established a new capital at Ambohidrabiby, inherited from his mother, the daughter of a Vazimba chief. Thus, he inherited the chieftainships of both his father’s and his maternal grandfather’s tribes and united these to form the Merina state. Ralambo named his country Imerina, which means the “land where one can see far.” The people were called Merina (“highlanders”), referring to their residence in the central highlands.

Ralambo created a powerful, feudal, and secular foundation for his kingdom. He developed a caste system of four classes of Andriana (nobility). The Zafindralambo class were relatives or descendants of Ralambo and were the higher-ranking nobility. The other three noble castes collectively formed the Andrianteloray (nobility of three distinct fathers), who had no unique privileges but were rewarded for their service to the king. Ralambo also established two smith classes, silversmiths and ironsmiths. Eventually, ironsmiths became part of the army. He imposed a new capitation tax, or tax on each head or person. This vadin-aina (“price of secure life”) made possible a standing army, which battled successfully against neighboring Vazimba tribes. Military;Merina kingdom Ralambo also introduced the use of firearms, which gave the Merina soldiers a significant advantage in battle.

Merina royalty was protected by twelve royal talismans, or amulet guardians, called sampy. The favorite of these twelve royal talismans were named Mahavaly, Fantaka, Manjakatsiroa, and Kelimalaza. Talismans were considered holy and had diverse functions, such as protecting the monarchy, striking the enemy in war, controlling the weather, and protecting against disease. Ralambo also affirmed royal status and power by performing royal circumcision rituals and establishing the divinity of ancestral kings. One of his most significant innovations was the annual royal bath celebration, the fandroana (“bath”), also called taona tsara indrindra (“the best moment of the year”). Performed at the end of each year, this ritual celebrated the beginning of the new year and reaffirmed the king’s authority and puissance. It involved the sprinkling of water as a symbol of purification and blessing of the king and his people.

Ralambo radically changed the Merina diet when he introduced beef as a food. Previously, there was a taboo on eating beef, and cattle were used only as sacrificial or farm animals. Ralambo broke the taboo and changed the name of cattle from jamoka (oxen) to omby to emphasize their new status within his culture. He taught his people to roast the meat and commanded that the hump (or highest peak) and the rump (end piece) be reserved for royalty. Ralambo also made beef part of the royal feast that coincided with the year-end royal bath ritual.

A famous legend grew from Ralambo’s choice of his younger son, Andrianjaka Andrianjaka , as his successor. Fanorona was a traditional board game and has become the national game of Madagascar. It was probably derived from the game of Alquerque, popular in Arab countries and brought to Madagascar by traders. When Ralambo was ill and attempting to decide which of his two sons should inherit his kingdom, he decided to send for both sons. Whoever showed up first would claim the throne. Legend had it the older son was so immersed in a game of Fanorona that he ignored his father’s envoy. The younger son, Andrianjaka, appeared first and thus became the next king of Merina.

In 1610, Andrianjaka (“the prince who rules”) became the king of Merina and ruled until 1630. As a prince, he had already distinguished himself as a courageous soldier who had built up the kingdom’s military arsenal and expanded his father’s empire to the north and west. He also defeated another Vazimba tribe to seize a tall, natural rock fortress situated on a marshy plain. The fortress had been known as Analamanga (the “blue forest”), but Andrianjaka changed its name to Antananarivo (“the city of one thousand”) to reflect the one thousand warriors stationed there. He made Antananarivo the new capital and constructed his wooden rova, or royal palace, strategically at the most elevated point on this hill.

During Andrianjaka’s reign, divine status was given to the living monarch, whereas previously only ancestral or deceased monarchs had been considered divine. There were now three broad castes of Merinas, andriana (nobility), hova (plebeians or free citizens of established clans), and andevo (laborers or slaves with no ancestral tombs). Another significant achievement was the construction of canals and dikes to begin transforming the marshland into rice fields, providing both food and a trade commodity.

Andrianjaka’s successor, King Andriantsitakatrandriana Andriantsitakatrandriana , continued building dams and rice plantations. From 1650 to 1670, Andrianjaka’s grandson, Andriantsimitoviaminandriandehibe Andriantsimitoviaminandriandehibe (“the prince not equaled by the great princes”) ruled. His elder son, Razakatsitakatrandriana Razakatsitakatrandriana , ascended the throne in 1670 but proved incompetent and was overthrown in 1675. He was replaced by his younger brother, King Andriamasinavalona Andriamasinavalona , who ruled from 1675 to 1710. Andriamasinavalona subdued various neighboring chiefs to expand the Merina kingdom outward to occupy all the lands within a 20- to 25- mile (32- to 40-kilometer) radius of the capital city. He also advanced rice cultivation further. These efforts established a firm foundation for Merina power and population growth. However, this sixth Merina king also decided to divide his kingdom among his four sons, which led to rival, independent kingdoms forming after his death.


The rivalries between Merina subkingdoms continued through most of the 1700’. However, the early Merina kings of the seventeenth century had laid the essential foundation for the later unification of the kingdom under King Andrianampoinimerina (r. 1787-1810), who controlled most of the central highlands of Madagascar. His son and successor, King Radama I, ruled from 1810 to 1828. Radama made a peace treaty with the British, who helped him conquer and unify nearly the entire island. He became recognized as the king of Madagascar and promoted a Europeanization policy on the island. Under Radama, a Merina nationalist elite began to develop.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, the Kingdom of Madagascar achieved formal recognition. The English-Malagasy Treaty of December 5, 1862, established recognition of the Malagasy state by foreign countries. However, in 1895 French troops captured the capital, exiled the Merina king and queen to Algeria, and took control of Madagascar. In August, 1896, France annexed the kingdom of Imerina, and on February 28, 1897, Madagascar officially became a French colony. In the twenty-first century, the Merina people remain the island’s most populous ethnic group, and they account for the largest number of educated, middle-class citizens of Madagascar. The Merina dialect is also the principal Malagasy language. The modern capital of Madagascar is Antananarivo, the capital city established and named by Andrianjaka in the seventeenth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloch, Maurice. From Blessing to Violence: History and Ideology in the Circumcision Ritual of the Merina of Madagascar. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Useful explanation of the myth of the origin of circumcision, beginning with the first Merina king. Illustrations, notes, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Mervyn. A History of Madagascar. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 2002. This first complete history of Madagascar in English includes extensive coverage of the Merina kingdom. Illustrations, maps, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cannadine, David. Rituals of Royalty: Power and Ceremonial in Traditional Societies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Includes a chapter on “The Ritual of the Royal Bath in Madagascar.” Illustrations, index, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Green, Rebecca L. Once Is Never Enough: Textiles, Ancestors, and Reburials in Highland Madagascar. Bloomington: Indiana University Art Museum, 1998. Catalog of an exhibition that included pieces related to the rites and ceremonies of the Merina people. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, and notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kent, Raymond. Early Kingdoms in Madagascar, 1500-1700. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970. This well-researched study includes a detailed account of the early Merina kingdoms. Illustrations, maps, appendices, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kottak, Conrad Phillip, et al., eds. Madagascar: Society and History. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1986. Includes discussion of the evolution of the royal cult and bath. Illustrations and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stevens, Rita. Madagascar. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999. A useful general source covering the history, geography, economy, people, and culture of Madagascar. Illustrations and glossary.
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Categories: History