The Journal of African History


The Adoption of Autarky in Imperial Madagascar, 1820–18351

Gwyn Campbella1

a1 University of the Witwatersrand

Traditionally, historians have viewed Queen Ranavalona I as being responsible for inaugurating an autarkic policy in Madagascar. Her expulsion of most foreigners from the country in 1835 is seen primarily as a reflection of her conservative and xenophobic attitudes. In this she is contrasted with her predecessor, Radama I, who is viewed as an enlightened and progressive monarch who, through wise domestic policies and an alliance with the British on Mauritius from 1817, built up an economically sound and prosperous empire. This paper challenges the traditional interpretation, arguing that in fact the Merina economy was in a dire condition from the second decade of the nineteenth century because the slave exports upon which it heavily depended were severely restricted in consequence of the British takeover of the Mascarenes. The subsequent alliance between Britain and Imerina totally prohibited slave exports. However, Radama I looked to Mauritius and British aid to promote legitimate exports and to help impose Merina rule over all Madagascar. Autarkic policies were initiated by Radama I in 1825–6 as a reaction against the failure of the British alliance to produce the anticipated results, and against the free trade imperialism that accompanied it. Convinced by 1825 that the Mauritius government meant to subordinate Imerina both economically and politically to British imperial interests, he reneged on the British treaty and adopted a policy designed to promote rapid economic growth within an independent island empire. Ranavalona I, far from implementing irrational and xenophobic policies, extended her predecessor's autarkic policies in a rational and systematic manner, and for precisely the same ends.


1 I would like to acknowledge the assistance of the Leverhulme Trust and the British Academy whose grants enabled me to complete much of the research undertaken for this paper.

The following abbreviations are used throughout this article: AAMM = Antananarivo Annual and Madagascar Magazine (Journal of the London Missionary Society in Madagascar); AHH = Archives historiques de la vice-province, Société de Jésus, Antananarivo; ANM = Archives Nationales de Madagascar; BAM = Bulletin de l'Académie Malgache; BL = British Library; CO = Colonial Office series in the Public Record Office, London; RA/RH = Raombana ‘Annales’ and ‘Histoires’ (1853) in the Archives of the Académic Malgache, Antananarivo; SOAS/LMS-MIL = Madagascar Incoming Letters – Archives of the London Missionary Society, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.