Riotous isle of vanilla gangsters, lemurs and a DJ president

In his new book on Madagascar, John Gimlette tells of trouble in paradise

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

As if a coronavirus pandemic is not bad enough, Madagascar has been suffering another public health scare of late: bubonic plague. The most serious bout came in 2017 with 2,348 cases, 202 deaths and a rush on cache-bouches (face masks) long before anyone had even heard of Covid-19. Conditions in jails — deemed similar to those in medieval Europe — were partially blamed. Each year since, outbreaks have spread during la saison pesteuse (roughly August to January), although numbers are now well down.

The Gardens of Mars: Madagascar, An Island Story by John Gimlette, Head of Zeus, £30

When the travel writer, John Gimlette, arrived in 2018 with his rucksack stuffed with notes and three months to spare, walls were “plastered in posters of rats and fleas” and “people still looked watchful and pasty”. Undeterred, he began to look around, soon hearing rumours that “the government had made millions [in aid] from their overblown epidemic”. As with so much on this mysterious island nation 240 miles off Africa’s east coast — the world’s fourth biggest island, population 20 million — the truth is sometimes tricky to establish.

In The Gardens of Mars, Gimlette, a London-based barrister and author of five previous travel books (most recently on Sri Lanka), gives it a good try, setting off on cramped mini-buses and little planes to cover the, by turns, desert-dry and rainforest-lush, former French colony. The French finally left in 1960 after arriving as traders in the seventeenth century, setting up their outpost in the late nineteenth century and facing bloody uprisings towards the end. “It’s always intrigued me, this unnoticed country,” writes Gimlette. An unnamed diplomat provides a blunter assessment of the “strategically inert” island, “if Madagascar were to disappear, no one would notice.”

The common denominators throughout? Poverty. Most Malagasies live on less than $1.90 a day. Dreadful roads with “cow bath” potholes. Fear of accidents on escarpments: “The road is always disappearing, and cars and trucks often take to the air.” Malaria and bilharzia: every sixth child in rural areas is said to suffer from the latter. Endless hearsay: were those Canadian miners really after nickel and sulphates, or was it gold? The occasional dissolute barfly: “Joyless, worn, mushroom-skinned and middle-aged,” attracted by sex tourism and child exploitation. Both are worrying problems.

Gimlette’s forays along crocodile-infested rivers and into tribal settlements where outsiders are rarely seen

And lemurs: 107 indigenous species, mewling, howling and sometimes pinching breakfasts on hotel terraces. Lemurs are tolerated, kept as pets by some, although eaten by others. Folklore says the creatures could once speak but chose (judiciously) to refrain when humans arrived for fear of being put to work.

This was around 8,000BC. Madagascar splintered from the super-continent of Gondwana 150 million years ago and had been left untouched before being settled by travellers from Indonesia, although no-one quite knows why or how. Herbert Deschamps, a French historian, described their passage as “la plus belle enigma du monde”.

Gimlette’s forays along crocodile-infested rivers and into tribal settlements where outsiders are rarely seen — some in territory at the mercy of cattle-rustling outlaws — weaves descriptions of the often-uncomfortable nature of travel (though he never whinges) with vivid passages on Madagascan history. From the Dutch, British, Portuguese and French slave traders of the seventeenth century (almost half the 32,473 slaves on Barbados were Madagascan), to tribal wars to capture others for sale, and ship-wrecked Europeans coming to sticky ends, it is a history that is destructive, often bloody.

The vicious reigns of King Radama I (1793-1828) and Queen Ranavalona I (1828-1861) are told in gory detail. Astonishingly, up to 2.5 million people, half the population, perished at the hands of Ranavalona, who adopted magic including a vicious loyalty test involving eating chicken skins soaked in poison. Those who regurgitated all were deemed “innocent”; others pushed off cliffs.

The French invasion of 1883 with its high death toll on the march to Tana is told with Gimlette dutifully following their route. In 1942, Britain captured the Vichy-controlled port of Diego Suarez. This offensive had so worried Churchill that he “felt a shiver of anxiety every time I saw the word Madagascar”. His chief concern was the Japanese eventually taking the excellent natural harbour.

Pirates, Welsh missionaries, horrifying Nazi plans to ship out Jews, vanilla-crop gangsters, ruinous Marxist 1970s leaders, and — most recently — a yoghurt baron and DJ presidents, add to the extraordinary mix. And at the end of his three months, Gimlette finds himself caught up in a political riot in Tana wondering if he is somehow dreaming the events. Yet, despite the mayhem, he concludes, “Madagascar and its people may often seem impenetrable, but there’s no better place to be happily lost.”

He returns to his wife and daughter in London, who had joined him briefly when visiting the beaches on the satellite island of Nosy Be, the closest Madagascar has to a tourist resort. It is 36 years since the Irish travel writer, Dervla Murphy, penned her bright and breezy travelogue Muddling Through in Madagascar. Gimlette’s update, perhaps lacking her playfully light touch, is nevertheless gripping — bubonic plagues and all.

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