The Merina people

The Merina, also known as the Hova, are one of Madagascar’s 18 ethnic groups, mainly located in the northern part of the island’s central highlands, particularly around the capital, Antananarivo. Their history, culture and political influence have played a central role in the development of the Malagasy economy. The influence and centralization of Madagascar around Antananarivo, the Merina capital, has resulted in the Merina language being considered the official language of Madagascar. In this article, we explore the origin, history, culture and impact of the Merina on Malagasy society.

Origins and history of the Merina people :

The origins of the Merinas go back several centuries. They are the result of successive migrations from Southeast Asia and East Africa. The first inhabitants of the highlands of Madagascar, around the 11th century, were probably Austronesians from Borneo. In fact, numerous studies by various researchers all lead to the conclusion that the Malagasy people originated mainly from the Indonesian archipelago. These Austronesians are now known in Malagasy oral tradition as the Ntaolo, or elders.
The Ntaolo brought with them agricultural techniques, customs and traditions that have shaped Merina culture to this day.
In the 17th century, the Merina kingdom began to emerge under the leadership of powerful kings such as Andrianampoinimerina, who unified the various highland clans. His reign, from 1787 to 1810, was marked by social and administrative reforms that consolidated centralized power and paved the way for the kingdom’s expansion.

Social and political organization :

In traditional Merina society, the social system was structured around royalty and rigid social classes. The nobility (Andriana), commoners (Hova) and slaves (Andevo) were the three main social categories. The Merina monarchy centralized power and maintained it through a network of nobles and local governors.
The Merina were also renowned for their military organization and ability to manage a vast territory. In the 19th century, King Radama I continued the work of his father, Andrianampoinimerina, expanding the kingdom to control almost the entire island of Madagascar. His successor, Queen Ranavalona I, known for her authoritarian reign and isolationist policies, made history with her methods of maintaining independence against foreign influences.
However, in the course of their expansion, the Merina often encountered difficulties with the Betsileo people, but we’ll deal with that in another article.

Highlands Culture and Traditions :

Merina culture is rich and varied, integrating Austronesian and African elements. The Malagasy language, with its Merina dialect, is an Austronesian language that has incorporated Swahili, Arabic and European influences over the centuries.
The Merina celebrate numerous festivals and rituals, including the famadihana, or turning of the dead, and the famorana, or circumcision. The famadihana, which consists in exhuming the bodies of ancestors, wrapping them in new shrouds and reburying them after festive ceremonies, is an expression of the belief in the importance of ancestors in daily life.
Music, dance and handicrafts also play an important role in Merina culture. Traditional instruments, such as the valiha (a tubular bamboo zither), and folk dances are key elements of community celebrations.

Influence and heritage of the Merina people :

The influence of the Merina on Madagascar’s politics, economy and culture is undeniable. Their administrative system and reforms provided the basis for the modern organization of the Malagasy state. Although the Merina monarchy came to an end with French colonization in 1896, their legacy lives on in language, traditions and social structures.
Today, the Merina continue to play a major role in the country’s political and economic life. Antananarivo, the capital and nerve center of Madagascar, remains a bastion of Merina culture and influence.

The Merina of Madagascar represent an ethnic group whose history and culture have profoundly influenced the island’s development. Their ability to unite different clans, establish a powerful kingdom and keep traditions alive despite historical challenges is a testament to their resilience and dynamism. To understand the Merina is to plunge into the heart of Malagasy identity, rich in diversity and complexity.

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