Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/June 1895/Journeying in Madagascar



EARLY on the morning of September 10th I left Antananarivo for Mojanga. My chief reason for not returning to Tamatave was that I preferred to see new country; and the second, that I wished to visit some gold mines worked by a Frenchman, named Suberbie, who had a concession of a large tract about halfway between the capital and the coast. This gentleman has a house in Antananarivo and spends much of his time there. I had the pleasure of meeting him and he favored me with letters of introduction to his manager at one place and a mining engineer at another. The bulk of my baggage had been left in Tamatave, and was to be sent on by the next monthly French mail steamer to Zanzibar, my ultimate destination. I expected to meet a like steamer at Nosy Bé, a French port and island on the northwest coast, with which I learned I might connect by means of a small French steamer which periodically served the principal ports on the west coast of the island. By thus crossing Madagascar I hoped to familiarize myself with its three great races. The Sakalavas on the western portion of the island have always borne a bad name, which they have in part merited, though high-handed aggressions of foreigners ought often to be urged in mitigation thereof. I was warned to keep my revolver in readiness and my escort near at hand, and so determined to take chances of a safe passage to the sea. The direct distance from the capital to Mojanga is two hundred and forty miles in a general northwest direction, though this distance, by many deviations and changes of level, is lengthened by the traveled route into about three hundred and eleven miles. Of this latter distance some two hundred miles are by land in filanzana and the remainder by water in pirogue and dhow, or small sailboat. The total journey may readily be accomplished in ten days. The country through which I would have to pass was said to divide itself naturally into three sections: the first was similar to that eastward of the capital, a treeless region of moors and hills. This was the most inhabited. It consisted of four broad terraces which fell rapidly toward the sea. The road, however, leading as it did obliquely across these terraces, presented on the whole easy gradients. Then came a section of nearly uninhabited wilderness, wooded and undulating. The third section contained the cultivated hills and plains of the Sakalavas. I reengaged for this journey four of the filanzana-bearers and the captain, Mazoto, who had come up from Tamatave with me. This Mazoto was a bright, intelligent fellow, who, besides being the chief of the men, acted as my body servant, and assisted me in cooking and the general duties of vagrant housekeeping. He was born in the country, but of Mozambique parents. His descent showed itself very clearly in his curly hair, his features, and his manner. I then engaged four more filanzana-bearers and six baggage coolies. This made a following of fifteen persons. I took a little larger stock of provisions, but otherwise the outfit was quite the same as when coming to the metropolis from Tamatave. I hired my men only as far as the land journey extended, and was therefore obliged to pay one half more for their return, which seemed no more than just. The bulk of this payment was arranged to be made when they arrived in Antananarivo, and I promised them each also a small present to be earned only by faithful attention to duty and good behavior—so that by these means I had the men pretty well under control. And now it was necessary to call the roll of my assembled bearers and coolies, and this was no easy or quick matter, for scarcely one name was of less length than six syllables. Biographical names in Malagasy are quite as long as geographical. Two of the men were slaves belonging to Mr. Ryder's clerk. In appearance they could not be distinguished from the others, and in amiability and faithful work they proved rather superior to them. All the names, singularly enough, began with the letter R. Here are some of them: Rataimiandra, Ramahamay, Rainivelonandro, Rainizanakolona. The baggage was soon packed in three parcels, and covered with tarred cloth for fear of stray showers. These parcels then being lashed to thick bamboo poles, each borne by two men, were sent on in advance. My filanzana stood waiting, and after a hasty but none the less heartfelt parting from my kind entertainer, I "mounted" and started away north through the deeply gullied streets of the capital, past the edge of the great Zoma, by the tomb of the prime minister's family, and down on to the great plain of Betsimitatatre, covered as far as the eye could see with variously tinted rice fields and everywhere traversed by large and small canals of water obtained mostly from the Betsiboka River. The large canals are utilized by boatmen in
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Fig. 1.—On the Road in Filanzana.

bringing their supplies in canoes to market. Squatting by the banks of many of the rice fields were natives armed with guns with which to kill the numerous birds that eat the young growing rice. The Betsiboka River is here about fifty feet wide in the dry season, but so high and powerful does it become in the wet season that it has to be restrained in its bed by a huge levee of earth some fifty feet in width. On the top of this lay our road for many miles. The other great embankments crossing the plain were nearly covered with mud-walled dwellings. We next reached the banks of the Ikopa, here only a muddy stream about fifty feet wide but one of the largest rivers of Madagascar, whose general course I was now to follow, though at some distance to the eastward, until I reached the sea. I soon left the plain and entered upon a country similar in general character to that found east of the capital, except that the treeless moors were smoother and the road far better. For a long way I enjoyed fine views of Antananarivo, sitting proudly upon her Acropolis, and then, crossing a high ridge, she was gone, to be seen by me no more. Afterward we passed at some distance a great bazaar or weekly market like the Zoma of the metropolis, being held on the top of one of the great smooth downs. The thousands of white shrouded figures collected there were a queer sight. I stopped to eat my lunch in a little roadside hut, and rested upon a comfortable mattress made of palm-leaf ribs and covered with straw matting. On the wall hung a sort of fiddle, with two strings stretched upon a small gourd. The doorway of this hut was only three feet in height, and I had almost to go on "all fours" in order to enter. A very old decrepit woman was the only one about, though I had noticed others in other huts. The sole occupations of these poor old creatures consist in sitting in the sun and gazing at nothing, or, while lying half asleep on a mat, in driving chickens from the rooms with a long pole or with simple hisses. As the doors are always wide open and the fowls always in search of scraps of food, the crones are not idle, at least when inside the huts. No one seems to pay any attention to these reminiscences of humanity, and they themselves appear to wait only for reluctant Nature to dissolve. Going on, there were many outcroppings of granite now to be seen and many curiously shaped erratic bowlders. One hill looked like the round dome of an observatory, another like an ordinary haystack. Everywhere possible rice terraces were placed, and there were many small cultivated fields, but before night the country had become quite deserted, and the road after those to which I had been accustomed was positively lonesome. The strong, pitiless wind which unobstructed sweeps these moors added to this feeling. Traveling at this season is very trying also, for as you sit so long in your filanzana you are chilled and
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Fig. 2.—Malagasy Canoes.

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Fig. 3.—The Traveler’s Palm.

cold until midday, then positively roasted until about four in the afternoon, when you again feel cold until your fire warms you at night. You must have a fire, for, although the houses hereabouts are built of mud bricks, they are by no means tight about doors and roofs. While I was in Antananarivo, the weather was cool and delightful morning and evening, perhaps a trifle too warm in the middle of the day only. But the air was always clear and bracing, and there was generally a light breeze blowing.

Many of the hamlets were now surrounded by a deep ditch, a huge fence of cactus, and a very wide low wall. They reminded me at once of pictures of scenes in central Africa. The ditch generally has some sort of drain, for fear of its overflowing during the heavy rains of the wet season. The ground within the inclosure is quite smooth and level, and the houses usually stand in two rows right and left of the low and narrow entrance gate, which is partially closed by a great stone slab or by piles of logs. I stopped for the night in one of these villages, and was shown quarters in a wretched hut half full of pigs. That is to say, I was offered a room adjoining the pigsty, into which the door of the house directly opened, while the people scrambled into the dwelling room by a window about two feet square, to which they mounted by a pile of rough stones. Upstairs there was a dirty kitchen, to which you had access from the pigsty by a flight of dark, narrow, steep steps in which there was a turn at right angles, for otherwise the house was so small the steps would have had to be vertical. Adjoining this kitchen was a room just large enough to contain my camp bed, and this I accepted—fleas and all—for, if I had to be in the same house as the pigs, at least I preferred another étage. All these villages seemed to allot a large portion of their ground floors to a horrible little black and white spotted pig. The infrequency of pigs on the east coast is more than balanced by their frequency in the central districts.

We continued on during all the next day in a sort of rough valley bordered by ranges of hills. The soil was poor, the grass was coarse, and there was much red clay. The country was very thinly settled and few people were met upon the road. I stopped for my lunch in one of the circular, ditched villages, in a very dilapidated dirty hut in which the only door, as usual, opened directly into the pigsty, while the family scrambled through a little bit of opening several feet from the ground. To facilitate the exit of smoke two large holes had been made at either end of the roof. This let in some daylight, which was much needed, but looked as if much unneeded rain must enter by the same orifices. In the center of the room next the piggery was a fire, and against the walls a few cooking utensils, a rice mortar and pestle, a basket of young squawking ducks, some rolls of matting, and a few clothes.
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Fig. 4.—Some Styles of Hair-dressing.

In one corner sat two little bright-eyed boys who were studying from some paper-covered books—their readers and spellers. I observed that they had also a catechism and a small Testament. All were of course in the Malagasy language. They had also a slate which was used for writing their exercises. I took a little stroll afterward among the houses, and was surprised and amused to see how frightened the chickens were at my approach. I had expected this of the few curs about, but hardly of the fowls. The hens exhibited the greatest alarm, and strove to marshal and drive away their chickens. Apparently even a glimpse of civilization, as represented in my humble self, was altogether too much for these creatures, so naturally more distrustful than their owners, who cheerfully look at everything foreign but will adopt nothing.

During the afternoon we passed through the large village of Ankozobe, pleasantly situated on a smooth hill, like the whole country hereabouts entirely devoid of trees. The people burn a small reed for their cooking, and charge the same price for this as for firewood. Just outside the capital a great field is covered with huge bundles of this reed, there kept for sale. Nearly all the houses of Ankozobe were built in the shape of wall tents—i. e., they had mud walls two or three feet high, upon which directly rested the high-peaked grass roofs. The governor came from his house to invite me to rest and partake of some refreshment, but I was obliged to decline his hospitality, wishing to reach a certain town before dark. This was called Ambatvarana, with deep, wide moat and a square full of cattle. Pigs swarmed everywhere. Just to the westward was a magnificent great mass of gneiss, with precipitous sides showing vertical striæ which looked like the basaltic columns of the Giant's Causeway of Ireland. The range ends a little to the northward of the village in a vast dome of gneiss, with a big conical top which itself rises all of a thousand feet above the roughly undulating plain. It is called Mount Angavo. The highest point is said to be 4,880 feet above sea level, or about one hundred feet above the site of Antananarivo. I visited several houses in this village that were tendered me, but each seemed worse than the other. Finally, I accepted a room in one, on condition that the pigs should sleep away from home for that night. After putting up my camp bed and mosquito-netting, I found I could not get in all my very limited baggage and myself at the same time unless I suspended the most of the former from the walls, which accordingly I did, having driven wooden pegs into the interstices of the mud bricks. The upper floor into which the family were crowded was reached by a vertical bamboo ladder. Soon after lying down for the night I heard so much noise in the pigsty that I was afraid my hostess had forgotten her promise. On searching I did not, it is true, discover any pigs, but there were a cat, a litter of pups, and a brood of chickens. These, at least at my distance, did not smell, and I supposed would not indulge their respective vernaculars all the night, so I returned, decided to make the best of the situation. But little did I know that by no means had a complete roster of

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Fig. 5.—Native Soldiers.

the inmates been taken. I found long before morning that the place swarmed with vermin of all sorts: lice, fleas, mosquitoes, bugs, cockroaches, spiders, and even scorpions. I arose at 2 a. m. and wished to take to the road at once, but had not the heart to waken my tired men before five. Within an hour we were off.

  1. Extracted from the author's latest book of travel, entitled Actual Africa, recently published by Messrs. D. Appleton & Co.