Betsimisaraka people



The Betsimisaraka ("the many inseparables") are the second largest ethnic group in Madagascar after the Merina and make up approximately fifteen percent of the Malagasy people. They occupy a large stretch of the eastern coastal region of Madagascar, from Mananjary in the south to Antalaha in the north. The Betsimisaraka have a long history of extensive interaction with European seafarers and traders that produced a significant subset with mixed European-Malagasy origins, termed the zana-malata. European influence is evident in the local valse (waltz) and basesa musical genres, which are typically performed on the accordion. Tromba (spirit possession) ceremonies feature strongly in Betsimisaraka culture.

Through the late 17th century, the various clans of the eastern coastal region were governed by chieftains who typically ruled over one or two villages. A zana-malata named Ratsimilaho emerged to unite these clans under his rule in 1710.

His reign lasted 50 years and established a sense of common identity and stability throughout the kingdom, but his successors gradually weakened this union, leaving it vulnerable to the growing influence and presence of European and particularly French settlers, slave traders, missionaries and merchants.

The fractured Betsimisaraka kingdom was easily colonised in 1817 by Radama I, king of Imerina who ruled from its capital at Antananarivo in the Central Highlands. The subjugation of the Betsimisaraka in the 19th century left the population relatively impoverished; under colonisation by the French (1896-1960), a focused effort was made to increase access to education and paid employment working on French plantations. Production of former plantation crops like vanilla, ylang-ylang, coconut oil, and coffee remain the principal economic activity of the region beyond subsistence farming and fishing, although mining is also a source of income.

Culturally, the Betsimisaraka can be divided into northern and southern sub-groups. Many elements of culture are common across both groups, including respect for ancestors, spirit possession, the ritual sacrifice of zebu, and a patriarchal social structure. The groups are distinguished by linguistic sub-dialects and various fady (taboos), as well as certain funeral practices and other customs. The Betsimisaraka practice famadihana (reburial) and sambatra (circumcision) and believe in sorcery and a wide range of supernatural forces. Many taboos and folktales revolve around lemurs and crocodiles, both of which are common throughout Betsimisaraka territory.


Birth of the Betsimirasaka Kingdom

It was around 1720 that Ratsimilaho, son of the English pirate Thomas White and the Malagasy Rahena, conquered Fenoarivo or “the city of a thousand warriors” with the help of the northern peoples called the Antavaratra. He then would have made a blood pact with the allied tribal leaders to strengthen their alliance forever. Thus was born the first Betsimisaraka Kingdom on which this conqueror ruled under the name of Ramaromanompo or “the one who is served by many people”.


The Betsimisaraka people

This large ethnic group is made up of about 1.5 million Betsimirasaka spread over approximately 72,000 km² of Madagascar’s eastern coastline. They are a sedentary people who live mainly from slash-and-burn agriculture and fishing. This part of the island is dependent on a social organization based on a principle of chiefdoms called tanky.

A chiefdom gathers the descendants of the same lineage having in common an ancestor and a lônjobe or main tomb, and is governed by a set of fady (prohibitions). A lineage can be divided into sub-lineages called taranaka and lead to the creation of a secondary tomb called tranomanara.



Social life revolves around the agricultural year, with preparation of fields beginning in October, the harvest of rice in May, and the winter months from June to September set aside for ancestor worship and other major rituals and customs.

There are clear gender divisions among the Betsimisaraka. When traveling by foot in a mixed gender group, it is forbidden for women to walk before men. Women are traditionally the ones to act as porters, carrying light items on the head and heavy items on the back; if a woman is present, it is considered ridiculous for a man to carry something. When eating, men use a single spoon to fill their plates from the communal bowl and to eat the food on their plates, whereas women are required to use two separate spoons to fill their plates and to eat. Men are generally responsible for tilling the rice fields, obtaining food, gathering firewood and building the family home and furniture, and they engage in discussion and debate about public affairs. Women's tasks include growing crops, weeding the rice fields and harvesting and processing the rice, fetching water, lighting the hearth fire and preparing daily meals, and weaving.


Religious affiliation

Religious rites and customs are traditionally presided over by a tangalamena officiant. Betsimisaraka communities widely believe in various supernatural creatures, including ghosts (angatra), mermaids (zazavavy an-drano) and the imp-like kalamoro. Efforts to Christianize the local population began in the early 19th century but were largely unsuccessful at first. During the colonial period the influence of Christianity among the local population grew, but where it is practiced is often blended syncretically with traditional ancestor worship. Syncretism of Christian and indigenous beliefs led to the motif that the sun (or the moon) was the original location for the Garden of Eden.



Although there are differences between the northern and southern Betsimisaraka, many major aspects of their culture are similar. Major customs among the Betsimisaraka include sambatra (circumcision), folanaka (the birth of a tenth child), ritual sacrifice of zebu for the ancestors, and celebrating the inauguration of a newly constructed house. Marriage, death, birth, the New Year and Independence Day are also communally celebrated. The practice of tromba (ritual spirit possession) is widespread among the Betsimisaraka. Both men and women act as mediums and spectators in these events.

The indigenous raffia palm was the base fiber for the clothing traditionally worn by the Betsimisaraka. Leaves of the raffia were combed to separate the fibers, which were knotted end to end to form strands that could then be woven together to form cloth. Among the various peoples who united under the Betsimisaraka confederation, women wore a short wrapper (simbo), typically with a bandeau top (akanjo), while men wore smocks. Traditional raffia clothing is still worn by some Betsimisaraka today.

The Betsimisaraka hold lemurs in high regard and tell several legends in which lemurs come to the aid of prominent Betsimisaraka figures. According to one story, a lemur saved the life of a Betsimisaraka ancestor from a grave peril. In another tale, a group of Betsimisaraka sought refuge in a forest from a marauding enemy group. Their enemies followed them into the forest, tracking the Betsimisaraka by what they believed to be the sound of their voices. Upon reaching the source of the sound they discovered a group of ghostly-looking lemurs and, believing the Betsimisaraka had been transformed into animals by magic, fled the area in terror. The spirits of Betsimisaraka ancestors are believed to reside inside the bodies of lemurs. Consequently, in general it is forbidden for the Betsimisaraka to kill or eat lemurs, and it is obligatory to free a trapped lemur and to bury a dead lemur with the same rites as a person.

Crocodiles are also viewed with reverence and fear. At river banks where they are known to gather, it is not uncommon for Betsimisaraka villagers to throw them zebu hindquarters (the most favored cut), whole geese and other offerings on a daily basis. Amulets for protection against crocodiles are commonly worn or thrown into the water in areas where the animals congregate. It is commonly believed that witches and sorcerers are closely linked with crocodiles, being capable of ordering them to kill others and of walking among them without being attacked. The Betsimisaraka believe witches and sorcerers appease crocodiles by feeding them rice at night, and some are accused of walking crocodiles through Betsimisaraka villages at midnight or even being married to the crocodiles, which they then enslave to do their bidding.



Among some Betsimisaraka it is considered fady for a brother to shake hands with his sister, or for young men to wear shoes during their father's lifetime. Among many Betsimisaraka, the eel is considered sacred. It is forbidden to touch, fish or eat eel. Although many coastal Malagasy communities have a fady against the consumption of pork, this is not universal or common among the Betsimisaraka, who often keep pigs in their villages.

Complex taboos and rites are associated with a woman's first childbirth. When about to give birth she is secluded in a special birthing house called a komby. The leaves she eats from and the waste produced by the newborn are kept in a special receptacle for seven days, at which point they are burned. The ash produced is rubbed on the forehead and cheeks of the mother and baby and must be worn for seven days. On the fifteenth day both are bathed in water in which lime or lemon leaves have been soaked. This ritual is called ranom-boahangy (bath of the leaves). The community gathers to drink rum and celebrate with wrestling matches, but the mother must stay in the komby. She is not allowed to consume anything other than saonjo greens and a chicken specially prepared for her. After this celebration she is required to leave the komby and can return to routine life.

Among the Betsimisaraka, like several other Malagasy ethnic groups, there is a fady against speaking the name of a chief after his death or any word that formed part of the name. The deceased leader was given a new name after death that all were required to use, and specific synonyms were selected to replace the words composing his name for use in regular conversation; anyone who spoke the forbidden words would be harshly punished or in some instances executed.


Funeral rites

Some Betsimisaraka, principally those living around Maroantsetra, practice the famadihana reburial ceremony, although in a simpler form than that practiced in the Highlands. Coffins are placed in tombs only in southern Betsimisaraka; in the north, they are placed under outdoor shelters. While in mourning, women will unbraid their hair and stop wearing their akanjo, while men no longer wear a hat; the mourning period typically lasts two to four months depending on how closely related the individual was to the deceased.


Dance and music

The ceremonial dance music style most closely associated with the tromba among the Betsimisaraka is called basesa and is performed on accordion.The traditional basesa performed for tromba ceremonies uses kaiamba shakers to accentuate the rhythm; lyrics are always sung in local Betsimisaraka dialect. The accompanying dance is performed with arms to the sides of the body and heavy foot movements. Contemporary basesa, which has been popularized across the island, is performed using a modern drum kit and electric guitar and bass with keyboard or accordion accompaniment, and the associated dance style has been influenced by dances performed to sega and kwassa kwassa music from Reunion Island. Basesa is also performed by the Antandroy, but among Betsimisaraka the style is performed significantly more slowly. Another major musical style specific to the region is valse, Malagasy interpretations of traditional European seafarers' waltzes performed on accordion; this genre is never performed during tromba ceremonies.



The Betsimisaraka speak several dialects of the Malagasy language, which is a branch of the Malayo-Polynesian language group derived from the Barito languages, spoken in southern Borneo.



The Betsimisaraka economy remains largely agricultural, with many cultivating vanilla and rice. Manioc, sweet potatoes, beans, taro, peanuts and a variety of greens are also commonly cultivated; other staple crops include sugar cane, coffee, bananas, pineapples, avocado, breadfruit, mangoes, oranges and lychees. Cattle are not widely raised; more commonly, the Betsimisaraka may catch and sell river crabs, shrimp and fish, small hedgehogs, various local insects or wild boar, birds and lemurs in the forest. They also produce and sell homemade sugarcane beer (betsa) and rum (toaka). The production of spices for culinary use and for distillation into perfumes remains a major economic activity, with a perfume distillery located in Fenoarivo Atsinanana. Gold, garnet and other precious stones are also mined and exported from the Betsimisaraka region.



Betsimisaraka were once three different tribes: the Anteva (north), Varimo (central), and Tsikoa or Betanimena  (south). Until the beginning of the 18th century, the peoples who would constitute the core of the Betsimisarak were the Tsikoa (or Betanimena) of the south, the Varimo of the central east coast, and the Anteva of the northeastern coast.

Each of these groups was culturally and linguistically distinct and would periodically enter into conflict with one another. These conflicts were actively encouraged by Europeans, a presence that had dramatically increased from the 17th to 18th centuries.

Europeans engaged with locals to sell arms in exchange for slaves and other forms of trade and conflict between locals could work to the Europeans' economic advantage.

With increased European presence there emerged a class of mulatto Malagasy (malata or zana-malata) issuing from unions between European men and Malagasy women. Ratsimilaho, the founder of the Betsimisaraka kingdom, was a malata. His father, named either Tom Tew (according to Guillaume Grandidier) or Thomas White (according to J.-M. Filliot) was an English pirate who was married in 1695 to Rahena, an Anteva princess of the Zafindramizoa family of Foulpointe.

Around 1710, after much effort and several failures, Ratsimilaho united the northeastern coastal people and led them in a successful resistance against incursions by the powerful king Ramanano who wished to secure control over a greater portion of the lucrative commerce with Europeans. Upon Ramanano's defeat, Ratsimilaho was able to establish himself as king over his people as well as Ramanano's (the latter taking the name Betanimena - "those of much red soil," in reference to burial or violent death - upon the loss of their king and sovereignty). The Betanimena continued to resist his rule, however, leading him to extend his southern alliances and territory through marriage to the daughter of King Kaleheka, whom he persuaded to join in his long and bloody but ultimately successful war to subdue and unite the eastern coast. After conquering many tribes these amalgamted people under Ratsimlaho`s power became known as the Betsimisaraka which means “Many (tribes which are to) never separate”. This large people group is separating though as they look for work throughout the island. The east coast is densely populated and there isn’t enough work for all. But after his death in 1750, his queen Bity and then his son ended up losing the power that Ratsimilaho had once commanded. The union dissolved into warring clans, facilitating the campaign to bring them under the rule of Merina king Radama I. This campaign, which began in 1817, was successful and the Merina maintained their authority over the Betsimisaraka until the beginning of the French colonial period in 1896.


The life of the Betsimisaraka

In large cities like Toamasina and Mananjary, the lifestyle is strongly influenced by the western culture, but apart from that, traditional way of life still exists. Many Betsimisaraka still live in stilt houses made of plant materials, known as trano falafa, live from agriculture (including slash-and-burn rice farming), fishing and animal husbandry.

Collective mutual assistance or the famous firaisankina (a derivative of fihavanana) is still very present in Betsimisaraka villages. At every possible opportunity, they celebrate: collective singing and dancing, characterized by hip swings reminiscent of Polynesian dances.


Man and Woman in Betsimisaraka society

Women wear lambahoany (long fabric with patterns) and masonjoany (beauty and sun protection mask) on a daily basis, otherwise a shirt or akanjobe and a pencil skirt or saimbo. Men sometimes wear lambahoany, if not shorts and a shirt or T-shirt.

Even if the man is the head of the household and the village, the woman is the mistress of the house and her opinions are always seriously taken into account. The woman keeps the property she inherited or received and in the event of divorce, the common property is shared equally, contrary to the custom of the Highlands.


Ancestor worhip

As in all Malagasy societies, the ancestors influence the daily life of the Betsimisaraka. Famadihana or tsaboraha (turning of the dead) and joro (communication with ancestors) are two very important ceremonies. The tombs are always built far from the villages, in the depths of the forest, and are sacred places. Nosy Antafana, one of the islets of the Marine National Park of Mananara Nord was once a burial site.


The Betsimisaraka and the forest

According to the Betsimisaraka belief, the forest is a sacred place where the dead are buried and where supernatural beings also inhabit, including tsiny and kalanôro. It is a dangerous place where the metamorphosis of death takes place. People never enter it without their dog or a knife.

To cultivate rice safely, it is therefore essential to burn all the surrounding trees. That’s how slash-and-burn farming is explained! However, economic difficulties and the arrival of new migrants tend to change attitudes and ‘eclipse’ some of these beliefs!