Abelly: Book 2/Chapter 01/Section 09/Part 03

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Description of Madagascar and its People

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Before speaking of what these two good priests of the Congregation of the Mission accomplished in this country, and to be able to understand it better, we should briefly describe the island and the people who live there. We will follow in this the account given by Monsieur Nacquart when writing to Monsieur Vincent.

The island of Madagascar, otherwise called Saint Lawrence because of its discovery on the feastday of this great saint, is about six hundred Roman miles in length, and two hundred miles, or in some places three or four hundred, in width. Its circumference is around eighteen hundred miles. It has a warm climate, but is not unbearable. It is divided into several counties or provinces, separated from one another by high mountains. Those who have traveled widely in the island put its population at more than four hundred thousand.

In each county or province there is a ruler, who is accepted as the master or lord. He has several vassals, sometimes numbering up to three or four hundred or even more. The wealth of these rulers consists in the herds of animals they own, or in the tribute of rice or roots which their subjects provide. The natives are either blacks, with curly hair, the original inhabitants of the country, or the light-skinned, with long hair similar to what we are familiar with in France. It is believed these people first came to the island from Persia, about five hundred years ago, and gradually made themselves masters in the land.

The people live in small villages. They have neither cities nor fortresses. Their houses are made of wood, and covered with leaves. Their beds and chairs are simple planks. They eat seated on reed mats.

The ordinary food of the country is rice and poultry, supplemented by beef and mutton. They have no wheat or wine, but do have a drink made from honey. They also have some beans and melons, and some edible roots. Lemons and oranges abound. The rivers are sources of fish, but are dangerous because of the many crocodiles which frequent their waters.

Nothing seems to be fixed or stable in their religion, for in the entire island there are neither temples nor priests. Some very superstitious rites and ceremonies are based on false and impertinent notions, but some others are closely related to the truth.

They recognize a one god, master of the whole world, whom they call Senhare. [1] He lives in heaven, they say, like a king in his kingdom. In other places they recognize neither god nor the devil, unless it be merely by name. They honor the devil in their sacrifices, and offer him the better part, reserving the remainder to him whom they call god. Why they do this is not known, unless it is that they fear the one more than the other, or maybe because of some bad fortune they have experienced in the past.

There is one group among the people called Ombiasses, [2] that is writers, because they know how to read and write. They are the guardians of the ceremonies, customs and superstitions of the country. The people fear and respect them because of their ability to read and write, but they do not have much learning or doctrine. The best they can do is quote a few sentences from the Koran, a book first brought to the island by the early Persians. They draw from the Koran a certain number of superstitions, which they believe will enable them to cure the sick, predict the future, and find people who have become lost.

They practice the custom of circumcision of children everywhere, but not through any religious motive. This is strictly a traditional observance, from purely human motives.

The light-skinned observe a sort of fast two months of the year. This consists in not eating anything from sunrise to sunset, but at night they eat to provide strength for the next day. They do not eat beef or drink wine, but poultry and spirituous liquors are not forbidden. If it happens that someone does not want to fast, he can arrange to have someone else fast in his place.

Of all the superstitions practiced on the island the one most opposed to the honor of God and the most difficult to eradicate is the worship given by the leaders of the country and their servants to the idols, which they call Olis. [3] The Ombiasses make these out of wood, or roots, or other base material, and sell them. They are carved crudely, often in the form of a man. These are hollowed out, filled with a mixture of oil and a certain powder which the natives believe makes them alive and able to respond to their prayers. They think the idols can produce good weather, good health, victory over enemies, etc. These idols are in every house, and are carried upon their person when they travel. They have recourse to them in all needs, and seek their counsel in their doubts.

The people believe that the first thought that comes to them after recourse to the idol has been suggested by the Olis. When they are about to cross a river these same idols are invoked, to preserve them from the crocodiles. They even pray to the crocodiles themselves, beseeching them in loud voice to do them no harm. They confess their misdeeds aloud, such as stealing, and promise to repay what they have taken. Then, after they throw water and sand to the four corners of the world, they imagine they can cross the river with confidence. If, despite all these superstitious precautions crocodiles catch and devour them, they explain it be saying their Olis did not do their duty.

This superstition is so ingrained in the spirit of these people that they will not allow anyone to question the practice or even speak to them about it. By the grace of God, since the arrival of the priests of the Mission several among them have had their eyes opened to the truth, and have recognized the deception of the Ombiasses and of their Olis.

Another horrible custom of these people is to reject children born on Saturday or Sunday night as cursed, and likely to bring disaster upon the family. These children are abandoned to die, unless, as may happen, someone takes compassion on them, and rescues them from certain death. [4]


  1. Zanahary, in modern spelling.
  2. Ombiasa, in modern spelling.
  3. Now spelled Ody, a charm.
  4. CED III:550-59, Nacquart's lengthy report, summarized here by Abelly.

This page:
Abelly Book Two, Chapter One: Section Nine, Part Three
Description of Madagascar and its People

Index of this section:
Abelly Book Two, Chapter One: Section Nine Index:
On the Mission to the Isle of Saint Lawrence, Otherwise Known as Madagascar

Index of this chapter:
Abelly: Book Two/Chapter One/Index: The Missions of Monsieur Vincent

Index of:
Abelly: Book Two