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Ocean currents: Riding the flow of history through one tiny village in Madagascar


Part of the excavation site in Kingany; the dig was very challenging because of the sandy soil in the area. Picture by Nathan Anderson.

The best thing about hostels is that you meet interesting people. This is what poorly funded tourists the world over repeat to themselves as they try to sleep through the cacophony of noises (many of suspicious origin) that populate night in a dormitory. On this particular occasion, at a hostel in Antananarivo (Tana), the capital of Madagascar, I was in a particularly interesting company: Nathan Anderson [1], a PhD student in Islamic Archaeology at the University of Exeter, and his fiancé Kasia.

So, they must be in Madagascar on holiday, then? No, in fact Nathan was in Madagascar to excavate a ruined trading settlement on the North West coast of the country as part of his doctoral research on religious identity at the frontiers of the Islamic World at around 1000 CE.


This, I will admit, was quite a surprise. The story of Kingany, the site he was excavating, which unfolded first over a couple of beers and later in an email interview after the completion of his dig, provides the backbone of this article and is one that not many people in the West would recognize. As we dive into this story, I invite you to consider why that is the case and what some of the consequences might be. I will make some arguments of my own, of course, but I freely admit that they are inadequate to capture the complex process by which our collective understanding and imagination of the past is created and propagated.

*  *  *

In May 1506, Portuguese Admiral Tristan da Cunha decided to burn down a village. [2] It had been just eight years since Vasco da Gama arrived in sunny India, opening up a direct sea route from Asia to Europe, and the Portuguese (quickly joined by other European nations) were busy establishing a presence in the Indian Ocean. They traded with, raided, appropriated from and eventually colonized coastal communities from East Africa to Indonesia, also venturing up to China.

The village in question was on the North West shore of Madagascar, just across the channel from the Portuguese trading bases which were already springing up in Mozambique. In a tale anyone who has studied colonial history knows by heart, the villagers refused to trade with the crew of the ship, and there was an altercation in which the ship’s translator was attacked. What to do but burn down the village? But, when the crew arrived that night, presumably with torches and muskets in hand, they found that the village had been completely abandoned but for one old woman.


This village may or may not have been Kingany, the site Nathan excavated in Madagascar. Pierre Verin, who, in the 1970s, was the first and only other archaeologist to survey this site, believed it to be, based on local oral history and Portuguese records. Nathan, on the other hand, is not so sure and is investigating this theory as part of his research. Even assuming that Kingany was this village, what makes the story so interesting? Well, it begs the simple question of why the villagers abandoned the village. They might have guessed that those white men were dangerous – or they might have known it for a fact. You see, this town was not a sleepy fishing village but a trading post in its own right, an outer node in a network of trade and connection which spread the entire breadth of the Indian Ocean.


While most people know about the Silk Road overland from China to Europe, fewer people in the West are aware of a parallel trade network along the coasts of the Indian Ocean. Trade along the coasts has been going on for thousands of years, likely beginning with short intra-regional trips, but growing into a significant force in the Western Indian Ocean by the 6th century BCE. We can say with certainty that East Africa was part of the exchange from the first millennium CE, but there is much discussion about its inclusion prior to this. There were also links to the Mediterranean through Egypt and Arabia; the Portuguese cut out the middle man but they were hardly the first to bring goods from the Indian Ocean to European markets. This network exchanged goods (spices, textiles, gems), but also ideas, crops (sugar cane, spices, chickens), religion (particularly Islam), language and people (settlers, temporary migrants, slaves - yes, slaves. There was a thriving trade in slaves before (and after!) Europeans arrived in the Indian Ocean. It is a criminally overlooked part of history).


Kingany, and Madagascar in general, is an incredible example of the capacity of this network to move people and ideas, as well as goods. Objects originating in China, Southeast Asia and the Persian Gulf have all be found at Kingany. Similarly, rock crystal from Madagascar may have been used in the Fatimid Fustat in Egypt; the villagers also traded other goods including rice, cattle, precious metals and slaves. The people of Kingany were Muslim and much of the site is made up of tombs built of coral and limestone, in a style found up and down the East African Coast.


The trade network is what brought the people there in the first place – Madagascar is an island, after all. This can be seen clearly by examining Malagasy language. It is an Austronesian language, related to languages found in Indonesia and is thought to have originated in Borneo. Yes, the same Borneo that is an entire Indian Ocean away. However, Malagasy language has also been heavily influenced by Bantu languages (Bantu being the family to which most African languages belong) which goes deeper than simple loan words. There are also loan words from Swahili and Arabic, including the names for the days of the week – this is particularly significant because the concept of a seven-day week is not universal, and was itself probably an import.


Culturally, there is great cultural affinity with Indonesia but also much mixing; highlanders, who are generally considered more ‘Asian’, grow rice but also herd cattle, something thought to be imported from East Africa, while coastal people, generally thought of as more ‘African’, fish using boats similar to those found in Indonesia. Genetically, the DNA of the nation is split almost evenly between ‘Asian’ and ‘African’ ancestry, as well as having some Arabic, Indian, Papuan and even Jewish ancestors sprinkled in. Again, there is much debate over which group arrived first, and when they arrived. However, the strongest evidence seems to point to colonization around 1350-1100 years ago.


This all paints a yet more complex view of Madagascar within the Indian Ocean than even discussing its place in trade networks can. These webs of connection populated the land, allowed those people to exchange goods, ideas, and language; creating a place in which people were (probably) speaking a language that came from Austronesia, practising a religion that arose in the sand seas of Arabia, building tombs in a style which began in the Red Sea and eating crops originally from the African mainland, perhaps off of Chinese pottery. Or at least while Chinese pottery was nearby.


This is very far from the popular Western imagination of Madagascar which might not even contain people, just the silhouettes of baobab trees and Instagrammable lemurs. A lack of knowledge about the history of one island nation is regrettable yet understandable, but the fact that the wider network of exchange in the Indian Ocean is barely present in the Western imagination is quite a bit more serious. The lack of awareness helps propagate the myth that Africa (and other parts of the global South, but to a lesser extent) were static, ‘primitive’ and disconnected from the world before European contact, something which was used to justify colonialism in the past. While this is largely no longer the case, these damaging stereotypes continue to exist and colour Western perceptions of Africa (and everywhere else). Learning about this history also pushes back against a Euro-centric conceptualization of history which often ignores the accomplishments and lives of people before they were ‘discovered’ by Europe. For example, the historical context given above presents us with quite a different picture of the village burning incident: villagers go from being suspicious natives irrationally attacking visitors to people who had probably heard stories of the foreign ships wreaking havoc and were justifiably, rationally concerned.


More than just providing context for the world today, how history is written, remembered and taught tells us about how we understand the world. History is not a neutral succession of facts; it is an argument and it always contains a bias or slant. Sometimes the argument is bold, leaving out events or drastically misrepresenting them. Most often it is a subtle one which may exist only in the type of language used, or the sources that one decides are worthy. The very fact that I have used ‘precolonial’ to indicate the period of history which we are examining (as well as started this article with a story about the Portuguese) places European contact as the most significant occurrence in Malagasy history and frames all of history in relation to this event. It has not escaped my notice that I argued against just such a portrayal of non-European history above, but to be honest I lack the language to do otherwise.


In addition, the issue is not just that the lack of context impacts our understandings of certain people and places – it is that the fact that we lack this context implies that this type of knowledge, about these people and this time, is not valued in Western society. Nathan is often asked, ‘Why Islam?’, ‘Why Africa?’, ‘What is the point of this?’, questions I doubt would be put to someone digging up Roman or Greek ruins. This leads into a somewhat daunting discussion of who decides what should be taught or represented and what constitutes acceptable forms of knowledge, which I invite you to continue on your own. What I will say is that this lack of value contributes to further neglect of the study of this part of history; according to Nathan there are few archaeologists working in Madagascar and East Africa and many sites are threatened by human activities or rising sea levels. In something of a self-reinforcing cycle, we risk losing history we know little about because we neither know nor care about it, meaning that we will be able to learn less about it in the future.


Moving right along from thorny questions of historical representation, this story also suggests the possibility of considering history another way; rather than looking only at discrete territorial entities we can construct history through networks and mobility; through trade, information exchange and migration [3]. We can also think of the entire Indian Ocean as a single space of connection, influence and change. Finally, it reminds us of the importance of studying what is referred to as ‘South-South’ migration, mobility and exchange. Things (and people) do not just flow North, after all.


There is much more that could be interrogated here but we passed the suggested word count several pages ago. So, instead I will leave us with a few questions: Why do we know what we know? Or, more fully: why do we know what we know, the way that we know it? How does what we know, how we know it influence our perceptions and actions, as well as the perceptions and actions of our societies and governments? And not just in the context of history – in everything, and anything.

Notes and references

[1] See below for their bios.

[2] You can actually read the records of any Portuguese ship not currently at the bottom of the Ocean. Undoubtedly, there are some very interesting biases to be examined.

[3] This is popular in popular histories, see books such as The Graves of Tarim and The Silk Roads.

I would like to thank both Kasia and Nathan so much for putting up with my questions and helping with this article. They braved several days of hard travel to get to the site and lived in conditions which might be charitably referred to as ‘simple’ to complete this dig. Both of them worked 12-hour days for three weeks, with the help of nearby villagers, and now Nathan has several years of work ahead of him analysing everything. I wish Nathan the best of luck with his PhD – look out for it in a few years, maybe it can fill in some of the gaps in this article!

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Madison Bradt

Madison has an Honours Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto, specializing in International Development, as well as a Master of Science in Migration Studies from the University of Oxford. She has lived and worked in several countries, including Malawi and Sudan.

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Nathan Anderson & Kasia Edlund

Nathan obtained his BA in Earth Science and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2011 and his MA in History of Art and Architecture of Islamic Middle East from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London in 2014. He is currently working on a PhD in Islamic Archaeology at the University of Exeter. His thesis is an examination of religious identity on the frontier of the Islamic world at the end of the first/early second millennium AD focusing specifically on settlements within the Mozambique Channel. His PhD research has involved a series of archaeological reconnaissance visits to Cabo Delgado, northern Mozambique, and Boeni Bay, Madagascar, as well as an archaeological excavation in north-western Madagascar in spring 2019. His research is supervised by Prof. Timothy Insoll and Dr. John P. Cooper of the Centre for Islamic Archaeology at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies.

In addition to academic studies, he has worked professionally as an archaeologist for more than six years. In that time, he has held leadership roles in both field survey and excavation, as well as experience as a supervisor in an archaeological archive with the Monterey Bay Archaeological Archive. He has conducted phase I (survey), phase II (excavation), and phase III (recovery and processing) archaeological investigations in Bilad al-Qadim and Muharraq, Bahrain, the Californian Mojave desert with RedHorse Corporation and CH2M, in the American bottom with Illinois State Archaeological Survey, and in Tanzania with Rice University.

Kasia has a degree in Earth Science and worked in Environmental Sciences before moving to the UK with Nathan, so that he could pursue his PhD.

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