On the 12th of September 1862, a Franco-Malagasy treaty was signed during the reign of King Radama II of Madagascar. Even though the treaty recognized the kingdom’s sovereignty, it still contained some clauses permitting the takeover of land, natural resources and the use of labour force, which put the sovereignty at jeopardy. The privileges given to France fueled several protest movements; however France attempted to hush those using violent means in hope of expanding and securing its invasion. In 1896, the island of Madagascar became officialy a French colony by force after the arrest of its last Queen, Ranavalona III.
Throughout the period of colonization, France had total control over the administration, the economy and the army. The Malagasies’ living conditions were declining and their basic rights were violated. They became subject to unfair taxes and hard labour including the construction of roads, railways and ports, the cultivation of crops, among other things. During the Second World War, the Malagasies’ situation deteriorated further and the nation found itself on the verge of a famine, especially in the southern part of the country.
Just ten years before the start of the Second World War, on the 7th of May 1929, and when the island was still a French colony, the district of Antananarivo Avaradrano witnessed the birth of a passionate patriot, Gisèle Rabesahala. Her father was a non-commissioned officer of the French army, and that resulted in her childhood being spent in several countries where her father was posted including France, Tunisia and Mali. When she was 13, her father passed away and so her family returned back to their homeland, Madagascar.
She was first leaning towards the religious life of being a nun, but that later on changed with her growing desire to become a lawyer.
“I dreamed of being a lawyer, because I thought that a lawyer must devote himself to the defense of the innocent.”
Gisèle was aware that in order for her to pursue her dreams, she had to obtain proper education and so she became seriously involved in her studies. She obtained her elementary certificate from the Jean Joseph Rabearivelo High School, and moved on to study and train to become a professional Stenographer Typist.
At the age of 17, she became secretary of the Democratic Movement for the Renovation of Madagascar (MDRM), which was a movement campaigning for the liberation of the country.
The Malagasy Uprising
The abuses of the Second World War raised a wave of revolt on the island. In 1947, thousands of rebels attacked at night the houses of French colonists. Many people were captured and massacred and the repression carried out by the French army was terribly affecting both the rebels and the civilians. 11,342 deaths were officially recorded in 1950 by the colonial authorities; however, the Malagasy and foreign analysts say that the deaths toll was no less than 100,000. At the time, the MDRM was dissolved after the arresting of its leaders.
In the same year of 1950, Gisèle created the Madagascar Solidarity Committee to support victims of the repression, the political prisoners and their families. Some years later, she also co-founded the “Imongo Vaovao” newspaper, which was dedicated to promoting Madagascar’s struggle for independence. In order to obtain an acquittal for the condemned people, several notable articles were released in the press. This attracted the attention of the colonial authorities but it didn’t stop the aggression.
Despite her young age, Gisèle ‘s strong actions and stances made her known as a politician of importance. When Gisèle was 33, she was the first women to be elected for the city councilor position. Three years later in 1958, she also became the first woman leader of a political party when she was appointed as General Secretary of the newly established Congress of Independence Party of Madagascar (AKFM).
In 1960, Madagascar gained independence; however, the first Malagasy Republic was still closely linked to France via cooperation agreements. President Tsiranana was strongly criticized for supporting the interests of the French, and accepting that the French army was still present and spread across the country. As a member of the opposition, Gisèle continued her efforts and campaigns to achieve true independence and end social inequalities. The French army was finally expelled from the country in 1976, and the French embassies and consulates were shut down.
A year later in 1977, Gisèle became the first female minister when she was appointed as Minister of Culture and Revolutionary Art. She worked for 14 years to promote the language and identity of the Malagasy culture and heritage. During that period, the National Library of Madagascar was inaugurated through which, she was able to provide a center for the public and the community to access books and knowledge. She made a point that many of the books in the library were to be written in Malagasy by Malagasy authors. She also managed to restore more than 25 monuments and historical sites including royal palaces and tombs. Gisèle recounted the political history of Madagascar and expressed her own opinions about it through her book “Let Freedom come to us!” which was published in 2006.
Gisèle Rabesahala had no children and she never got married. She said that she preferred to serve her country, rather than one person. She passed away on the 27th of June 2011, one day after Madagascar’s independence fiftieth anniversary. The media described her as ‘Mother Courage, mother of the nation’.
Gisèle Rabesahala was one of the great leaders of the struggle for Madagascar’s independence. Not only did she manage to establish herself as a major political force through her resilient personality and her sturdy commitment but she also managed to achieve many of her goals of attaining human rights for the people of Madagascar and the freedom for her country. While serving as a minister, she strived to undo the colonial effects that fell upon her country and she succeeded in reviving Madagascar’s heritage and restoring its identity, which is represented in the many forms of art and the Malagasy language. She firmly believed that a country’s future is based on its cultural and historical heritage.
“If we don’t know where we come from, we don’t know where we are going.”
- Allen, Philip M.; Covell, Maureen (2005). Historical Dictionary of Madagascar. Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-4636-4.
- Sylvia, Serbin; Ravaomalala, Rasoanaivo-Randriamamonjy (2015). African women, Pan-Africanism and African renaissance. UNESCO Publishing. p. 56. ISBN 978-92-3-100130-7.