The Betsimisaraka people are a Malagasy-speaking people of multiple sub-groups of mixed Bantu and Asian-Austronesian origin. The name Betsimisaraka means “the many inseparable,” and are the second largest ethnic group in Madagascar after the Merina.

Betsimisaraka child of Pangalanes channel, Madagacar in traditional costume. By Pierre-Yves Babelon

 The Betsimisaraka are originally of mixed Austronesian (Indonesian/Malaysian), African, Arab and European ancestry. They are located on the east coast with the Northern Bestimisaraka located between the Masoala peninsula to the south and Vohimar to the north. Primary cities of this tribe are Sambava and Antalaha.

                 Batsimisaraka people performing their traditional dance.

 The majority are geographically isolated by bad roads and mountains, so difficult travel is required to reach them.

                                  Batsimisaraka girl selling meat. Pierre-Yves Babelon
The Betsimisaraka area has included the port of Toamasina, Fénérive Est and Maroansetra. The territory today is a thin area of land that stretches along the east coast of Madagascar from the River Bemarivo to the River Mananjary in the south.

                        Betsimisaraka people Madagascar

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.

Betsimisaraka villagers along the Pangalanes Channel, east of Madagasar. ByPierre-Yves Babelon

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.
Batsimisaraka  woman. Circa 1890

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.

                          Betsimisaraka  people. Pierre-Yves Babelon

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.
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Tom Tew elates his exploits to Gov. Fletcher of New York. Painting by Howard Pyle.

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.
Young Batsimisaraka woman. Circa 1910

Culture: The communities of the Betsmisaraka are known for unity among each other and being industrious. They primarily eat rice, greens, beans and fish but their economy is based on exportation (vanilla, cloves and coffee).

                            Batsimisaraka people of Bantu origin. Pierre-Yves Babelon

 Many of their houses are built with leaves and trees from the rain forest. The family unit is broken. It is rare for a couple to practice fidelity. Children are very commonly raised by grandparents or other relatives
who live in different locations.

           Batsimisaraka people of Bantu origin at the beach. Pierre-Yves Babelon

Betsimisaraka worship their ancestors. The ancestors are considered present in everyday life. They practice tsaboraha where they exhume the corpse of their ancestors, wrap them in new clothes and give them a new
coffin. They also practice “joro” where they sacrifice zebus and pour the blood on the tomb and then everyone asks the ancestors for what they want.

 But one can also find several churches in their area. Many Betsimisaraka would consider themselves to be Christian but they have simply syncretized their traditional beliefs with Christianity, Catholicism primarily.


Woman preparing vanilla

Betsimisaraka girl in his traditional house along the Pangalanes channel, eastern Madagascar

Fisher women of Antahala,eastern Madagascar


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