Chapter 2: The Martyrs of Madagascar (1835-1861), by Alex P. John

Martyrs in the History of Christianity
by Franklyn J. Balasundaram (ed.)

Chapter 2: The Martyrs of Madagascar (1835-1861), by Alex P. John


1.The attempt of Catholic Caiarist Missionaries did not survive the attempt at French colonization at Fort Dauphin, in the extreme south of Madagascar in the seventeenth century (1642-1674). The Christianization of the island really began again in the 19th century. The London missionary society sent two missionaries in 1817. In 1820 these decided to settle at Tananarive on the high central plateau, the seat of Radama I, who consolidated the merina Monarchy, at that time in the full flood of expansion, but became involved in the Franco-English rivalry to control Madagascar more or less directly. At first they seem to have come to terms easily with delicate political situation and obtained the protection of Radama I. (Bruno Chenu, The Book of Christian Martyrs, p. 143.)


2. King Radama introduced European culture and welcomed missionaries who opened schools and churches and developed a written form of the Malagasy language. The first act of the Missionaries was to open the schools needed to teach writing, so that the Bible could be read and circulated . But these schools also served to train the modern officers which the King needed to form an army capable of conquering the island and reinforcing the instruments of a state whose authority was subject to much opposition. Part of the population began to be disturbed by the hostile attitude of the missionaries towards ancient customs. The school itself did not avoid criticism, and there were some who cast an increasingly suspicious eye on the recruitment of officers or agents of the royal power from among its former pupils. (Barrett, World Christian Encyclopedia, p. 466.)


The occasion of Ranavalona I, who succeeded Radama I in 1828, soon brought out the ambiguities produced by the situation. The Queen was put on the throne by a conspiracy of the commoners who in this way were able to join forces with the Andriana aristocracy more favorable to Christianity and very sensitive to the possibilities of modernization which it offered. The Queen was led to maintain the royal protection of the missionaries but exercised stricter control over their activities because she was afraid of seeing Christianity become the focus of opposition. To obtain popular support and to make people forget the doubtful origins, of her power, the Queen relied on the soothsayers (ombiasy), and restored to power the sacred foundation of the Monarchy


After several years, the fragile balance was broken, and Ranava lona chose to follow a strict policy of limiting Christianity. She forbade missionaries to preach, and then banned the baptism of soldiers and children. Finally in 1835 March 1st the Queen proclaimed:

"I have to tell you that I will not pray to the ancestors of the Europeans but to God and my ancestors. It is thanks to this custom that the twelve kings reigned and that I have reigned myself. Your own ancestors respected this custom. My people, I shall put to death anyone who practiced the new religion, because I am the heiress of twelve kings."

She applied to the missionaries the rule laid down by Radama I limiting the presence of Europeans to ten years. Reduced to inactivity, in 1836 the missionaries decided to leave the kingdom and took refuge on the East coast, at Tamatave. They left behind them a small group of about fifty Christians. The Christians went on to make a permanent reappraisal of their situation on the basis of the OT and NT in the conviction that they wear believing the history of the Hebrews and the first Christians. They also kept in contact with the missionaries by letter and today this correspondence gives us direct evidence of this first wave of persecution and the way in which it was experienced. The correspondence shows the central place occupied in the community, outside the Bible by the pilgrims progress. This story became the guideline by which those who were being persecuted understood their trial as a painful but victorious journey. The Christians after the persecutions were almost 3000 of them. Some went into exile beyond Madagascar when the threat became too strong like Mary Rafaravary, daughter of a court dignitary, the first to organize prayer meetings in her home. Arrested in July 1836 and condemned to death, she escaped execution thanks to a providential fire which caused panic among the soldiers and allowed her to get to Tamatave. There she took a ship for Mauritius with a group of Christians. The whole adventure was immediately likened to the adventures of the ‘pilgrim’ with whom Mary is identified. She thought of Christians crossing the valley of the shadow of death, but recalled that it is through numerous tribulations they must enter the kingdom of heaven. During the same year, 1837, the martyrdom of another woman, Rafavavy Rasalana, became the symbol of answering and edifying determination. But it was in 1849 that the persecution reached its height.

On one occasion and in one place thirty-seven Christians, guilty of having explained the word of God to those around them, were condemned to slavery with their wives and children. Elsewhere, forty-two convicted of having a bible in their possession, saw all their goods confiscated...2,055 people had to pay a fine of around 5 francs, others were condemned, some to be burned, others to be cast down from the summit of a rock 300 feet high to the level of the plain. This last collective martyrdom held a special place in the memory of the protestant churches of Madagascar. They still consider that the martyrs are their ancestors in the faith, and in a way the real founders of the church.


On March 1849, the officer, before whom the Christians were being examined, put to them this question: ‘Do you worship the sun, the moon or the earth?’

One of the Christians replied: ‘I do not pray to them, because the hand of God made them’. "Do you worship the twelve sacred mountains?" ‘I do not worship them, because they are only mountains’. "Do you pray to the idols which preside over the consecration of kings?" ‘I do not pray to them, because the hand of man made them’. "Do you pray to the ancestors of the rulers?" ‘Kings and governors are given to us by God so that we obey them and pay them homage, but they are only men like us. When we pray, it is God alone whom we address’. "Do you distinguish other days and do you observe the sabbath?" ‘It is the day of the great God, for in six days the Lord made all his works, then he rested on the seventh day and declared that day holy. That is why we rest and keep that day holy.’ (Bruno Chenu, The Book of Christian Martyrs, p. 148.)

All the other Christians replied in the same way. One man, who hitherto had stood apart, seeing a woman confess God and recalling that those who denied him would regret it, came forward and spoke in turn as the other’s had done. And when these brothers and sisters had been bound, the husband of one of them who had heard their confession approached them and said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for it will be a good thing for you to die for such a cause’. This man was a soldier who lived in quite a remote place, and he was not among the number of the accused, but then he was interrogated, and as he made the same confession, he was bound like the rest. Then they fastened the bonds of these brothers and sisters very tightly, led them off and shut each one of them in a separate house. On 22 March 1849, when one of the Christians said, ‘Yahweh alone is God above any other’s name that can be named, and Jesus Christ is also God’, the people who were there uttered great cries and mocked at them. Then the officer said to another. "Rabodonampoinimerina (that is the sacred name of the queen) is our God and not yours." Thereupon the Christian replied, ‘the God who made me is my God, but Rabodo is my queen and my sovereign. And when he would not make any other response but that, the people who were there said, ‘perhaps this is an idiot or a lunatic. But he cried out ‘No, I am not an idiot and I have not lost my mind.’ Then there was great tumult among the people, and they cried out ‘Take him away’ and he was led away to prison.

The following day, before daybreak, the people gathered at Analakely. They took the eighteen brothers, and sisters who had chosen for their part to confess God and inherit eternal life by becoming his sons and daughters, they bound their hands and feet, they attached them to posts surrounded with mats and they put them with the other prisoners. Ten of these eight brothers and eight sisters were united by the faith. When the officers, the soldiers and the Judges arrived, they read out the names of each of the prisoners. Set them apart all together, put soldiers aimed with spears and muskets around them, and then read out the sentences pronounced on them. Some were condemned to fines and the confiscation of their goods, others to be flogged, and eighteen to be put to death, four to be burned and fourteen to be hurled from a great rock and then burned to ashes. The eighteen condemned to death, sitting on the ground and surrounded by soldiers, began to chant hymn 137 (according to the Malagasy hymn book then in use).

When I die, when I leave my friends

When these friends lament over me

When my life has departed from me

then I shall be truly happy

When the sentences had been pronounced, and at the moment when the officer was preparing to return to the superior authorities, the four Christians condemned to be burned begged him, asking to be put to death before being burned, but this request was not granted.

When the officers had left, they took the eighteen condemned to death and led them to the place of execution. The fourteen who were to be hurled down were tied by hands and feet to long poles which men put on their shoulders. And as they were carried in this way, these brothers prayed and spoke to the people, and those who saw them close by said that their faces were like the faces of angels. When they arrived at the summit of Amapamarinana they were hurled down and their bodies were then dragged from the other side of the capital to be burned with the bodies of those who were to perish at the stake.

While the four Christians who were condemned to be burnt alive were on their way to the place of execution, they sang the hymn which begins, ‘when our hearts are troubled’, and of which all the verses end with the words ‘Remember’. All along the road they sang like this. When they arrived at Taravihitra, firewood was fastened to the posts to burn them. And at that moment there was a rainbow in the clouds, not far from the place of their execution. Then they sang hymn 158.

There is a blessed land

Where we shall be happy

Our rest will never be disturbed

They know no sorrow here.

They were still singing this hymn when they were in the fire. Then they prayed, saying ‘Lord receive our spirits. it is because of your love that this is happening to us. Lord, lay not this sin to their charge’. (Bruno Chenu, The Book of Christian Martyrs, p. 149-51.)

And they prayed like this as long as life remained in them. Then they died gently and in peace.


The missionaries’ work and life are appreciable. Because of the Christian missionaries work, the Madagascar people turned against the Monarchy rule of Madagascar. They introduced a lot of development work for the upliftment of the people of Madagascar. They introduced education system in Madagascar; through these schools also served to train the modern officers which King needed to form an army, capable officers for conquering the island and reinforcing the instruments of state whose authority was subject to much opposition. In the name of missionary work, the missionaries produced capable leaders for conquering. Another important criticism about missionaries is that the Madagascar people were disturbed by the hostile attitude of the missionaries towards their ancient religious customs. In a pluralistic society like India how can we neglect other faiths and religious customs?



Chenu Bruno and Others, The Book of Christian Martyrs, London SCM Press, 1990.

Barett, World Christian Encyclopedia, Oxford.

Freeman and Johns, The Persecution of the Christians of Madagascar.