The predominant ethnic group of the northeast is the Betsimisaraka, an ethno-linguistic coalition of peoples whose name means “Many peoples who cannot be separated”. Prior to the eighteenth century, these various distinct groups would periodically drift into conflict with each other. In 1712, they were forcibly united under a king, Ratsimilaho – according to legend, the son of a local queen and an English pirate, Thomas Tew – to repel the territorial and trading threat from the highland Merina, the only people on the island to outnumber them. Ratsimilaho is said to have visited England and briefly gone to school there, and many of his closest Betsimisaraka allies were mixed-race Zanamalata (“Children of mulattoes”). When he died in around 1750, his eastern union disintegrated and the Merina were able to subdue the Betsimisaraka. Ratsimilaho’s daughter, meanwhile, had married a French officer, giving the French their first toehold on the east coast.

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