Betsileo - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. The Betsileo have a complex system of social stratification. Social distinctions dating back a century or more continue to have salience. Indigenous rulers, nobles, and their descendants are called hova Betsileo; commoners are known as olompotsy, and slave descendants may be called hovavao. Domestic slavery was widespread in Madagascar until the French declared its end in 1895. People were enslaved as prisoners of war and for certain crimes. Eventually, slaves were sold in markets; slave status was inherited. Like other Malagasy with a history of slavery, the Betsileo avoid (as they must, by law) the highly stigmatized term andevo, but slave ancestry remains a cause for shame and discrimination. Within the commoner stratum, there is an important distinction between junior and senior commoners. The latter were important advisors to—and checks on—the power of Betsileo chiefs and rulers. Today there is little or no evident wealth contrast between descendants of nobles and those of senior commoners. The tendency toward stratum endogamy is most marked for slave descendants.

Political Organization. For about three centuries, the Betsileo have lived in state-organized societies, first under their own rulers (sing. mpanjaka —the general Malagasy term for chief, king, or queen), after 1830 under Merina administrators, and subsequently, following its annexation of Madagascar in 1896, under the rule of France. The Malagasy Republic gained independence in 1960. There has been a marked deterioration of state control since the 1970s.

The main political units in the southern highlands before Merina conquest were Lalangina (east), Isandra (west), and the various statelets and chiefdoms of Arindrano (south). The largest of the southern highlands polities were Isandra and Lalangina. The process of state formation had advanced furthest in the latter. South of these were the six formerly independent polities that the Merina overlords eventually designated collectively as Arindrano: northern and southern Vohibato, Tsienimparihy, Manambolo, Lalanindro, and Homatrazo. In the eighteenth century, the commitment to agriculture was greatest in Lalangina and northern Vohibato, although wet-rice cultivation was spreading south and west.

Social Control. In addition to formal political organization (rulers, chiefs, their agents, and those of modern government) social control is a feature of the kinship system. Men are obliged to work for their fathers and older brothers. The oldest son is said to replace the father. Modern village chiefs, who fill formal government positions, have limited authority; often they are mere "errand boys," young men chosen by the elders to deal with external authorities. Real local authority is vested in the village elders, male and female, who have regular meetings to hear cases, discuss issues, and make decisions.

Conflict. Among the chiefdoms and petty states of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, war and raids were endemic, as fortified sites attest. The more effective Betsileo polities (especially Lalangina) maintained internal security, which was extended under the Merina, French, and early Malagasy Republic regimes. At present, with the collapse of state control, cattle rustling and banditry pose a serious threat to law and order in Betsileo territory. Legal disputes, especially over land, are common; they are usually resolved—often after protracted litigation—in formal courts in administrative towns.


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