The earliest references to Sakalava kingdoms appear in the writings of traders, most notably Portuguese sailors, as well as the prolific Jesuit Father Luis Mariano, all of whom either visited or settled on Madagascar's coast in the early 1600s. For centuries, the Sakalava have actively plied trade routes that have extended to the Persian Gulf, India, and the Far East; the African continent (especially the north, along the east coast, and the central interior); neighboring islands such as Mauritius and Réunion; and the Americas. Sakalava ports supplied oceangoing merchants with such foods as beef, fruit, and rice; Sakalava were also actively engaged as both buyers and suppliers of spices and slaves. Goods acquired from abroad included guns, ammunition, rum, and European manufactured items. Sakalava hegemony in the arena of Indian Ocean trade was particularly pronounced during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Early European contact in the 1600s involved trade as well as relatively unsuccessful missionary attempts by Portuguese and French Catholic fathers. Over a century later, French priests (as well as planters) had greater success in the northwest, especially on the offshore island of Nosy Be. Throughout the nineteenth century, Sakalava formed alliances with the French and with sultans of Zanzibar and Muscat as they sought to fend off invasions by the Merina ruler Radama I (r. 1810-1828), who sought to unite the entire island under his rule. Although Radama I took a daughter of a Maroserana ruler as a wife, the Sakalava of the northwest proved difficult to conquer. In the late nineteenth century, the Sakalava found themselves subjugated by their former allies: under the leadership of General J. S. Gallieni, the French conquered the Merina kingdom and, subsequently, the rest of the island. In 1886 Madagascar was declared a colony of France, and remained so until independence in 1960. Sakalava have nevertheless guarded their royal traditions, even when faced with censure, imprisonment, and exile under French rule; when necessary, royal activities were conducted clandestinely. In the decades following independence, the Sakalava have continued to emphasize their political alienation—and independence—from the highland Merina and Betsileo, describing themselves as côtiers, or "coastal dwellers," whose concerns and customs ( fomba ) vary radically from those that characterize the inhabitants of the island's metropole of Antananarivo.