Sakalava - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. Sakalava are organized into clans, each with separate duties that they perform periodically for royalty. Sakalava social organization is hierarchical, consisting of royalty ( ampanjaka ); the "people" ( vahoaka ) or "commoners" ( vohitry ), who may also simply be called "Sakalava"; those who serve royalty at ceremonial occasions (most notably the Sambarivo); and slaves ( andevo ), many of whom are of more recent African descent (such as the Makoa). Although Sambarivo status is low with respect to the state hierarchy, they are considered to be the closest to royalty because of the nature of their work.

Political Organization. There are few steadfast rules that govern royal succession: although a first son might be preferred by a living ruler as his successor, Sakalava dynasties reveal a history of disputes over succession. A ruler's successor is as likely to be the son of a first or later wife, the child of a sibling, or, at least since colonial times, either male or female. New dynasties are typically established in response to dissent over succession.

Political leadership is a complex process in any Sakalava kingdom: the ruler, or ampanjakabe, is the head of the state, but he or she cannot work successfully without the assistance of a host of advisers. Among these are the manatany, an older man appointed as the ruler's primary counselor and spokesman; the fahatelo, or "third" in command; and a collection of other male elders, composed of the hereditary ranitry and nonheredity rangahy. Although women do not serve as royal advisers, they occupy other primary roles in royal ritual contexts. Historical accounts of several rulers also identify the diviner-herbalist ( moasy ) as an essential adviser; some who held this office even appear to have become rulers themselves. One may not address a ruler except through these advisers. They serve as interpreters, sitting beside the ruler when he or she receives visitors. Male and female royalty are also actively involved in counseling and directing a ruler's affairs. The amount of influence they wield depends upon the temperament and political abilities of the ruler. No major decisions can be made without first consulting—and receiving the blessing of—the most powerful of the tromba, or spirits of royal dead, who are the ruler's ancestors and, thus, his or her grandparents ( dadibe ). These spirits possess mediums, who live full-time at the royal tombs. Throughout Sakalava territory the French sought to undermine royal power; as a result, possession and other royal activities were often conducted in secret. Royal power continues to hold sway in much of western Madagascar today.

Social Control. Rulers serve as judges in major disputes; in daily affairs, elders as well as village chiefs (a position created under the French colonial administration) may hear cases and pass judgments. Serious crimes—such as theft, assault, and murder—as well as land disputes and child-support cases are handled by the court of the local county seat (Fivondronana). Social ostracism, gossip, and, in extreme cases, accusations of the use of harmful magic ( fanafody raty ) are effective methods of social control. In response, the accused party is forced to change his or her behavior; otherwise, there may be no other recourse than to move away and settle elsewhere. The latter is a serious decision, however, given that it often requires moving away from close kin.

Conflict. Sakalava dynastic power is thought to have originated in what is now Mahafaly territory, in southern Madagascar. The first "Sakalava" were those who willingly submitted themselves to (i.e., were most likely conquered by) the earliest Maroserana rulers. At the time of European contact, the Sakalava were considered fierce warriors, a reputation that kept early French missionaries and planters out of much of their territory. Disputes over royal succession often led to armed conflict, a fact that is recorded ritually in the rebiky dance (see "Religious Beliefs"). The wars against the Merina also figure prominently in the historical memory of Sakalava. In the early nineteenth century the Merina ruler Radama I sought to conquer and, subsequently, unify the entire island into one kingdom. His efforts proved futile, however, throughout much of Sakalava territory. The memories of related events are preserved in the tales surrounding several Zafin'i'fotsy tromba spirits who committed suicide by drowning rather than submit to Merina rule. Hostility toward Merina remains pronounced, and, in some ceremonial contexts, taboos ( fady ) exist that prevent Merina participation.


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