The Merina are the dominant “highlander” Malagasy ethnic group in Madagascar, and one of the country’s eighteen official ethnic groups. Their core territory corresponds to the former Antananarivo Province in the center of the island. Beginning in the late 18th century, Merina sovereigns extended political domination over the rest of the island, ultimately uniting it under their rule. In 1895–96, the French colonized Madagascar and abolished the Merina monarchy in 1897.
Austronesian settlement of Madagascar took place in the 1st millennium AD, and the various Malagasy sub-ethnicities would have emerged by the mid-2nd millennium. The Merina emerged as the politically dominant group in the course of the 17th and 18th century. Oral history traces the emergence of a united kingdom in the central highlands of Madagascar – a region called Imerina – back to early 16th-century king Andriamanelo. By 1824, sovereigns in his line had conquered nearly all of Madagascar, particularly through the military strategy and ambitious political policies of Andrianampoinimerina (circa 1785–1810) and his son Radama I (1792–1828). The kingdom’s contact with British and later French powers helped modernize the state, allowing its very capable leaders to build schools and an impressive modern army.
The Merina kingdom reached the peak of its power in the early 19th century. In a number of military expeditions, large numbers of non-Merina were captured and used for slave labor. By the 1850s, these slaves were replaced by imported slaves from East Africa, mostly of Makoa ethnicity. Until the 1820s, the imported slave labour benefited all classes of Merina society, but in the period of 1825–1861, a general impoverishment of small farmers led to the concentration of slave ownership in the hands of the ruling elite. The slave-based economy led to a constant danger of a slave revolt, and for a period in the 1820s, all non-Merina males captured in military expeditions were killed rather than enslaved for fear of an armed uprising. There was a brief period of increased prosperity in the late 1870s, as slave import began to pick up again, but it was cut short with the abolishing of slavery under French administration in 1896.
Due to the influence of British missionaries, the Merina upper classes converted to Protestantism entirely in the mid-19th century, following the example of their queen, Ranavalona II. The early spread of Protestantism among the Merina elite resulted in a degree of class and ethnic differentiation among practitioners of Christianity, as the former slaves of the Merina would mostly convert to Catholicism, turning a traditional class division into a confessional one in contemporary demographics.
The absolute dominance of the Merina kingdom over all of Madagascar came to an end with the first Franco-Hova War of 1883 to 1885. At the war’s end, Madagascar ceded Antsiranana (Diégo Suarez) on the northern coast to France and paid 560,000 gold francs to the heirs of Joseph-François Lambert, a Frenchman who had been promised lucrative trade privileges under King Radama II that had later been revoked. Britain, in order to obtain the Sultanate of Zanzibar, renounced all claims to Madagascar in favor of France in the Berlin Conference of 1885. The end of the Merina kingdom came with the Second Franco-Hova War of 1895, when a French flying column landed in Mahajanga (Majunga) and marched by way of the Betsiboka River to the capital, Antananarivo, taking the city’s defenders by surprise. In 1896, the French Parliament voted to annex Madagascar, forming the colony of French Madagascar in 1897.
With colonial rule and the abolition of slavery, the Merina lost much of their former dominance. Consequently, in the early 20th century, anti-French nationalist sentiment arose primarily among Merina intellectuals after the template of nationalism as it was current in Europe at the time. The group, based in Antananarivo, was led by a Malagasy Protestant clergyman, Pastor Ravelojoana. A secret society dedicated to affirming Malagasy cultural identity was formed in 1913, calling itself Iron and Stone Ramification (Vy Vato Sakelika – VVS). Repressed at first, the movement succeeded in negotiating concessions to Malagasy equality during the 1920s, and the 1946 constitution of the French Fourth Republic made Madagascar a territoire d’outre-mer (overseas territory) within the French Union. On March 29, 1947, Malagasy nationalists revolted against the French, and Madagascar gained full independence in 1958 as the Malagasy Republic. The Merina failed to raise to political dominance again. The first president of the Republic, Philibert Tsiranana, was a coastal Malagasy of Tsimihety ethnicity, and he was able to consolidate his power with a winner-takes-all system, while the Merina nationalists of the Congress Party for the Independence of Madagascar was weakened by rifts between leftist and ultranationalist factions. Identity politics were also at the core of the civil unrest and political crisis during the 2000s, where the Merina party was represented by Marc Ravalomanana (2009 Malagasy political crisis).
The Merina dialect of the Malagasy language is spoken natively by about a quarter of the population of Madagascar; it is classified as Plateau Malagasy alongside the Betsileo, Bezanozano, Sihanaka, Tanala, Vakinankaritra dialects. Merina is considered the national language of Madagascar. It is one of two official languages alongside French in the 2010 constitution putting in place the Fourth Republic. Previously, under the 2007 constitution, Malagasy was one of three official languages alongside French and English. It is the language of instruction in all public schools through grade five for all subjects, and remains the language of instruction through high school for the subjects of history and Malagasy language.