The battle of Andriba which allegedly happened on August 21, 1895 was a determinant element of the French’s quest to fully colonize Madagascar. There is a Malagasy proverb « Tsy misy mafy noho ny tany Andriba » (Nothing is harder than what happened in Andriba ) implying that this battle was fierce, horrific, and resulted in a great number of casualties. However, the French officers’ reports on the battle present an entirely different story. To them, it was such an easy battle that they were even disappointed by the lack of resistance from their opponents; the battle they expected to be the fiercest among several on their paths turned out to be one of, if not, the easiest that opened their way to conquer Antananarivo. But what really happened?
There is not many documents providing details of what happened that day in Andriba, but historian Manassé Esoavelomandroso, in “Le Mythe d’Andriba” published in Omaly sy Anio, #1, 1975, provides a thorough analysis of the situation by dissecting the correspondences between the then Prime Minister of Madagascar, Rainilaiarivony, and the head officer of the army, Rainianjalahy, as well as the reports and journals written by the French officers.
Andriba is a small town located at approximately 134 miles (215 km) North West of the capital city Antananarivo; it belongs to the district of Maevatanana. The RN4 (National Road #4) goes through the town and for most travelers, Andriba can go unnoticed or it’s just a town that you pass by on your way to Mahajanga or Antsiranana (or on your way to Antananarivo); for some, it will just come down to “so this is the Andriba in the proverb!”, not realizing that it actually played a crucial part in the colonization of Madagascar by the French; and for the most curious ones, it triggers the question “but what really happened here?”, “ Why the proverb?”
Andriba was particularly a strategic place for the Merina army and the parameters indicated that it was going to be a difficult task for the French to conquer it. Culminating at 3,900 ft. (1,200m), dominating the surrounding plains, and carefully prepared for a strong defense with trenches and canons, it has impressed the French soldiers. Nothing predicted that it was going to be an easy win for the French. But the battle of Andriba lasted only 3 hours, it allegedly started at around 2:30PM and the last shots were heard at 5:30PM, and the following was calm. The French telegram sent to Paris on August 22nd says: “the attack on Andriba, started yesterday, 21, by the Voyron brigade, ended this morning without a fight.”
On the French side
Since the Treaty of December 17, 1885, the French have tried to impose a certain domination on the kingdom of Ranavalona III, the last Queen of Madagascar, and faced a strong opposition from Prime Minister Ranilaiarivony, the Queen’s spouse. This tension led to the French occupation of Toamasina in December 12, 1894 and Mahajanga in January 14, 1895. France deployed an army of 15,000 soldiers in Mahajanga in January 1895 with the objective of moving little by little to Antananarivo and conquering all the towns in its path. Conquering Mahajanga, barely defended by the Governor Ramasombazaha, was an easy task for the French, and so were the conquests of the forts between Mahajanga and Maevatanana. Esoavelomandroso relates that, in one of their journals, “the French officers were concerned about the ease of the battles they had seen so far, and they were worried that their soldiers would lose motivation and the lack of serious confrontations would irritate them.”
The French, led by General Duchesne, a graduate from the elite military school of France, Saint Cyr, who has already had war experiences and achieved remarkable successes in the Sino-French war in 1885, were facing harsh conditions. They were weakened by the climate and by quite a number of diseases such as fever, anemia, dysentery. It was reported that, in all, 20 soldiers died in the battles and 6,000 died of malaria. Not only they fought in an unknown field, but they also fought an enemy that they barely knew because they have not really faced them in a full combat. Moreover, the Merina army decided on when and where their battles will take place. And the fact the Merina army abandoned the previous confrontations made the French think that they were retreating to a much stronger position, and leading them to a more difficult situation. There were Malagasy soldiers within the French army but it is not known how many they were. General Duchesne’s telegram to Paris on August 22 states “We removed 7 canons. We lost 1 Malagasy tirailleur, killed…I am in Andriba, master of the whole plain!”
After the loss of Maevatanana, Ramasombazaha was removed from his position of Commander in Chief of the North West army and replaced by Rainianjalahy, sent by the Prime Minister with 5000 soldiers. The battle was rather between the Merina and the French, the Sakalava did not participate, so it would be inappropriate to say that it was the Malagasy army. The Merina army was made of 3 groups: Rainianjalahy soldiers, what was left of the 2000 sent by the Prime minister after the loss of Marovoay, and what was left of Ramasombazaha’s troupe. It was difficult to give an exact number of the Merina soldiers because they were accompanied by their slaves, sometimes by their wives, and they were often with Sakalava people which they forced to follow them in their retreats. Also, after each retreat, the Merina officers did not bother counting their troops, neglecting who were missing, who were sick and who were still able to combat. While Rainianjalahy reported to the Prime Minister that they have about 4000 soldiers defending the camps around Andriba, implying that the Merina army did not account for more than 10,000 soldiers, Ranchot, the former General Resident in Antananarivo, relates that based on what he has seen on the conquered and abandoned villages, there were facing approximately 20 to 30 thousand soldiers.
At the request of Rainianjalahy who appeared to have lost control of his men, the Prime Minister sent Colonel Graves, a British officer, to assist the struggling Merina army. As reported by Edward Frederick Knight in “Madagascar in War Time”, Rainianjalahy sent the following message to the Prime Minister: “I can do nothing. My men will not stand. They run away so soon as they perceive that two or three of their friends have been killed…Will you also, if possible, send me a European officer? He may be able to prevent them from running.”
Weapon wise, the Merina army was well equipped. They used 4 Hotchkiss cannons, a weapon designed but the American Benjamin Hothckiss, and made, ironically, in Paris, 3 Gardner cannons, a machine gun designed by the American William Gardner in 1874 and produced in England, and a sufficient number of Snider rifles, a weapon used by the British army also at the time.
The battle of Andriba, very much expected and feared by the French, never really took place. After 3 hours of shootings, the Merina army abandoned the scene, to the deception of some French soldiers. “We went to sleep hoping that the Hovas will last till the next day” writes Dr. Hocquard, the army’s doctor, relating the deception of one of his patients who complained to have missed the show “despite their ordinary cowardice, though the defenses they built around Andriba appeared formidable…. The trenches and the camps really exist, but their defenders fled with their canons the previous night.” For the French, the battle did not really happen and the report from the Malagasy side does not state exactly the same thing, but did not relate the opposite either. In his letter to the Prime Minister on August 22nd, Rainianjalahy reports “Yesterday, Wednesday, at 1:00PM, the battle started…when we shot, many French soldiers were killed, and they retreated. Half an hour later, they attacked again until 4:30PM…Because of the large number of cannonballs they threw at the first fortress, it was damaged and the soldiers who were there fled. Then, our soldiers progressively abandoned the field…. And at 9:00PM, there were no more soldiers in the fortresses.”
Colonel Graves who participated in the construction of the fortresses in Andriba relates what appears to be royal army’s habits: “…but so soon as the enemy attacked them, these nimble Hovas, after firing a few rounds, ran off to some other strong position, fifty or sixty miles away, there to make similar preparations, and thence to run away again when the invaders appeared in site….They seemed to imagine that by a mere display of strength and noisy demonstrations they could bluff and overawe the French, and frighten them back into the sea, without doing any fighting”.
At first, the different retreats that the Merina army undertook appeared to be a strategic move and an organized technique to lure the enemy into a surprise trap. But in reality, they were a desertion, the soldiers simply ran away from the battles. They appeared to have an advantage to win the battle, so why flee the battle?
There are different possible answers to this question, some more plausible than the others.
The weapons and ammunition
Some argue that the Malagasy army did not have enough weapons and ammunitions to resist the French military, but Ranchot reported that along the villages that were abandoned by the Merina army, they discovered and collected an important amount of weapons and ammunitions in perfect conditions, which in return, they used to attack their enemies. The Merina army had an abundance of great and modern weapons, but they just did not know how to use or keep them.
Another possible cause of the desertion is the lack of food. But, with the deployment of Rainianjalahy and his troupe, the royal army had enough food, such was not the case for Duchesne’s soldiers. The problem was actually the distribution. According to Rajestera, one of the Merina officers, “the soldiers were given small portions of food…and the remaining were put in reserve.” Moreover, the officers who were accompanied by their servants would “hijack” a large quantity of food for them, sometimes, they even sell them to the soldiers. And even if the supply could not come from Antananarivo (which was never the case) or was not sufficient, the Merina soldiers could always rely on the local farmers for rice, corn, or beef.
The Sakalava helped the French
The other possible answer is that the Sakalava, a tribe conquered by the Merina, abandoned the Merina and assisted the French army. Duchesne’s troupe had food supply and quantity problems and according to Ranchot, the Sakalava refused to sell them their zebus. Even when they tried to hire local people to guide them or to carry their food and ammunition, they could not find anyone. The traditional Chiefs Sakalava remained neutral and Ranchot writes that in a letter sent by three chiefs from Mahajamba, the Sakalava said “hitherto we were the Hovas’ slaves because they beat us. If you come out the winner of this war, we will be with you, otherwise we will remain with the Hovas”.
Treason from some Merina officers
The Prime Minister suspected that some Merina officers received money from the French, and incite them to run away, so he asked Rainianjalahy to conduct an investigation to identify the traitors and arrest them, but he could not find any evidence.
An army which is not a real one
The army led by Rainianjalahy was not homogeneous, nor was it prepared, and it was definitely not well commanded. The recruitment was not well conducted, it was basically taking the poor instead of the rich who could pay for their liberty, and sometimes choosing the slaves instead of the masters, therefore the army ended up with soldiers who were to fight for a cause that is not favorable to them. This “army” was not prepared: most of the soldiers barely received military instructions and they had no experience in war, and on-the-job training was not possible because of the frequent and easy defeats. This “army” was commanded by chiefs who had problems among themselves and who were not chosen because of their military skills or talents. Beside those who attended the “Ecole des Cadets”, instructed by Colonel Graves, many officers earned their ranks at birth, or by their wealth or because of their relationships with the royal court. Rainianjalahy himself was a very rich banker and could not put his soldiers under his total commandment. There were however some officers who could do the job. Prince Ramahatra, the then Minister of War, was not chosen for political reasons, the Queen and the Prime Minister refused to appoint him because he was already a brilliant general and was not allowed another success which could create trouble for the royal throne. The royal government was also divided into opposing clans and the discord between the Queen and her husband did not help in building a cohesive army.
In short, the escape in Andriba was triggered by many discords in the Merina camps (in the army and in the political side as well), a heterogeneous army, discouraged and unmotivated, with a very little sense of patriotism, which despite having the advantages in the fields did not resist the enemy, did not know how and/or did not want to defend a well-prepared fortress. The fortress of Andriba was left into the hands of the colonizers and to cover up their weaknesses and their cowardice, and to avoid the death sentence, Rainianjalahy’s men invented the story of Andriba, making it look like it was the hardest battle ever and nothing else could have been done about it. When the Prime Minister sent other troops after the August 21st defeat, the Andriba soldiers doubled down on their story and refused to help, in an effort to demonstrate that if they could not resist the French, no one else could.
The real story of Andriba gives an entirely different sense to the proverb “Tsy misy mafy noho ny tao Andriba.” This could lead us to believe that this sentence is, under certain circumstances, used in a very sarcastic way.