Antoine Abinal is especially known because of the French-Malagasy dictionary that was first published in 1888, a reference work that is still in use, and that has been through numerous editions.
Biographical information about him is difficult to find, undoubtedly because of his discretion. A brief obituary yielded the following: “For all his discretion, [Abinal] was someone of significant stature. He was one of those rare persons who honor humanity by living a life dedicated entirely to their work and to the sake of doing good.”
He was born on January 10, 1829, in Ars, near Chanac, in the department of the Lozère, in France. He entered the Jesuit novitiate on October 18, 1855, and sailed for Madagascar from Nantes in November of 1859. On February 1, 1860, he arrived in Reunion Island and took a teaching position at Sainte Marie de Saint-Denis School.
He left for Madagascar in 1863, and taught boys in the Andohalo parish school until 1866, before the “Brothers of the Christian schools” arrived. According to an 1864 report by Father Jouen, his students included twelve sons of Rainilaiarivony, and several sons of Rainimaharavo.
Around 1868, he is mentioned as being one of the founders of the parish of Antanjombato, south of Tananarivo. On February 15, 1873, he went to strengthen the small team of missionaries that were in the Betsileo, and settled in Ambohimandroso, south of Ambalavao. In 1874, he was the first Catholic missionary to try to evangelize the Tanala, in the Ikongo. The attempt came to nothing, which is not surprising when one considers that the local inhabitants had established three conditions for living among them: 1. Marry one of the chief’s wives. 2. Become a blood brother of the chief. 3. Supply guns and canons for the war effort against the Hova.
When the French were expelled in 1883, Abinal was among those who remained on the island. From Tamatave, he eventually went to Majunga.
In 1885, after the death of Father Callet in Saint-Denis, Abinal gathered the material that had been accumulating for the dictionary project, and drew on it to produce the dictionary mentioned above. Having returned to Tananarivo, he did all of this work while he was the parish priest for Mahamasina, as well as the director of the printshop. He gave himself completely to the work, and although it was virtually finished before he died, he did not live to see its’ publication. He died on November 11, 1887, and it was Father Malzac who added the final touches to the precious book.
The volume of notes left by Abinal testifies to his industriousness, and to a particular emphasis on ethnography. Sadly, his pastoral and educational work prevented him from being able to publish the results of his observations and his research. In Father de la Vaissière’s book, Vingt ans à Madagascar [Twenty Years in Madagascar], published in 1885, Abinal’s documentation is used by de la Vaissière for the third portion of the work (pages 143 to 294). Sadly, Abinal’s work is largely known only through the works of others. It might be possible to change this situation if Abinal’s existing manuscripts were to be published at some point.
In conclusion, Abinal’s work was a great help to missionaries in Madagascar, as he not only produced many translations, but also wrote many brochures in Malagasy.
Works by Antoine Abinal:
Tantara ny olo-masina [Lives of the Saints]. Tananarivo : Imprimerie de la Mission Catholique, 1868, 669 p.
Teologia fohifohy [Concise Guide to Theology]. Tananarivo : Imprimerie de la Mission Catholique, 1872, 119 p.
Evanjely masiny Jeso-Kristy no soratany Md Matio [The Gospel According to Matthew], Antananarivo : tamy ny presy katolika, 1876, 106 p.
Dialogues français-malgaches [French-Malagasy Dialogues]. Ibid., 2nd edition, 1876.
Alphabet malgache [Malagasy ABC Book]. 2nd part. Ibid., 3rd edition, 1877.
Tantara masina. Ibid., 3rd edition, 1877.
Evanjely masiny Jeso-Kristy no soratany Md. Marika [The Gospel According to Mark]. Ibid., 1877, pp. 107 to 168.
Evanjely masiny Jeso-Kristy no soratany Md. Lioka [The Gospel According to Luke]. Ibid., 1877, pp. 169 to 273.
Fianarana any Jeso-Kristy. Ibid., 1877, 2nd edition.
Hira fivavahana Katolika. Ibid., 1878, 2nd edition.
Katesizy kely, fampianarana kristianina. Ibid., 1878, 4th edition.
Alphabet français [French ABC Book] Ibid., 1878, 2nd edition.
Evanjely masiny Jeso-Kristy no soratany Md. Joany. Ibid., 1878, pp. 275 à 355.
Ny asan’ny Apostoly. Ibid., 1878, pp. 357 to 453.
Soratra masina, Tobia. Ibid., 1878, 36 p.
Soratra masina, Jodita. Ibid., 1878, 44 p.
Filazana fohifohy ny tan tara ny Jeso-Kristy. Ibid., 1879, 2nd edition.
Soratra masina, ny Makabeo. Ibid., 1879, 156 p.
Dictionnaire malgache-français [Malagasy-French Dictionary, with Malzac]. Ibid., 1888, 813 p.
Letters published in Lettres de Vals (lithographié) [Letters from Vals] (Lithoprint):
July 1863: pp. 1 to 5.
June 1864: pp. 3 to 7.
December 1864: pp. 15 to 18.
September 1865: pp. 17 to 22.
March 1866: pp. 9 and 10.
May 1866: pp. 1 to 8.
November 1867: pp. 25 to 33.
November 1868: pp. 63 and 64.
August 1873: pp. 18 to 20.
December 1873: pp. 31 to 34.
October 1874: pp. 16 to 20.
- Articles in Les Missions Catholiques [Catholic Missions]:
“Croyances fabuleuses des malgaches,” [Fantastic Beliefs of the Malagasy People] vol. XII, pp. 526 and 549.
“Scène d’intérieur dans une case malgache,” [Life in a Malagasy Hut] vol. XV, pp. 494 to 497.
The third part, pp. 143 to 293 of: de la Vaissière, Vingt ans à Madagascar [Twenty Years in Madagascar]. Paris: Le coffre, 1885.
“Le fandroana en Imerina en 1867” [The Fandroana in Imerina in 1867]: in Bulletin de l’Académie malgache (NS), vol. XXIX (I949-1950), p. 20.
This story, which is reprinted with permission, is from Hommes et Destins: Dictionnaire biographique d’Outre-Mer, [Men and Destinies : Overseas Biographical Dictionary], vol. 3, published in 1977 by: l’Académie des Sciences d’Outre-Mer (15, rue la Pérouse, 75116 Paris, France). All Rights Reserved.