The existence of the Protestant Church in Madagascar began on August 18, 1818, when David Jones and his colleague Bevan first set foot in Tamatave. The 150th Anniversary of that event was marked in 1968, when some enormous meetings were held for the occasion. Jones is still spoken of in Madagascar as “Jaonjilava, the great Jones,” which was a name that had been given to him so that he wouldn’t be confused with one of his colleagues, “Jaonjifohy, the little Johns,” whose name sounded exactly like that of Jones, even though it was spelled differently. It is the name of David Jones, or “Jaonjilava” that deserves to be remembered, for a number of important reasons: for his linguistic work (and for establishing Malagasy orthography, in particular), and for his translation of the Bible into Malagasy, a work that he undertook with David Griffiths.
Jones was born in July of 1796 in Neuaddlwyd, in Wales, England. After he completed his schooling he was recruited by the London Missionary Society (LMS) and given training in a special institution in Gosport, where his natural giftedness in linguistics was further refined. He had been designated to go to South Africa, and his friend Bevan was to be sent to Madagascar, but owing to the defection of another candidate, Jones left with Bevan.
The two missionaries travelled from Mauritius to Tamatave in August and September of 1818, and they even opened a small school with eight students on September 8. Very encouraged by this auspicious beginning, they returned to Mauritius to get their families, and Jones was back in Tamatave by November. Before the year was out, he had lost his wife and their child to malaria. The entire Bevan family had succumbed as well by early February. Very sick himself, Jones headed back to Mauritius. Although these events are only roughly sketched out here, the future of Protestantism in the great island was very much determined by them.
In Mauritius, Jones gave himself to educational and religious work among the Malagasy population that was there. At the same time, he was studying the texts that have come to be known as the “Farquhar Collection” in order to learn the language. A new opportunity arose when James Hastie was nominated and sent to be the British representative before Radama I. Having just returned to Madagascar (Antananarivo this time), Jones quickly opened another school on the east coast on December 8, 1820, with three students. He was joined there by another Welshman, David Griffiths, and then by other missionaries, pastors, and artisans, like Chick and Cameron. In 1820, in Antananarivo, the number of people who could read and write could have been counted on the fingers of one hand. Those rare souls were using the sorabe (Malagasy written in Arabic characters) that were taught by the temoro writings that came from the southeast coast. For this reason, the decision of King Radama I, who chose the use of Latin characters over the use of Arabic characters for the written form of his language, was one of supreme importance.
Education began to spread throughout the capital city and the surrounding area, as the resources became available. In 1828, there were already thirty-seven schools, forty-four teachers, and 2,309 students. A “Malagasy Schooling Society” was established to continue this progress and King Radama I took great personal interest in it, inspecting the major schools in person from time to time.
Once the written language decision had been made, Jones and his colleagues met with Hastie and the king in order to discuss the alphabet that would be used. Radama was also getting advice from a French sergeant named Robin, who had arrived in 1819, and who had become his personal secretary and aide-de-camp. He had taught the King to read, write, and count, and he was the first to have written the Merina dialect in Latin letters. Finally, in 1823, Radama made some excellent common sense decisions: letters that had a double usage were eliminated (c, q, x, u, w); English usage would be followed for consonants (hard g) and French usage would be followed for vowels; the ou (or oo) sound would be rendered as o, and the final i sound would be rendered as a paraph: y.
In addition to their other work, Jones and Griffiths were working hard at translating the Bible into Malagasy, and they were using original texts, not only English texts. Even if others helped them later on, the bulk of the version of the Holy Scriptures that was printed by the LMS in 1835 was largely their work. When one takes into account the paucity of available linguistic material that their work is based on, one can only admire their accomplishment all the more. That version of the Bible, which was the first significant work printed in Malagasy, was in use for many decades. It was only a half-century later that Cousins oversaw its’ complete revision.
The missionary team that Jones was a part of considered that, in light of the circumstances, they needed to dedicate themselves to teaching and to learning the language as thoroughly as possible, without neglecting the more formal spiritual work. There were regular worship services on Sundays, and it seems that they were popular. Jones wrote: “our chapel in town is full, and even the doors and windows are jammed with people” [who couldn’t get in]. There had also been trips to the surrounding area and it had been possible to meet with people who were quite removed from the capital. In 1823, by way of example, Jones and other missionaries had been to the west, and in 1827, Jones had gone to the Betsileo with Prince Corroler.
It had only been possible to accomplish this much because of the full support given [to the missionaries] by Radama and thanks to the excellent relationship that existed between them. However, the King could only go as fast as his people and their native chiefs would allow. This is what the king wanted Jones and his colleagues to understand when he told them that they should only “go fast slowly.”
Radama’s premature death put the missionaries into a difficult situation because official policy, on the social and religious level, changed dramatically.
Jones, who was in poor health again, left Madagascar for Mauritius in July of 1830. He set sail for Fort-Dauphin and then returned to England, where he spent most of his time traveling around and spreading the word about the activities of the LMS. His health returned, and he sailed back to Mauritius, from where he set sail for Tamatave in October of 1838. However, just as it had happened twenty years earlier, he was laid low by [malarial] fever, and he had to leave in November. He made a more important visit to Antananarivo in 1840 with Captain Campbell, who was the commercial attaché for Mauritius. However, Christianity had been banned in 1835 and several Christians had been put to death. Sixteen Christians who had fled toward the coast in 1840 and had tried to board a ship had been captured and brought back to the capital, where they were condemned to be speared to death. On July 9, Jones and Griffiths came across this group as nine of them were being taken to Ambohipotsy to be executed. Jones left the capital with that image and that memory on his mind.
Suffering greatly from malaria, Jones returned to Mauritius, where he died on May 1, 1841.
J. T. Hardyman, L. Molet
W. Ellis, History of Madagascar, vol. II, London, 1838.
E. H. Hayes, David Jones, London, 1823.
L. Munthe, The Bible in Madagascar, Oslo, 1969.
O. Chr. Dahl, The Beginnings of Malagasy Orthography, Oslo, 1956.
The above article, reprinted here by permission, is from Hommes et Destins: Dictionnaire biographique d’Outre-Mer [People and Destinies: an Overseas Biographical Dictionary], vol. 3, published in 1977 by the Académie des Sciences d’Outre-Mer (15, rue la Pérouse, 75116 Paris, France). All rights reserved.