Rabesihanaka’s multi-faceted career not only revealed his many gifts and the strength of his character, it also shed light on the church and state ties that existed in the 19th century in Madagascar, the cultural contact that existed between the various provinces, and even some of the local aspects of French colonial policy in that era.
Rabetrena, which was his given name, was born on February 27, 1848, in the island’s central province. He grew up largely on the west coast though, because his family had been sent there in 1852 after his father, Ramamonjy, had spent a few years in prison on account of his Christian faith. When the situation changed, his family returned to Antananarivo and Rabetrana became one of the first students in the school that had been founded by Stagg, of the London Missionary Society. His giftedness was quickly recognized, and he became a teacher well before he reached the age of twenty. In 1867, he was appointed as an “evangelist.” This stirred up some interest in Malagasy society at that time because, although it was the second time an agent of the Protestant church was being sent out and being given wide-ranging responsibilities over a large segment of the population, it was the first time that it encompassed a region as vast as the Antsihanaka, which was, in effect, the entire region of Lake Alaotra. A similar appointment had been made for a plateau zone south of Antananarivo, but this time, it was for a province that was considered to be distant from, and completely different from, the central province of Imerina.
In that sense, he was truly the “first Malagasy evangelist” to be sent out by the post-persecution era, reorganized church. It was also one of the first indications that the church in the central province was interested in the outlying population groups. It should also be noted that Rabetrena was sponsored by one congregation, the church of Avaratr’Andohalo, with the encouragement and assistance of a missionary named R. G. Hartley. Rabetrena was thus several years ahead of the long list of “evangelists” that, in the early 1870s, were sent by the Isan’Enim-Bolan’Imerina (the bi-yearly meeting of the Imerina), which was the evangelization society of the interior that had been founded in 1868. Rabetrena worked in the Sihanaka region for three years (1867-1870), but he became so thoroughly identified with his apostleship that people began to call him Rabesihanaka, and that gradually became his name.
He probably would have stayed there longer if it were not for the fact that a seminary was founded in 1869, and that he became one of the first students to enroll. At the same time, he also became the pastor of the parish of Ankadibevava (now Ambavahadimitafo). Starting in 1877, he spent over three years carrying out an official visit to the churches and schools that were between Mahanoro and Vangaindrano (on the east coast), returning by way of Fianarantsoa. In this way, he was able to get to know the numerous congregations and become acquainted with the other provincial dialects on a personal level, which is what he wrote about in the published reports of the trip he had undertaken. He also became one of the Malagasy consultants on a committee that had been formed to revise the translation of the Bible. This committee, which was presided over by W. Cousins and that benefited from the competence of Lars Dahle, had been formed by all the non-Catholic missions that were at work in Madagascar.
In 1883 Rabesihanaka resigned from his ministry in Ankadibevava because the Malagasy government had appointed him to be a chaplain in the army during the Franco-Malagasy war. In 1885, he was ordered to stay in Anorotsangana as an adjunct governor, which was an important position at that time on the north-northwest coast. In 1896, under the terms of the very short French protectorate that was imposed on Queen Ranavalona III, he was named “General Governor of the District of Anorotsangana.” A formal stipulation was also made in the French equivalent of the Congressional Record (called the Journal Officiel), stating that he alone, in that district, had the right to correspond directly with the central government. He did not hold the position for very long however, because in early 1897, in keeping with the French policy that intended to keep Merina civil servants out of high positions in the provinces, he had to return to Antananarivo, where he was given another assignment.
A bit later, from 1902 to 1904, he became an agent for the Occidental Company in the northwest, first in Madirovalo, then in Marovoay, and even had his own business. Nevertheless, he continued to help local churches as much as he could and wherever he went, in the same spirit that had led him to go do evangelism in Antsihanaka in his youth.
Rabesihanaka died on September 29, in 1928 (and not on September 28, as it is often thought).
J. T. Hardyman, L. Molet
“Antsihanaka” Tananarive, Antananarivo Annual, 1877, 2nd edition, pp. 309-329.
“Ny Tany Atsinanana Atsimo Aminy Madagaskara,” [The regions of southwest Madagascar]. Antananarivo, Isanketintaona, 1878, pp. 26-45.
Ny Vokatra tsyn misy Mpiasa [The Harvest that has no Laborers] (travel report, 1877), Antananarivo, 1878.
In collaboration with J. J. Rabearivelo, “Discours rituels des Sihanaka” [Ritual Discourse among the Sihanaka] Antananarivo, 18º South Latitude, no. 8 (1927), pp. 17-20.
J. T. Hardyman, Tantaran-d’Rabesihanaka [(Short) Biography of Rabesihanaka, (with a portrait)], Antananarivo, 1967.
This article, which is reprinted here by permission, is from Hommes et Destins: Dictionnaire biographique d’Outre-Mer [Men and Destinies: 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.