How a French botanist brought famine to Madagascar by weaponizing a parasite
Digital Collage Artist:
Prashanth C
France had spent centuries trying to establish a long-term colony on the island by the time he introduced the cochineal — with disastrous consequences for the Malagasy people
Jonathan Feakins

In 1924, a French botanist by the prodigious name of Joseph Marie Henry Alfred Perrier de la Bâthie made an announcement.

In the pages of Bulletin Économique de Madagascar, Bâthie informed his readers that 15 months earlier an “unknown person” had brought a scaled insect, the cochineal, to the Malagasy capital, Tananarive (which is known as Antananarivo today). Bâthie also noted that since the cochineal was introduced to the island, cacti surrounding the capital had withered away. The esteemed botanist went on to say that a shipment of the insect had recently been sent 850km to the isolated, arid southwest of the island, and that he wished “to alert colons (settlers) … to the introduction so that they might try it in their turn.” Throughout his educational missive, Bâthie failed to mention a curious detail:

He had sent the package himself.

* * *

The French had been kicked out of Madagascar before. On the island’s southern tip, the hardscrabble Fort Dauphin survived for more than three decades until 1674, when the arrival of a shipwrecked group of teenaged French girls prompted the local French soldiers to divorce their Indigenous Tanosy wives en masse. Given the colons’ past history of enslavement, cattle raids, and village burnings, local marriages had been one of the last safeguards the French had to keep some kind of peace. Dissolving them proved unwise: Malagasy forces raided the fort during the wedding ceremonies, killing half the settlers and leaving the other half to flee the island shortly thereafter.

In 1769, a French Count (and personal friend of Voltaire) hoped to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. He brought with him to Madagascar a type of prickly pear cactus — Opuntia — to fortify the settlement against aspirational Malagasy arsonists. The count failed to consider, however, that Mexican cacti may not thrive on an Indian Ocean coastline; this settlement barely lasted two years.

Bâthie had opined at length about the thorny challenges that the southwest posed to colonial interests.

And yet, having failed to take root on the shore, the cactus had instead found some fair-weather friends inland. By the time that European colonial forces had found their way back to Malagasy shores in the 1800s, they found a landscape transformed.

While the French were away, Indigenous arborists had woven the cacti through the south of the island like biological barbed wire, standing ten feet tall and laced with quarter-foot spines. French soldiers attempting to access local villages found themselves forced to walk single-file, picked off by patient, protected warriors armed with spears and rusty muskets. The cacti had also been embraced as a drought-resistant food staple, for humans and bovine alike. Infused with liquid in a desert world, the cacti formed living fences for the zebu cattle that embodied local wealth: Opuntia had become raketa gasy (Malagasy cactus).

France nevertheless waged a decades-long battle for the territory. And despite violently putting down Malagasy uprisings between 1904 and 1905, French agents remained ever-aware that to the south another critical life form had yet to be tamed.

For years prior to the cochineal’s arrival, Bâthie had opined at length about the thorny challenges that the southwest posed to colonial interests. Bâthie actively agitated against raketa gasy, arguing that the plant’s dominance in the region held back the fertile land’s full potential, and consigned the local population of 100,000 to malnourished poverty. “How much easier,” the naturalist wrote, “and, above all, more profitable for the future of this people and of the whole colony, it would be to remove them from these barren lands which can no longer feed them and settle them on more fertile lands.” Meanwhile, with help from an ally he had made at the Laboratory of Colonial Produce in Paris, Bâthie would also have been well aware of research (particularly in Australia and South Africa) on how other colonies had tackled their own “pest pears.”

Like the cactus itself, the cochineal hailed from Mexico. For centuries, this scaled invertebrate had been the backbone of the Aztec and Mayan carmine dye industry. Feeding on the moisture and nutrients found in the prickly pear’s pads, the insect’s fiercely crimson carminic acid also served as a potent deterrent against its predators. It was this same scarlet trademark, however, that marked the cochineal for a starring role in Aztec and Mayan culture (and eventually European fashion), as they’d worked out that 70,000 cochineal could be converted into a pound of brilliant pigment.

And with the aid of Bâthie’s thoughtful care package, Jamet soon got to work trying to rid his plot of troublesome raketa.

The cochineal industry earned revenue for New Spain that was bettered only by their export of purloined Mesoamerican silver; even the British “Redcoats” would eventually march throughout the Commonwealth imbued with its blood-red ruby hue. By 1777, eager to capitalize on this precious creepy-crawly resource, French botanist Nicolas-Joseph Thiéry de Menonville moonlighted as a spy through the cochineal-rich valleys of Oaxaca, and he eventually managed to smuggle the creature to the French dominion of Saint-Domingue (in modern-day Haiti). But the bug, to Thiéry’s considerable dismay, failed to thrive in the absence of Indigenous skill and knowledge. “The French colony,'' wrote Spanish scholar José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez, “expected great profit, but their hopes have vanished because the trade in cochineal will continue only as long as it is cultivated by the phlegmatic and astute Indian artisans: it is not a trade that can be plied by other castes of labourers.”

Bâthie’s shipment of cochineal, of course, did not arrive into the hands of such an artisan. It came into the possession of his friend Jamet, a colonist who had spent years running a “model farm” on the outskirts of European encroachment. And with the aid of Bâthie’s thoughtful care package, Jamet soon got to work trying to rid his plot of troublesome raketa.

French geographer Hildebert Isnard described the results as a “furnace of contamination”. Within a year, the corpses of desiccated cacti “cover[ed] the soil, forming extraordinary heaps of thorns that break and crush with a cracking sound under foot…perhaps it is an exaggeration to say that the Andoy became unrecognizable, and yet…” Just above shrunken Opuntia remains, swarms of winged parasites spread their way from plant to plant; the infected, luckless succulents marked by the white, cotton-like blotches that the mature cochineal excrete to hide from predators. Upon encountering such a swarm, colonists driving one of the few cars on the island would come out the other side with the windshield seemingly dripping with blood.

The blight spread northeast, covering 100km a year. Within half a decade, the prickly landscape of southern Madagascar — an area one-sixth the size of France itself — had been rent asunder. Famine followed not far behind, as pastoralists watched their precious cattle wither away, alongside the cactus and their own bellies. As towns emptied out due to death and migration, a true accounting of the famine’s toll proved difficult to quantify: Raymond Decary, a French botanist and administrator (and pastoralist sympathizer), estimated the famine’s casualties at more than 10,000 cattle, and between 500 and 800 Malagasy. But even his own subordinates confessed to him that regional administrators “were too frightened to register the full toll.” Later accountings reported “desiccated bodies of the very young and the very old lay alongside the paths where they had stopped for the night but had not got up in the morning to go on trekking to the north."

But their famished plight became another’s capitalistic gain. Recruiters from northern sugar plantations soon traversed the region, enticing the newly destitute Malagasy people with sign-up bonuses of five metres of cloth, a thousand francs, and a blanket. In a 1934 report, Bâthie opined that the local people — now free of the “primitive” cacti that had enabled their resistant, intransigent lifestyle — could now become part of a more sedentary, “civilized” labour pool.

The postcochineal Madagascar did not remain devoid of cacti, but the promotion of raketambazaha (foreign cactus) never ascended to the same heights as the fabled prickly pear. It did provide, however, a shining moment for Opuntia inermis, a spineless variety previously promoted by Bâthie as a potential successor to raketa gasy, but which had failed to find favour locally prior to the iconic succulent’s downfall. Spineless varieties proved difficult to utilize as food and efficient hedging for cattle. As a possible staple or famine food, it tended to provoke deadly constipation when consumed in excess.

In the wake of the blight and the resulting famine, Bâthie and his allies repeatedly disavowed any conscious intent to weaponize their six-legged import. But decades afterward, the local people would still bisect their modern history in twain; with tamy raketa gasy (“the time of Malagasy Cactus”) on one side, and tamy vazaha (“foreign time”) on the other.

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