Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other pandemics humans have lived through.

Madagascan Smallpox Epidemic of 1817-18

King “Hey, Nobody’s Perfect” Adrianampoinimerina, beloved for his political and military accomplishments, and not for his slave trading or smallpox response.

Are you having a rough day? Well, be grateful you don’t have smallpox in Madagascar under the rule of King Adrianampointimerina (his parents were not kidding around). King Adri’s idea was to take people with smallpox and bury them alive.

King Adri’s son had (or got) some better ideas about how to treat smallpox.

King Adri lived in a place like this.

The isolation of the island created an animal population that is 90% trademark Madagascar. The animals of Madagascar already get a lot of press, so I’m not going to tell more about them here. With 228,000 square miles, Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world.

Madagascar’s human population is relatively new. Humans have lived there for maybe 2,000 years. It’s a cool place, culturally and genetically, because the people are a mix of African and Asian ancestry. Muhammad Ali, Maya Rudolph, and the Wayans family (“In Living Color”) have ancestors from Madagascar.

Of course, Europeans and Arabs saw the people of Madagascar and thought it was a fine idea to kidnap them and pretend they were not human beings, although they looked and acted exactly like human beings. There are about 7,000 people in Piura, Peru who are descended from enslaved people originally from Madagascar. One of them became president of Peru, which is awesome.

Luis Miguel Sanchez Cerro, president of Peru. He had two fingers on his left hand because he heroically grabbed a machine gun at the wrong time.

From the early 1600s, Europeans and Arabs going to Asia stopped off in Madagascar. Smallpox came from the east coast of Africa and hitched a ride to Madagascar, and onward.

In 1817, smallpox hit Madagascar hard. They had already tried the “bury ’em alive” strategy, and quit it. They were particularly prone to smallpox’s spread because the people left the bodies of their loved ones out with them while they cried or partied, and then they wrapped the bodies in fancy fabrics, which were stolen and passed along to someone who also got smallpox. (Ideally the someone was the grave robber himself.). Some people in Madagascar continue to practice the tradition of wrapping their dead, visiting to pull them out to say hi and party with them, and rewrap them.

King Radama, son of King Ari, got some new ideas about smallpox when he came to power. And they would be in harmony with Science TM. Take a friend’s smallpox scab, cut yourself, and jab that scab in there.

King Ramada, who ought to be played by Steven Yeun in a biopic.
Steven Yeun.

King Radama tried the old jab technique, and he only got a mild case of smallpox. His sister was not so lucky. She got too much of the nasties and died on December 23, 1817. As did five other members of the Radama family. Sad stuff. This all happened over what we’d call “the holidays,” but you know, maybe this wasn’t “the holidays” for them. Because man it sucks to have loved ones die during that time.

Royal tombs, including Radama’s, on the left. He didn’t die of smallpox! He died of alcoholism. Sorry I set you up for that.

The cowpox vaccine was the best version of smallpox innoculation, and it came to Madagascar in 1818, ending the epidemic.

Madagascar from 1980 to 2013 reminds me of Haiti. These places cannot catch a break. They had 63 natural disasters including cyclones, floods, droughts, earthquakes. I mean, all it took to undo the U.S. was DT and covid.

Currently, Madagascar is struggling with drought and famine AND covid. Some scientists believe theirs is the first famine that has resulted from climate change.

Some Sakalwva women in Madagascar. They’re good on the ocean, and into face painting, and they look fun.

It’s possible that the people of Madagascar think of the future as coming up from behind them, rather than in front of them. Like they are standing still and time is pushing past them, the future showing up moment by moment. The present is to the side of you, and is hard to understand. The past is right in front of you where you can see it, all of it.

It’s also possible that this is western linguistic scholar nonsense.

At any rate, I’m going to ponder the notion. These last few years, it surely does feel like I’ve been riding life backwards.

Here’s an art show in Madagascar that I thought was cool.

Maybe you’d like to donate to hunger relief in Madagascar.


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