Diego Suarez …

A four am wakeup call at the illustrious Hotel Colbert and a continental breakfast in the dining room! What service, and to think there are people who complain about feathers in the pillows. Through the streets of Antananarivo as the folk that will soon be selling breakfast are lighting their charcoal fires on the footpaths of the city. And once again at the mercy of Madagascar Airlines. Let me say, although we had been warned that they were less than entirely reliable, they flew us back and forth safely and courteously and never lost our luggage. One flight out of four was delayed and rerouted. They did a good job.


Diego Suarez is blessed with a wonderful natural harbour.

Because of Madagascar’s appalling roads the country as a whole benefits little from it but the harbour was the principle prize of French colonisation and one they had to fight for in the Second World War (they surrendered, of course).

The town was named for Diogo Soares, a Portuguese navigator who visited the bay in 1543. In this usage navigator is an all-encompassing term that includes pirate, mercenary, murderer, rapist, kidnapper and thief. He was stoned to death in Burma when he lost the protection of the king and his crimes caught up with him. The only place you could find such a scoundrel today would be the New South Wales Parliament. Hardly surprising then that the town changed its name, in 1975, to Antsiranana.


Either the change of name has not been uniformly embraced or the taxi fleet predates 1975. The name lives on in the scientific name of Adansonia suarezensis, one of the baobab trees, just possibly, this one …


Here is the bay (a click enlarges any of these illustrations, the back arrow on your browser will bring you back) …

Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 6.37.35 pm

From the shore it looks like this (you’ve gotta click on this one, and say isn’t that an Adansonia suarezensis?) …


The French seized the harbour and then negotiated a protectorate agreement signed into effect in 1885. The process worked so well they then seized the rest of the country. For them it was a place to refuel their fleet travelling between France and the far east.

In the Second World War Madagascar was in the control of the Vichy French, the value of such a port to the Japanese submarine fleet was not lost on the allies. The British opened hostilities on 5 May 1942 and after a relatively brief campaign installed the Free French. At the end of the war the Malagasy sought their independence, talks did not go smoothly. An uprising commencing  in 1947 was brutally suppressed in 1948. So well did the French encourage les autres it was not until 1960 that Madagascar gained its independence.

Our accommodation in Antsiranana was at the aptly named Hotel Le Grand, in, wait for it, La Rue Colbert. The hotel was almost entirely to my satisfaction, the feathers in the pillows were as good as those in the capital but management wouldn’t rise to the occasion and serve an early breakfast.

So who was Colbert? It was probably Jéan Baptiste COLBERT, (1619–83). A French statesman and Minister of Finance (under Louis XIV) who reorganized the established colonies in Canada, Martinique, and Haiti, and founded those of Cayenne and Madagascar. It seems he sought obedience rather than popularity and, whilst not stoned to death, he was buried at night under military guard to prevent the mob from tearing his body apart. One of his notable sayings translates as “The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing“.

So, right from the outset, Antsiranana attracted more than its fair share of colourful characters. It is, I think, the most cosmopolitan city in Madagascar. It seems strongly influenced by Africa, the clothes are colourful, the whole place has a rhythm to it.

This is part of a series of posts on Madagascar that began on July 6 and is best read from the bottom up. To be continued …



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