- French colonialists seeking domination of Madagascar in
the early 20th century launched biological warfare against
opposing livestock herders who wielded their own weapon of
crass obstruction: the prickly pear cactus.
in arid southern areas of the Indian Ocean island nation historically
used the thorny cactus to feed cattle during lean months when
the grass was dry or eaten to a nub. They also used the impenetrable
cactus forests where some species grow as tall as river
birch trees to dodge French colonial law enforcers
and tax collectors.
pastoralists (herders) would simply disappear into the cactus
forests or ambush columns of French soldiers snaking their
way through narrow paths of prickly pear cactus," explained
Dr. Jeffrey C. Kaufmann of The University of Southern Mississippi,
an expert on the subject. "Dozens of French officers
were speared to death in these mazes."
in a 25-year struggle to conquer the herders and firmly establish
colonial rule on the southern Africa island, the French introduced
biological warfare to the region.
spread a cactus parasite on the Malagasy prickly pear being
cultivated by pastoralists in an area the size of Ohio,"
said Kaufmann, a Southern Miss assistant professor of anthropology.
"The cactus died and so did thousands of Malagasy cattle
and several hundred people... The killing famine that some
terribly ignorant/smart French brought to Madagascar could
have been avoided if they had listened to the pastoralists."
by Kaufmann on the subject, entitled "La Question des
Raketa: Colonial Struggles with Prickly Pear Cactus in Southern
Madagascar, 1900-1923," has been awarded the Robert F.
Heizer Prize by the American Society of Ethnohistory for the
best article published in the discipline in 2001. The winning
article selected by the Heizer Committee at its annual
meeting in Quebec City, Canada -- appeared in the Winter-Spring
2001 issue of Ethnohistory.
article looks at how local pastoralist populations in Madagascar
were able to thwart French colonialism through the cultivation
of prickly pear cactus," said Dr. Ed Jackson, chair of
Southern Miss' Department of Anthropology and Sociology. "This
prestigious international award was decided by a panel that
read all articles published on ethnohistory in lead journals"
around the world.
members noted in their remarks that this sort of ethno-environmental
history could help reorient our understanding of contact,
colonization and resistance as cultural processes recorded
on the land itself," said Jackson, noting that ethnohistory
uses both historical and ethnographic data in an attempt to
understand culture on its own terms.
who joined the Southern Miss faculty in 2000 and is
an active member of the university's African Studies program
spent last summer in France studying documents, photographs
and maps dealing with the French biological campaign to eradicate
Malagasy cactus. His work was funded by both a grant from
the Lucas Endowment and a Summer Research Faculty Grant.
French weren't accustomed to working or living around all
that prickly pear," he explained. "Like a lot of
us, the French considered grass the most logical plant for
cattle to eat. But in southwest Madagascar, where there is
very little rain, the water-bearing and nutritious prickly
pear was just the thing to feed cattle... The pastoralists
go through an elaborate process of cutting, neatly stacking,
burning off the thorns, then cutting the cactus pads into
strips that cattle can easily pick up and masticate...
until 1928 were the French confident that they held the land
and the people," he added. "But to reach that point,
they had to introduce biological warfare into the region.
The lesson here for us to remember is that no matter how smart
we think we are, there are things that we don't understand.
Listening to the little guys can avoid big problems later
an independent nation, Madagascar nearly twice the
size of Arizona -- became a French colony in 1896. The country,
which regained its independence in 1960, has a population
today of approximately 16.4 million.