The Malagasy raffia cloth – A convergence of three historical trajectories

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Guest blogger Anders Norge Lauridsen takes an unassuming raffia cloth from Madagascar as his point of departure, and tells a tale that spans 1600 years and half the globe. Join us as he shows us how objects can hold

This elegant raffia cloth from Madagascar found at Moesgaard Museum is the beautiful outcome of three distinct historical events. AD 400: A Southeast Asian technique of textile-making crossing the Indian Ocean to Madagascar; AD 1550: Political transformations connecting the Malagasy coast with the central highlands; and AD 1973: A Danish school teacher with a special mission in Madagascar. Let’s begin with the school teacher.

In the early 1970s, schoolteacher Svend Juel travelled around a great variety of African and Asian countries, including the Afro-Asian island nation of Madagascar. Striving to integrate ethnography into Danish primary schools, Juel collected a vast corpus of ethnographic objects from different cultures to be used in teaching. In 1973, he journeyed to the Malagasy highland people Betsileo and their city of Ambositra, a place renowned for its arts and crafts, where he collected the beautiful raffia cloth.

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Figure 1. Raffia palm. Photo: Anders Norge, Lac Alaotra 2016.

The English word raffia stems from the Malagasy word rofia, which designates an African species of palm trees particularly abundant in Madagascar. The technique of making cloth from raffia, however, seems to originate in the distant Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos, where anthropologists have documented similar textile-making from bark and banana tree fibres. The ancestors of the first Malagasy were in fact seafarers from these distant waters, hence anthropologists assume that the textile-making technique made it across the Indian Ocean with these ancestral voyagers around 400 A.D. Those among the seafarers who would later become the Sakalava and the Betsimisaraka ethnicities of respectively the Northwestern and Northeastern shorelines of Madagascar, employed their carried-along textile technique on a local tree they encountered: the raffia.



Madagascar, scarf, malagasy, collections, moegsaard, anthropology, ethnography, raffia

Figure 2. Sakalava men collecting raffia leaves. From ”De la Montagne Tsimihety à la Côte Sakalava”, Revue de Madagascar (1953), 2nd trimester, no. 15: 54.

These days, the use of raffia in cloth is on the decline in most regions of Madagascar, but thanks to travellers, missionaries and anthropologists of previous centuries, the technique of turning the leaves of the raffia palm into cloth is well documented.

As early as 1729, the English sailor Robert Drury who became shipwrecked in Madagascar, witnessed the raffia textile-making among the Sakalava on the west coast:

”The leaf is like that of a cocoa-nut tree, but longer by two feet; they take off the outer part, and put the other to dry for two or three days together, which is then thin and white like a long shaving. After that they moisten it again, and split it into threads, which they knot in a very neat manner, and weave into cloth: some of it frequently dyed, and made into lambers [cloth] striped.” (Drury 1826 [1729]: 275-276)


Madagascar, scarf, malagasy, collections, moegsaard, anthropology, ethnography, raffia

Figure 3. The inner membrane of the leaves are combed into threads. From ”De la Montagne Tsimihety à la Côte Sakalava”, Revue de Madagascar (1953), 2nd trimester, no. 15: 54.

The raffia threads are known as rabanes and were made with different sizes of iron combs to produce different sizes of rabanes. Although raffia only grows in the northern half of the island, rabanes became much coveted articles by ethnicities further to the south. Therefore, the Betsimisaraka and Sakalava exported great quantities of rabanes to their southern neighbours, who in turn manufactured their own products with the imported rabanes.


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Figure 4. Prayer rug made from raffia by the Sakalava. From ”Unwrapping the Textile Traditions of Madagascar”, C.M. Kusimba, J.C. Odland and B. Bronson (eds.) 2004, The Field Museum and UCLA Fowler Museum, page 137.

Just as today, the rabanes had a multiplicity of uses in former times: clothes, mats, sieves, a great variety of containers, and, interestingly, Islamic prayer rugs, as the Northwestern Sakalava came under a strong influence from Arab traders from the 10th century onwards.

The first paramount event for the history of Madagascar, the history of raffia cloth, and the history of the specific cloth at Moesgaard Museum was, of course, the initial migration from Southeast Asia around 400 A.D. The second crucial event for these three interconnected histories took place a good millennium later. From around 1550, growing trade networks in the Indian Ocean enabled larger political units to take shape in Madagascar. Interestingly, the genesis of these novel and highly stratified monarchies was to a large extent fuelled by a brisk demand for prestigious textiles among the emergent Malagasy upper classes.

Malagasy culture is traditionally built on a rather rigid hierarchy of social classes, not entirely unlike the Hindu caste system, and therefore markers to differentiate oneself from lower classes has historically been pivotal for people of the upper classes. When minor tribes united into monarchies in several places in Madagascar from the mid-16th century, trade networks equally developed and held out the prospect of foreign, prestigious textiles for the upper classes, textiles either from other parts of the island or from abroad. This upper-class hunger for high-status textiles concerned primarily silk and cotton, as raffia was considered a material for “the middle sort of people to make lambers [clothes] of”, as Drury put it back in 1729 (Ibid.: 275).


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Figure 5. Raffia cloth found in the highlands. The peculiar zigzag pattern presumably originates in far-away Yemen. From ”Unwrapping the Textile Traditions of Madagascar”, C.M. Kusimba, J.C. Odland and B. Bronson (eds.) 2004, The Field Museum and UCLA Fowler Museum, page 135.

The European and Arab traders along the coast of Madagascar took full advantage of the strong demand among the Malagasy and demanded rather exorbitant prices for their goods. Even tiny scraps of cotton cloth were bought at the price of nothing less than slaves and cattle. When these means of payment soon depleted near the coastal trading posts, brutal raids for slaves and cattle were launched by the Malagasy against other Malagasy tribes further inland. Thereby, the voracious appetite for prestigious textiles contributed significantly to far-reaching conquests throughout Madagascar.

Sadly, hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives or were forced into slavery through these brutal conquests. One positive side effect of the expansion of the new kingdoms was, however, that ethnic groups across the island became connected, and ideas and goods were suddenly enabled to diffuse without precedent. One of these goods were the rabanes.

In the latter half of the 18th century, most of the ethnic groups found today in Madagascar had been established as political units, and trade flourished between many of them. Historical sources bear witness to streams of merchants from Arabia and India who journeyed up to the central highlands via the west coast Sakalava territory, and brought rabanes as well as foreign design patterns with them – the result of which can be seen in figure 5.


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Figure 6. The historical migration af raffia from the ethnic groups Sakalava and Betsimisaraka to the highland Betsileo. Illustration: Søren Norge

It is, however, likely, that the trade in rabanes reached the eastern highlands surrounding Ambositra (where the Moesgaard cloth was collected) already in the first half of the 18th century. From around 1710 the Betsimisaraka conquered most of the east coast all the way down to the degree of latitude where Ambositra is found not that far inland. The anthropologist Ralph Linton, who collected the raffia textiles seen on figure 4 and 5 in the 1920’s, demonstrated that the technique of raffia weaving diffused from the Betsimisaraka to a group of forest people due east of Ambositra.

During a recent one-month stay in the city of Antsirabe a mere 90 kilometres north of Ambositra, I inquired among local Betsileo people about raffia cloth. They strongly associate raffia and the rabane threads with the Betsimisaraka. The fact that Linton traces the raffia weaving of the adjoining forest people due east of Ambositra to the nearby Betsimisaraka, and the fact that the Betsileo I talked to consistently related raffia with the Betsimisaraka, suggest that raffia reached Ambositra from the Betsimisaraka – both historically as a textile-making technique and probably the actual rabanes used in the very Moesgaard cloth.

When the Betsileo people I met in Antsirabe saw pictures of the Moesgaard cloth, they informed me that such large raffia cloths could have very different uses. In some houses, they are used as wallpaper covering entire walls, as seen for instance below in the former missionary residence at the Norwegian Missionary Station in Antsirabe.

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Figure 7. Raffia hangings. Photo: Anders Norge, Antsirabe 2017

However, the Moesgaard cloth measures only 250 x 66 cm, for which reason it certainly hasn’t served as wallpaper. Nevertheless, the Betsileo I talked to in Antsirabe estimated that the Moesgaard cloth could easily be a decorative ornament to put up on a wall, especially above a bed or a settee. As they explained to me, such raffia ornaments sometimes have patterns, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they are embellished with proverbial sayings.

Art historian Rebecca L. Green has specialised in highland Malagasy art and textiles, among other things the “proverb cloths” called lambahoany. These highly interesting cultural objects are beyond the scope of this article (but I will return to them in a future publication), but suffice it to say, that the practice of writing proverbs from the rich corpus of Malagasy aphorisms onto cloth, has migrated from lambahoany to raffia hangings in recent decades. An example of a raffia hanging adorned with a proverbial saying can be seen below. The text loosely translates as: “No one has enough in life, so blessed are those who help others”.

Madagascar, scarf, malagasy, collections, moegsaard, anthropology, ethnography, raffia

Figure 8. Raffia hanging with proverbial saying. From Rebecca L. Green: “Lamba hoany proverbs cloths from Madagascar”, African Arts, Vol. 36, No. 2, 2003, page 42.

The dimensions of the raffia hanging on figure 8 are presumably similar those of the Moesgaard cloth, hence the latter could supposedly have been used as a wall hanging, a plain and simple one without any writing. Nevertheless, at the Ethnographic Study Collection at Moesgaard Museum, the cloth is described as a “shawl”, an information probably given by Svend Juel himself. When I talked to the Betsileo people in Antsirabe and showed them photos of the Moesgaard cloth, they all suggested two alternatives: either it had been an ornamental hanging (the tightly woven textile elicited quite a lot of words of admiration from several of them) or a shawl to be worn at important family gatherings or national events. As a shawl, it is worn by men over one shoulder, and by women in a variety of styles.

Madagascar, scarf, malagasy, collections, moegsaard, anthropology, ethnography, raffia

Figure 9. Close-up of the tightly woven Moesgaard cloth.

Thus, the beautiful Moesgaard cloth owes its existence to the Southeast Asian textile-making technique, the domestic trade routes established in the wake of the 1550 transformations, and finally to Svend Juel who hand-picked it in Ambositra and brought it to Moesgaard Museum.

Suggestions for further reading

  • Drury, Robert (1826 [1729]) The Pleasant and Surprising Adventures of Robert Drury During His Fifteen Years’ Captivity on the Island of Madagascar, London: Hunt and Clarke
  • Kusimba, C.M., Odland, J.C. and Bronson, B. (2004) Unwrapping the Textile Traditions of Madagascar, Chicago: The Field Museum and UCLA Fowler Museum

Anders Norge Lauridsen holds an MA in anthropology from Aarhus University. Since 2015, he has been studying relations between spirits and people among the Sihanaka of Madagascar. In August 2017 he will commence a PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Gothenburg



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