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Working for former masters in Madagascar: a ‘win-win’ game for former slaves?

Workers and landowners in the Malagasy highlands see sharecropping as an arrangement where both benefit, but that only holds as long as the former masters benefit most.

Rice fields in Madagascar. Georgia Popplewell/flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Despite being formally illegal since the 1970s, sharecropping is one of the more common working agreements between landowners and their labourers in the highlands of Madagascar. Sharecropping agreements are often represented as a sort of win-win game by both landowners and tenants, particularly for rice cultivation, the main agricultural sector of the island. They have allowed otherwise landless families to install themselves in fertile regions for anywhere from a few years to several generations while keeping two-thirds of the production for themselves. At the same time, landowners, without moving a finger, obtain rice to satisfy domestic consumption or to resell, prevent others from illegally occupying their land, and maintain a strong emotional and economic link to the land of their ancestors (tanindrazana) and their family tombs, a crucial benefit if they have moved to urban areas.

Tenants must maintain the fields and provide their own fertiliser. They may occupy the local house of the landowners at no cost, and in the intercropping period plant crops other than rice. These help the land to regain its fertility and can provide sustenance or additional income for the family. In regions where labour is scarce and the landowners have other, more important sources of revenue – such as a position in the government or a flourishing trade activity – tenants furthermore can be relatively confident that they will not being evicted in the long run and that the landowners will look the other way if they keep slightly more than their share of the harvest.

Despite their benefits, sharecropping arrangements conceal a number of practices and representations that reinforce power structures and economic inequalities. This is particularly important in a post-slavery context such as that found in the Malagasy highlands, where slave ancestry is strongly stigmatised and the descendants of slaves continue to face persistent economic subordination. It is therefore crucial to consider contemporary sharecropping agreements through the lens of the historical legacies of slavery, as these still inform and partially structure local forms of agricultural exploitation. Two family histories that I recorded in the rural regions near the town of Ambositra, in the highlands of Madagascar, demonstrate not only the relevance of the past for the present, but also the ever-changing and fragile balance of power between landowners and tenants.

Two families bound by trust, but not forever

Solo (a pseudonym) is 60 years old, widowed, and lives with his two sons, their wives, and their five children in a small house near a terraced slope a couple of hours walk west of Ambositra. After the French colonial authorities formally abolished slavery in 1896, Solo’s great grandfather, like many newly freed slaves, continued to work for his former master under new terms. He was granted a small portion of land to build a house and cultivate for his own needs, and in exchange he continued to cultivate the rest of his former master’s land for free.

The land grant Solo’s great grandfather received did not, however, make it ‘his’ – it came with restrictions attached. Most importantly from a personal standpoint, his former master refused to allow him to build his own family tomb on it, which represented for former slaves and their descendants the most important symbol of their regained ‘freedom’. After a few years, Solo’s great grandfather decided to build his own family tomb on terrain obtained by burning down part of a nearby, and unclaimed, forest.

The terms of the agreement changed in the 1960s, when the former master’s descendants decided to move in Antananarivo, where the family head now worked in the administration. They offered Solo’s father the possibility of continuing to live on the land as a sharecropper, guarding the family home and tomb in exchange for two-thirds of the harvest. Like the agreement between the former master and Solo’s great grandfather, this new one was not written down but rooted in the trust shared between the two families. After every crop, the landowner’s family came to take their part of rice – which they used for self-consumption – without spending too much time checking if the rice division was correct.

For the landowner’s family – which had other sources of revenue – the most important thing was to reaffirm their control over their possessions. Solo’s father was always at their disposal to prepare their rural house and the terrain surrounding their family tombs whenever the landowners decided to organise a famadihana – an exhumation ceremony that people on the highlands perform every few years in order to honour their dead and reaffirm their links with their tanindrazana (‘land of the ancestors’).

This relationship broke down five years ago, when one of the former master’s descendants lost his job in Antananarivo and decided to regain full possession of his family’s land, evict Solo’s family, and hire day labourers in their place. Solo asked the help of the local ‘fokontany chief’, an elected office who represents the last gear of the state administration and often is called upon to resolve conflicts between families. The fokontany chief (who was a good friend of Solo since their childhood) tried to find a possible mediation between the parties. In a first moment, the former master’s descendant accepted to allow Solo’s family to stay in exchange for a bigger part of the harvest (half instead of one-third), but then shifted stance and threatened to formally accuse Solo of illegal appropriation.

Solo was not scared. He saw this as an empty threat and he knew the Malagasy justice system was quite poor in dealing with these kinds of matters. Two years later, someone set fire to the bushes near his home. His house burned down, forcing him and his offspring to move to Antananarivo, where his daughter hosted them. When the fokontany chief told me the story of Solo and his family, he seemed sincerely sorry about how things ended up for Solo. But, he also stated: “At the end of the day, it was not their land. They were andevo [“slaves/slave descendants”]. They did not belong here”.

The power relations and the struggle for social prestige behind the ‘win-win’ game

Solo’s story illustrates not only the social and economic subordination of many slave descendants, but also of how the status of sharecroppers can easily change when crises in other working sectors affect the ascending economic trajectory of landowners who had tried to emancipate themselves from agricultural activities. When the dominant figure in the relationship loses his privileged condition, the breakdown in the so-called ‘win-win game’ of sharecropping that follows immediately reveals the power inequalities between the two parties.

Moreover, the economic logic implied in the ‘win-win game’ rhetoric hides the fact that sharecropping agreements reinforce the prestige of landowners at the expense of tenants. In a post-slavery context as the highlands of Madagascar, where many people of free and noble origin consider slave descendants impure, inferior and refuse to marry them, how prestige is acquired and how subordination is reinforced are crucial. Owning land and controlling labourers is one way to achieve the former. While many people of free or noble descent are now part of the proletariat, and not all sharecroppers are the descendants of slaves, many landowners who employ their own workforce can now dress in the clothes of the “master”. Sometimes this aspect is even more important of the direct economic gain.

Stéphan (a pseudonym), for example, is a teacher in a private school in Antananarivo. He is the son of a man of free origin from Ambositra who migrated to the capital in 1970s, leaving his ‘ancestral’ lands in the hands of sharecroppers on the two-thirds plan. Stéphan, who inherited his father’s land together with his two brothers, is well aware that “his” sharecroppers hide part of the harvest every year. This does not bother him. The important thing is that they address him with respect when he returns, since “there” he can feel as a “master”. This helps makes up for his everyday life, where he is just another migrant living in the poor and stigmatised peripheries of Antananarivo, together with – and, to his shame, often confused with – the many slave descendants who inhabit his neighbourhood.

Stéphan is firmly convinced that his sharecroppers are slave descendants, although he has no proof of that. For him, the simple fact of being obliged to work as a sharecropper is sufficient evidence of their subordinate status, and even if he treats them with courtesy he views them with disdain and superiority.

What these stories teach us is that sharecropping agreements do not only concern local dynamics of labour exploitation or the extraction of surplus. They also affect attempts to renegotiate individual and collective identities. Indeed, to use another game metaphor, that of the zero-sum game, legacies of slavery in Madagascar have structured landowner-tenant relations in terms that seemingly make the social prestige of the landowners grow only as much as a sharecropper’s prestige is reduced or kept at bay. For tenants, it is a struggle not only to maintain access to land and a fair share of the production, but also to avoid being trapped in a stigmatised social category.


This Guest Week presents the results of research carried out by the team of ERC GRANT, ‘Shadows of Slavery in West Africa and Beyond (SWAB): a Historical Anthropology’ (Grant Agreement: 313737). The team has researched in Tunisia, Chad, Ghana, Madagascar, Morocco, Pakistan and Italy under the leadership of Alice Bellagamba. The team has invited Joanny Belair, Raúl Zecca Castel, Irene Peano, and Layla Zaglul Ruiz to participate in the discussion.

About the author

Marco Gardini is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Milan Bicocca. His research investigates the legacies of slavery on the highlands of Madagascar and explores continuities and discontinuities in forms of labour exploitation.


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