The people living in Toamasina province are called Betsimisaraka, which means numerous and inseparable. They are friendly, fun loving and easy going people. They constitute the second largest group of Madagascar’s 18 tribes. In the eighteenth century Ratsimilaho, allegedly the son of a British pirate and a Malagasy princess, unified several small coastal states and thus founded the Betsimisaraka confederation. Ratsimilaho died in 1751 and the confederation was much weakened by internal conflict and external pressure.
The Betsimisaraka used to be sailors. With large canoes they sailed to the Comoros, the islands northwest of Madagascar. Comorans were brought back to Madagascar and incorporated into Betsimisaraka society. The Betsimisraka also cooperated with the European pirates who settled on Madagascar’s east coast. Betsimisaraka culture has thus been influenced by these contacts with Africans and Europeans, still their traditional dances resemble the Polynesian way of dancing. Traditional instruments are the flute, drum and accordion or bandonion, also proof of a history of foreign influences.
All the foreign influences did not change that in most traditional Betsimisaraka villages and even in the provincial capital Tamatave you can find a pole with zebu cranes, the Fisokina, a monument for the ancestors. Moreover, Betsimisaraka communities have more holy places where the ancestors are honoured.
Today fishing is still a main economic activity. Agriculture, (rice, coffee, cloves, vanilla, litchis and other fruits, and sugar cane) and trading are other traditional sources of income. The arrival of a Canadian mining company gave the local economy a very welcome boost.