The Merina people (also known as the Imerina, Antimerina or Hova) are the largest ethnic group in Madagascar. They are the "highlander" Malagasy ethnic group of the African island and one of the country's eighteen official ethnic groups. Their origins are mixed, predominantly with Malayo-Indonesians arriving before the 5th century AD, then many centuries later by Arabs, Africans and other ethnic groups. They speak the Merina dialect of the official Malagasy language of Madagascar.
The Merina people are most commonly found in the center of the island (former Antananarivo Province). Beginning in the late 18th century, Merina sovereigns expanded the political region under their control from their interior capital, outwards into the island, with their king Radama I ultimately helping unite the island under their rule. The French fought two wars with the Merina people in 1883-1885 and in 1895, colonized Madagascar in 1895–96 and abolished the Merina monarchy in 1897.
They built innovative and elaborate irrigation infrastructure and highly productive rice farms in high plateaus of Madagascar by the 18th century. The Merina people were socially stratified with hierarchical castes, inherited occupations and endogamy, as well as one or two of the major and long serving monarchs of the Merina people were queens.
The Merina dialect of the Malagasy language, also called as Hova or Malagasy Plateau or just Malagasy, is spoken natively by about a quarter of the population of Madagascar; it is classified as Plateau Malagasy alongside the Betsileo, Bezanozano, Sihanaka, Tanala, Vakinankaritra dialects. The Hova is one of two official languages alongside French in the 2010 constitution putting in place the Fourth Republic. Previously, under the 2007 constitution, Malagasy was one of three official languages alongside French and English.
Merina is the national language of Madagascar. An estimated 7.5 million people were fluent in this language in 2011, according to Ethnologue. It is written in Latin script, introduced by the Christian missionaries. Merina is the language of instruction in all public schools through grade five for all subjects, and remains the language of instruction through high school for the subjects of history and Malagasy language.
King Radama I welcomed Christian missionaries to establish missions on Madagascar in the 1810s. The Merina nobles were along the first to convert to Christianity. The London Missionary Society established numerous missions along the coast of Madagascar in the 1820s. Those who converted were offered scholarships in London and apprenticeship in Manchester.
Due to the influence of British missionaries, the Merina upper classes converted to Protestantism entirely in the mid-19th century, following the example of their queen, Ranavalona II. The early spread of Protestantism among the Merina elite resulted in a degree of class and ethnic differentiation among practitioners of Christianity. The French preferred Catholic interpreters and the former slaves of the Merina people converted to Catholicism. The ruling and noble class, however was Protestant. The nobility attempted to intervene, by expelling certain Christian missions. This dynamic ultimately created religious sect divisions in contemporary demographics.
Among all the Malagasy ethnicities, the Merina historically have had a highly stratified caste system. The overall society, like many ethnic groups in Africa, had two category of people, the free locally called the fotsy who had ancestors with Asian Malagasy physiognomy, and the serfs or mainty who had ancestors with African physiognomy mostly captured in other parts of Madagascar. However, the fotsy-mainty dichotomy among Merina is not based on physiognomy, states Karen Middleton, but whether they have a family tomb: fotsy have family tomb, mainty are those without one or those who have established a recent tomb. The Merine people were divided into three strata: the Andriana (nobles), the Hova (freemen), and the lowest strata called Andevo (slaves).
Each strata had been then hierarchically subdivided. The Andriana are divided into six sub-strata, each had an inherited occupation, and were endogamous.
The nineteenth century records show that Andevo or slaves were imported blacks, and they constituted about a third of the Merina society. The Merina society sold highland slaves to both Muslim and European slave traders on Madagascar coast, as well as bought East African and southeast African slaves from them for their own plantations between 1795 and 1895. Marriage and any sexual relations between the fotsy and mainty were a taboo. According to a 2012 report by Gulnara Shahinian – the United Nation's Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, the descendants of former slave castes continue to suffer in contemporary Madagascar Merina society, and inter-caste marriages socially ostracized.
The Vazimba feature prominently in Merina oral history and popular imagination. It has been speculated that the Vazimba were the original population of Madagascar, descended from Southeast Asian seafarers who may have had pygmy physical characteristics. Among some Malagasy, the Vazimba are not believed to be human at all, but rather a form of supernatural creature possessing magical powers (mahery).
In the first seven years of their lives, boys are typically circumcised in a ritual wherein relatives request the blessings and protection of the ancestors. The Merina people also ritually kill their cattle with unusual violence, cook and consume beef prepared thereafter ceremoniously.
The Merina believe their land to be tanin'drazana (the land of the ancestors) and show reverence to their ancestors by burying them in family tombs typically located in the ancestral village of origin. Many believe that ancestors can intervene in events on Earth, for good or for ill, and this belief shapes the actions and thoughts of many Malagasy.
The cuisine of the Merina is so heavily dominated by rice that the term for eating a meal is simply "to eat rice". This staple of the diet is so central to the Merina that it is considered to be masina, or holy, and a common Merina belief holds that the eating of rice is the key to moral behaviour, and the French who occupied Merina lands were often looked down upon for eating bread over rice. Beef also plays a large part in the Merina diet, and according to Merina oral history, it was a servant of King Ralambo who discovered that cows were edible and shared this knowledge with the king, who in turn informed the rest of his kingdom.
Rice, cassave and potatoes are staple crops of the Merina people. They also grow onions and other supplements, while cattle, pigs and animal husbandry is also a significant occupation. Many Merina people have moved into urban areas, where they operate factories and run businesses.