Quakers in Madagascar

In 1867 British Quaker Joseph Sewell, and American Quakers Louis and Sarah Street, travelled to Madagascar. Quakers still had no mission organisation of their own, so they went under the auspices of the London Missionary Society (LMS), who had asked Friends for help.

Friends Foreign Mission Association (FFMA) was set up the following year, partly in response to this.  Other Friends were soon sent, including Henry and Rachel Clark, Helen Gilpin and William Johnson (who married Lucy, one of Joseph’s daughters).  FFMA started a printing press in 1872 and Henry Clark produced a flood of publications for Malagasy schools and country churches.

In 1873 the Malagasy town churches began missionary work in the countryside. Joseph took part and travelled widely in the west.  When the Protestant missions divided the country into segments to avoid duplication of work, Friends took responsibility for an area that Joseph had come to know, south west of Antananarivo (the capital) and extending to the edge of the wild Sakalava country along the west coast.

From 1880 onwards Friends took over much of the medical work that had been started by the LMS and William Johnson designed a big mission hospital in the capital on land given by the Malagasy Queen.  That building is still in use today.  Other Friends started small hospitals and medical centres in country districts.  Another building still in use is a girls’ school in Antananarivo named after Helen Gilpin who gave nearly 25 years of her life to the education of girls and women.

In 1892 William and Lucy Johnson settled in the new Mission Station in Arivonimamo where Lucy ran classes for slave women and did some nursing in the little hospital in the Mission compound, and William busied himself teaching, preaching and designing hospitals and schools.

Samuel Clemes and his wife settled at Antoby in the foothills of the Ankaratra mountains in 1874.  They started a school but suffered much ill health and soon had to return to Antananarivo. One lasting effect of their brief stay was the popularisation of soap for washing clothes - previously unknown in the area!

In 1895 France colonised Madagascar and the  Queen was exiled to Algeria.  Lawless bands roamed the country believing that the missionaries were in league with the French. William and Lucy Johnson were murdered along with their 5-year-old daughter Blossom.  Today there is a large school in Arivonimamo which bears their name.

Herbert Standing was head of the boys’ school in the capital at that time and did much to ease the path of the Protestant missions during these difficult years. Amongst other things he helped many French officials to learn Malagasy to aid mutual understanding and gave concentrated courses in French to many Malagasy teachers.

In 1913 James and Beatrice Ryan set up a Mission Station in Maintirano among the fierce Sakalava people. They went home on leave in 1917 but James was drowned when his boat was torpedoed on the way back.  In 1920 Beatrice returned with their baby Mollie and continued to work for another four years.  Beatrice died of blackwater fever in 1924.

Friends had always worked alongside their Malagasy colleagues, but from the 1950s onwards there was a gradual handing over of district responsibility to the Malagasy Yearly Meeting.

Madagascar became independent in 1960 and in 1967 Friends celebrated a century of work there.  In 1969 the Malagasy Friends Church joined with two other Protestant Churches to become the new FJKM (Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar). The last Quaker missionary left in 1969 but a new era of co-operation had begun some years previously with the sending of young Quakers as volunteer teachers for periods of about a year. The last of these left in 1971 but a further scheme operated for a few years where young Quakers spent a period of six months alongside young Malagasy doing a variety of social work – half of it in Madagascar and half in Britain.

The Quaker Madagascar connection is still alive but now in a very different form, through a development charity called Money for Madagascar, founded in 1986 by a former Madagascar volunteer, with the support of Swansea Quakers. It funds development work to the tune of around £250,000 a year.

Further Reading and Credits

external links

further reading

  • Much of this information is taken from a booklet written by Winifred White to mark the centenary of Friends work in Madagascar : “Friends in Madagascar 1867 -1967. The Past calls to the Future”)
  • Joseph Sewell, a Quaker memoir: Edith Sewell, 1902, London, Headley Brothers.