The Bible Reaches the Big Red Island

LOCATED some 250 miles [400 km] off the southeast coast of Africa, Madagascar is the fourth-largest island on earth. The Malagasy people have long been familiar with the name Jehovah, for Malagasy translations of the Bible containing God’s name have been available for over 170 years. How the Malagasy translation was produced is a story of persistence and dedication.

Efforts to translate the Bible into Malagasy originally began on the nearby island of Mauritius. As early as 1813, Sir Robert Farquhar, the British governor of Mauritius, initiated a translation of the Gospels into Malagasy. He later encouraged Radama I, king of Madagascar, to invite teachers from the London Missionary Society (LMS) to the Big Red Island, as Madagascar is often called.

On August 18, 1818, two Welsh missionaries, David Jones and Thomas Bevan, arrived at the port city of Toamasina from Mauritius. There they found a society of deeply religious people, among whom ancestor worship and oral traditions were central to everyday life. The Malagasy people spoke a colorful language that is primarily of Malayo-Polynesian origin.

Shortly after opening a small school, Jones and Bevan brought their wives and children from Mauritius to Toamasina. Sadly, however, the entire group was stricken with malaria, and Jones lost his wife and child in December 1818. Two months later the disease swept away the Bevan family. David Jones was the sole survivor of the group.

Jones did not allow tragedy to deter him. He was determined to make God’s Word available to the people of Madagascar. After retreating to Mauritius to regain his health, Jones started the difficult task of learning the Malagasy language. Soon thereafter, he began preliminary work on the translation of John’s Gospel.

In October 1820, Jones returned to Madagascar. He landed in the capital, Antananarivo, and soon set up a new missionary school. Conditions were crude. No textbooks, blackboard, or desks were available. But the curriculum was excellent, and the children were eager to learn.

After about seven months of working alone, Jones received a new partner to replace Bevan, a missionary named David Griffiths. These two tirelessly devoted themselves to translating the Bible into Malagasy.

Translation Under Way

In the early 1820’s, the only written form of Malagasy was called sorabe​—Malagasy words written in Arabic characters. Only a handful of people could read that. So after the missionaries consulted with King Radama I, the king granted permission to adopt the Roman alphabet and use it in place of sorabe.

 Translating started on September 10, 1823. Jones worked on Genesis and Matthew, while Griffiths took Exodus and Luke. Both men had amazing stamina. In addition to doing most of the translating themselves, they continued to teach school in the morning and afternoon. They also prepared and conducted church services in three different languages. Still, translating took precedence over everything else.

With the aid of 12 students, the two missionaries translated the entire Greek Scriptures and many books of the Hebrew Scriptures in just 18 months. The following year, a preliminary translation of the entire Bible was completed. Of course, corrections and refinements were needed. So two linguists, David Johns and Joseph Freeman, were sent from England to help.

Enduring Setbacks

When the Malagasy translation was completed, the LMS sent Charles Hovenden to set up Madagascar’s first printing press. Hovenden arrived on November 21, 1826. However, he contracted malaria and died within a month of his arrival, leaving no one who could operate the press. The following year, a skilled tradesman from Scotland, James Cameron, managed to assemble the press with the aid of a handbook found among the machinery. After much trial and error, Cameron managed to print a portion of Genesis chapter 1 on December 4, 1827. *

Another setback came on July 27, 1828, following the death of Radama I. King Radama had been very supportive of the translation project. David Jones said at the time: “King Radama is exceedingly kind and affable. He is a great advocate for education, and esteems the instruction of his people in the arts of civilization more than Gold and Silver.” However, the king was succeeded by his wife, Ranavalona I, and it soon became evident that she would not be as supportive of the work as her husband had been.

Shortly after the queen’s enthronement, a visitor from England asked for an audience to discuss the translation work. He was refused. On another occasion, when the missionaries told the queen that they still had much to teach the people, including Greek and Hebrew, she said: “I do not care much about Greek and Hebrew, but I would like to know if you can teach my people something more useful, such as the making of soap.” Realizing they might be forced to leave before the Malagasy Bible was completed, Cameron asked for a week to think about the queen’s remark.

The following week, Cameron presented the queen’s royal messengers with two small bars of soap made from local materials. This and other public works carried out by the missionary artisans appeased the queen long enough for them to finish printing all but a few books of the Hebrew Scriptures.

A Surprise, Then Disappointment

Despite her initial rebuff of the missionaries, in May 1831 the queen issued a surprising decree. She would allow her subjects to be baptized as Christians! But this decision was short-lived. According to A History of Madagascar, “the number of baptisms alarmed the conservative elements at the royal court, who persuaded the queen that the communion service amounted to an oath of allegiance to the British.” Thus, permission for Christian baptism was retracted at the end of 1831, just six months after it was granted.

The queen’s vacillation, along with the evident growing influence of traditionalists  within the government, stimulated the missionaries to finish printing the Bible. The Christian Greek Scriptures had already been completed, and thousands of copies were in circulation. However, another impediment came on March 1, 1835, when Queen Ranavalona I declared Christianity illegal and ordered that all Christian books be turned in to the authorities.

The queen’s edict also meant that the Malagasy apprentices could no longer work on the printing project. So with only a handful of missionaries to finish the job, work went on day and night until finally, in June 1835, the entire Bible was released. Yes, the Malagasy Bible had been born!

As the ban was in effect, the Bibles were quickly distributed, and 70 copies of the Scriptures were buried to save them from destruction. This was done none too soon, for within the year, all but two missionaries would leave the island. But the word of God was spreading in the Big Red Island.

The Malagasy’s Love for the Bible

What a joy it was for the people of Madagascar to be able to read God’s Word in their own language! The translation contains inaccuracies, and the language is now quite dated. Still, it is rare to find a house without a Bible, and many Malagasy read it regularly. Noteworthy about this translation is the extensive use of God’s name, Jehovah, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. In the original copies, the divine name is found in the Greek Scriptures as well. Consequently, most Malagasy are familiar with God’s name.

Indeed, when the first copies of the Greek Scriptures rolled off his press, the press operator, Mr. Baker, saw the joy of the Malagasy and exclaimed: “I do not mean to prophesy, but I cannot believe that God’s word will ever be exterminated from this country!” His words have proved true. Neither malaria nor the challenge of learning a difficult tongue nor the adverse decrees of a ruler could prevent God’s Word from being made available in Madagascar.

Now the situation is further improved. How so? In 2008, the complete New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures in Malagasy was released. This translation represents a huge step forward because it is in modern, easily understood language. So God’s Word is now even more strongly established on the Big Red Island.​—Isa. 40:8.


^ par. 14 The Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, produced in Mauritius in about April/​May 1826, were the very first portions of the Bible that were printed in Malagasy. However, copies were distributed only to King Radama’s family and some government officials.

[Picture on page 31]

The “New World Translation” in Malagasy honors God’s name, Jehovah