How Tsar Peter I wanted to turn Madagascar into a Russian colony

At the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th centuries, the most prominent European monarchies – Britain, Portugal, Holland, and Spain – had already acquired their colonies in Asia, Africa, and even overseas. On the other hand, Russia only began to identify itself with the empire, but the ambitions of Tsar Peter I were far ahead of the natural course of history. And since everything European was absolutely not alien to the Russian emperor, Pyotr Alekseevich also planned to have at least one colony for the state.

The choice of the Russian emperor fell on India, and it was no coincidence. By the early 1700s, there was no single “owner” on the peninsula. Mainly the Portuguese, French, and British were rivals for their influence in Bengal. In terms of strategy, it was the perfect time to make a name for yourself in this part of the world.

The most advantageous foothold for the “Bengal campaign” was undoubtedly the island of Madagascar. It was here, shortly before his death, that the first Russian emperor equipped a secret expedition.

Race with the Swedes to cherished Madagascar

The Portuguese discovered the island of Madagascar at the very beginning of the 16th century. Later it was conquered by the French, but their rule in Madagascar was not long. Already by the beginning of the 18th century, from the former power on the island, the French had only a few small “staging points”, where they bought from local bulls, slaves, and rice. Most of Madagascar was controlled by pirates.

And if Britain, Holland, and France, trying to restore their former authority on the island, from time to time sent punitive expeditions here (which were unsuccessful) – Sweden decided to conclude an alliance with the corsairs. For this, the Scandinavians were preparing a real sea trip to Madagascar. However, the lack of funds for such an expensive expedition forced the Swedes to postpone it indefinitely.

The very idea of the “Madagascar campaign” was suggested to the Russian emperor by Daniel Wilster, a Swedish mercenary, naval officer, veteran of more than one war. By that time, Wilster had already fought both against Sweden (for the Danes) and for her (against the Danes and Russians). In one of the battles of the Northern War, the Swedish mercenary even lost a leg. However, immediately after the end of hostilities, Wilster boldly arrived in Russia and achieved an audience with Emperor Peter the Great.

Map of the island of Madagascar, early 18th century
© – Map of the island of Madagascar, early 18th century

The mercenary told the Russian autocrat about Sweden’s plans to make an expedition to Madagascar, inviting Peter I to get ahead of the northern opponents. As for the island itself, then Wilster presented himself as an expert – he described in detail the political state of affairs in Madagascar to the Russian emperor. According to the Swede, the island was a kind of the first state of corsairs in history and was “officially” called the Kingdom of Madagascar


Peter I, liked the idea so much that he ordered them to prepare for a sea voyage immediately. How could the king know that in fact there was no “kingdom” in Madagascar? At that time, there were only a few dozen large scattered pirate bases on the island, and aboriginal villages constantly at war with each other.

Secret expedition

The “Madagascar plan” was, in the opinion of the Russian emperor, so strategically important that he ordered to prepare it in the strictest secrecy. The operation strategy was developed secretly in the very office of the commander of the Russian fleet, Mikhail Golitsyn.

The unprecedented measures of secrecy were such that no one in the Admiralty or the College of Foreign Affairs knew about the preparations or about the upcoming expedition itself. And even in the classified papers, the destination was not indicated. It was replaced by a very significant phrase – “follow to your assigned place”.

The future expedition was to consist of two ships flying trade flags. However, even from a decent distance, the frigates approved for the role of “merchant ships”, armed with 32 guns each, did not look very much like merchant ships. Realizing this, the expedition’s leadership (in order to keep its real purpose secret) decided to lay a route, not through the English Channel but bypassing around the coast of Britain.

Peter I and adjutants
© – Peter I and adjutants

All the details and subtleties of the upcoming campaign were kept secret even from the head of the “Madagascar operation”, and, concurrently, and its ideological inspirer, Daniel Wilster. Packages with classified information, decrees, and instructions that the Swede and the captains of the frigates received, they had to open only after sailing on the high seas.

By the way, right before the march, the Swedish mercenary was awarded the rank of vice-admiral of the Russian fleet. This once again underlines how much Peter I was interested in the success of the expedition to Madagascar.

Objectives of the secret mission to Madagascar

According to the strategy of the planned operation, immediately after the arrival of the Russian ships in Madagascar, the “head of mission” Daniel Wilster was to deliver a letter from the Russian emperor to the “lord” of the island. As an “ambassador”, Wilster was to conduct a series of negotiations with the pirates on establishing trade and diplomatic relations between the “Kingdom of Madagascar” and the Russian Empire.

The Swede was also instructed to organize (if possible) a return visit of Madagascar ambassadors to St. Petersburg. After the “island mission” was completed – Wilster was supposed to move further by sea to Bengal. There, the Swede had to conclude agreements with the local ruler, the Great Mogul, similar to the “Madagascar” ones. Thus, Madagascar was of interest to the Russian Empire solely as a kind of “transshipment base” on the way to the untold riches of India.

The failure of the Russian colonization of Madagascar

The secret “Madagascar Expedition” started in December 1723. Two frigates – “Amsterdam-Galey” and “Dekrondelivde”, built at shipyards in Holland, went to sea from Reval (present-day Tallinn) and headed west. The crew of each ship consisted of 200 people, most of whom were naval sailors. However, after two weeks, the frigates hastily returned to Revel.

It turned out that both ships, which had already gone through more than one naval battle, leaked in the open sea. But no one even thought of scaling down the “Madagascar operation”. On the contrary, it was decided to replace the old frigates with new ships as soon as possible and again sail to the coveted island. But even here, the circumstances were against – soon, the Russian Emperor Peter I died, and the country was frankly not up to Madagascar.

Although even if the Russian expedition sailed to the “assigned place,” – it would hardly be possible to count on establishing any diplomatic relations with the “Kingdom of Madagascar”. By that time, the British Royal Navy had destroyed all the pirate ports on the island. However, the British could not gain a foothold in Madagascar for a long time due to the resistance of the warlike tribes of the aborigines.

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