The world's fourth largest island, with a unique biological and physical endowment, Madagascar is home to an extraordinary insular civilization that has struggled for more than a century against external domination. In this sensitive introduction to the Indian Ocean's "great island," Philip Allen shows how family affinities and community loyalties at the foundation of Madagascar's culture have influenced Malagasy nationalism and forged islandwide traditions. These same principles have nonetheless engendered social cleavages and resistance to economic and political change. In chapters on modern Madagascar, Allen analyzes the inability of a series of regimes to maintain authority among a people deeply bound to rituals of communication with their spiritual environment. He demonstrates how the first Malagasy Republic became stigmatized by its lingering identification with French colonialism and how the nationalist revolution in 1972 soon hardened into autocratic radicalism. Allen explores the complex challenges facing Madagascar's resurgent democratic forces–including a need to conserve the island's irreplaceable biodiversity and to facilitate authentic participation in public affairs without offending ancestral customs and local precedents. Finally, he discusses efforts to end Madagascar's economic and political dependence and to improve living conditions for its tragically impoverished population.