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Joseph-François Lambert, the "Duke of Merina" (1824 - 1873) was a French adventurer, businessman, and diplomat who fathered the Lambert Charter.

The Lambert Charter

Lambert was born in Redon, Ille-et-Vilaine.

He travelled to Mauritiusmarker where, at the age of 22, he married a wealthy widow and accumulated further wealth by entering the slave trade. By sea, he relieved a Merina garrison, in Madagascar, in 1854, that was beleaguered by rebelling Malagasy tribes. As a reward, he was invited to a royal audience with the xenophobic queen Ranavalona I. At her capital Antananarivomarker, he met Jean Laborde, a Frenchman who had established an armament industry for the Merina army. Importantly, Lambert made contact with Prince Rakoto, the queen's son and future heir. According to Lambert, the prince gave him the exclusive right to exploit all minerals, forests, and unoccupied land in Madagascar in exchange for a 10-percent royalty payable to the Merina monarchy. In years to come, the French would use this "Lambert Charter" and a letter of the prince to Napoléon III asking for French protection to justify the Franco-Hova Wars and the annexation of Madagascar as a colony. The Lambert Charter was signed on 28 June 1855. The authenticity of the documents has been questioned and, in any case, the prince had no official French authority at that time and his actions could have been treacherous.

Coup attempt

With these documents, Lambert went to London and Paris to try to elicit help and support to overthrow the ruling queen and have her replaced by her son. Although no official help was forthcoming, he returned to Madagascar in 1857. The world traveller Ida Pfeiffer was an unwitting participant in his travel party. The coup that was planned for 20 June failed and Queen Ranavalona executed the locals who were involved. All the Europeans were banned including Lambert, Laborde, and Pfeiffer. After a gruelling 53-day trip through malaria-infested territory for a normally week-long journey, the Europeans were weakened and diminished. Lambert with the survivors embarked and returned to Mauritiusmarker.

The Companie de Madagascar

After the Queen's death in 1861, prince Rakoto succeeded her as King Radama II, and Lambert saw his chance to have the agreement put in place. The new king confirmed the charter and bestowed on him the title of "Duke of Merina" (duc d'Imerina). Lambert and other businessmen founded the Companie de Madagascar in Parismarker as a joint stock company to take advantage of the charter; its official title was La compagnie de Madagascar financière, industrielle et commerciale and it was authorized by imperial decree of 2 May 1863. Radama was assassinated on 12 May 1863, and the new government sought to renegotiate the charter leading to considerable friction between the Companie de Madagascar and the French government versus the Merina. It would still take three decades and several French interventions to make Madagascar a French colony. Breaking of the Lambert Charter was one of the pretenses for later French military involvement in the Franco-Hova war that led to the French conquest of the island.

As the situation in Madagascar had turned unfavorable after Radama's death, Lambert moved to the Comoro Islandsmarker in 1865 where he ruled as Regent of Mwalimarker from 1868-71. He died in 1873.

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