Claude-Joseph Désiré Charnay went to Madagascar in 1863 as part of a government-sponsored expedition to extend French political influence there. When Charnay's party left France, there was a pro-French prince on the throne in Madagascar; by the time they arrived, the prince had been assassinated and the new government had reinstated an official policy of resistance to the French presence.
In this tense environment Charnay made photographs of native individuals and ethnic types. As an anthropologist, he was interested in their physical appearance and costumes more than their individual identities. The population of Madagascar was made up of the ruling Hova tribe and the native Madegasse, to which group the women pictured here belonged. The three women and the girl stand in the center of the frame, presenting themselves to the camera in silent formality. Charnay was an enthusiastic imperialist who rather patronizingly described the Madegasse as "of a gentle and timid disposition, faithful and devoted." He was successful in getting them to pose, representing the island's colonized population in their finery of French printed cotton.