The origin of the Malagasy name Toamasina is disputed. One theory states that it was derived from the 16th-century Portuguese name São Tomás (St Thomas), while another attributes it to King Radama I’s first visit to the ocean in 1817, when it’s said that the king knelt to taste the water and said ‘Toa masina’ – ‘It is salty!’
Thanks to its importance as a commercial port and slaving centre, Toamasina was one of the first major targets of the European colonial powers; the British captured the town in 1811, but then ceded it to France in 1816 as part of the Treaty of Paris. The new owners promptly burned everything and left the remains to the increasingly powerful Merina until 1883, when the city was taken to allow the establishment of a French protectorate in the region. Civil unrest obliged the French to retake the city in 1894, and it remained an official territory right up to independence.
During the political strife in 2002, the Toamasina region was one of the centres of support for former president Didier Ratsiraka, whose family originated in the area. Militant factions blockaded the RN2, cutting the main fuel supply lines to Antananarivo. The blockades were removed by force, but not before a thriving black-market trade in petrol had sprung up.