Ranavalona I, Queen of Madagascar (c. 1788–1861) ruled that large Indian Ocean island with dictatorial ruthlessness from 1828 until her death. Yet she is noted as one of the few African leaders who succeeded in keeping foreign powers at bay during a period when colonial expansion put much of Africa under European rule.
The true story of Ranavalona's reign has been difficult to establish. She was illiterate, and accounts of her activities have been told throughout history from people who either mistrusted her or were her outright enemies—Christian missionaries whom she persecuted and exiled, the few Europeans whom she allowed to remain on the island as she consolidated her power, and travelers and traders who viewed her as bloodthirsty and at various times plotted to destabilize her regime. Yet there is general agreement that she was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people whom she suspected of opposing her, and her level of paranoia increased as she grew older.
Little is known of Ranavalona's origins; she is thought to have been born on Madagascar in 1788, and may have been named Ramavo. Her ancestry, like that of many other members of the island's dominant Merina ethnic group, was probably mostly Indonesian; Madagascar's language and culture, denoted by the adjective Malagasy, are more closely connected to Southeast Asia, from whence prehistoric colonizers had come, than to the African mainland. She was a commoner, not part of any hereditary noble family by birth. Instead, her ascent to the monarchy began with an accident of fate—her father happened to learn of a murder plot against future Merina king Andrianampoinimerina, and informed his master of what was afoot.
The plot was foiled, and when Andrianampoinimerina later became king, he rewarded the informer by adopting Ranavalona as his own daughter. As an additional reward, Ranavalona was given in marriage to the king's son, Radama. Later on Radama became King Radama I, and Ranavalona was the first of his 12 wives. The marriage was apparently not a particularly close one, and Ranavalona had no children. This meant that the question of who would succeed Radama at his death was very much an unsettled one.
Matters came to a head when Radama, laid low by the effects of what may have been syphilis or cirrhosis of the liver, died in the summer of 1828; by some accounts he was suffering so horribly that he cut his own throat. Ranavalona's position was perilous. Prince Rakotobe, the son of the king's oldest sister, was the rightful heir to the throne, but in the Malagasy belief system, any child she might bear, even after Radama's death, would be considered his own offspring, and would thus become a threat to the ruling monarch. It thus would have made sense for Rakotobe to eliminate the threat by having Ranavalona killed.
She acted swiftly. Radama had been open to Western influence, allowing Christian missionaries to set up schools on Madagascar and even sending two of his children to England for an education. Ranavalona, however, had allied herself with religious figures and lawgivers in the traditional Merina belief system. Over a few evenings, while news of the king's death was still making its way around Merina lands, she quickly mobilized a group of military men from her home village and occupied the palace. Defenders of the traditional succession who showed up at the gates were given a choice—accept Ranavalona as queen or suffer the consequences. As the ranks of men who depended on the coup's success increased, her grip on power tightened.
On August 1, 1828, she was proclaimed Queen of Madagascar, and the following June she underwent a secret accession ceremony in which her body was anointed with the blood of a freshly killed bull. Her giant coronation, however, had more of a European flavor as she dressed in the garb of a French monarch. By that time she had ruthlessly eliminated her potential rivals; Rakotobe was speared to death, and Rakotobe's mother, so as not to break a taboo by shedding royal female blood, was starved. Most of Rakotobe's relatives met similarly gruesome deaths. "Never say," Ranavalona demanded of the crowd at her coronation (according to biographer Keith Laidler), "she is only a feeble and ignorant woman, how can she rule such a vast empire? I will rule here, to the good fortune of my people and the glory of my name! I will worship no gods but those of my ancestors. The ocean shall be the boundary of my realm, and I will not cede the thickness of one hair of my realm!"
The fact that she was a woman ruler was not so remarkable in itself, for Merina culture had a strong matrilineal element, partly overlaid by male-dominant gender roles that had come to Madagascar from the Arab world. But the speed with which Ranavalona moved to consolidate her rule was remarkable. She rapidly undid most of Radama's reforms and terminated trade agreements with English and French representatives, repelling a resultant attack by a French naval force, thanks partly to a fortuitous attack of malaria that struck the invaders. Merina society was restored to its traditional structure, and those who were suspected of resistance were given an age-old loyalty test called tangena . The tangena was a poisonous nut that caused the eater to vomit; suspects were forced to eat three pieces of chicken skin, and had to vomit all three of them up to show their innocence. More serious accusations were met with torture by progressive amputation.
One unfortunate person mandated to undergo the tangena was a high-ranking military official and former lover of Ranavalona named Andrianamihaja. He may have been the father of a son born to Ranavalona in the early years of her reign—it is unclear exactly when—but she turned against him after he was linked romantically with another woman. Andrianamihaja refused the test, and was speared in the throat as he coolly directed his executioner as to where the spear should enter his body. Tribes other than the Merina, living in different parts of Madagascar, suffered under her rule as her troops were given free rein to make annual pillaging trips to their defeated villages.
Christian missionaries from Europe also felt Ranavalona's power in the form of a series of restrictions on their activities. At first, however, Ranavalona was wary of confrontation with the missionaries. She could not hope to prevail in a direct conflict with European powers, and she needed the income that their cottage industries generated. Christianity, today practiced by about half of Madagascar's inhabitants, continued to grow in influence as the missionaries set up European schools and compiled a Malagasy-English dictionary.
That situation changed after Ranavalona made a shrewd decision to allow a European into her inner circle—a young French fortune hunter named Jean Laborde who had swum ashore after a shipwreck in 1831. Laborde and Ranavalona may have had a romantic as well as a political relationship; he has also been proposed as the father of her son, Rakoto, the future King Radama II. More important was Laborde's breadth of practical knowledge. An ingenious man with a broad grasp of metallurgy, munitions, and engineering, he directed the construction of a new factory town called Mantasao, some miles from the capital of Antananarivo. There he supervised the manufacture not only of guns and gunpowder for Ranavalona's army, but also of soap, silks, ceramics, and other items for which the kingdom previously had to trade. He also directed construction of an elaborate palace for Ranavalona on a hill above Antananarivo, which was destroyed by fire in 1995.
Ranavalona was now prosperous as well as powerful, and French forces, distracted by political upheaval at home in the 1830s, had completely given up their attempts to establish a foothold in the country. She was regarded by the Malagasy people as a ruler favored by powerful gods, and now she turned her attention to the last vestige of European influence: the Christian church. The teaching of Christianity in mission schools was restricted, then banned, and missionaries began to leave the island or go underground. In the mid-1830s, a series of what Laidler called judicial murders of Christians began with an especially notorious incident—the 1836 martyrdom of 14 Christians who had resisted orders to give up their religion.
Despite her attempts to resist Western influence, Ranavalona had a curiously ambivalent attitude toward the West. It was French life that fascinated her; she had courtiers dressed in French clothing, often mixing the styles of a variety of eras, and she kept a battered piano on hand, sometimes inviting visitors to play it. When it came to economic and political matters, however, Ranavalona was the West's implacable foe. A combined French and English attack on Madagascar in 1849 failed miserably as European sailors were surprised by a false-fronted native fort that concealed a much more substantial structure. A struggle between French and English troops over a temporarily captured Malagasy flag also contributed to Ranavalona's victory. A set of 21 European skulls was mounted on poles and placed along the shoreline to discourage future invasions.
This event forever cemented Ranavalona's belief in her own divinely ordained power and in the later years of her reign, her actions apparently became more and more capricious and violent. In 1845 she ordered a buffalo hunt, requiring attendance from all of the nobles at her court. Each courtier had to bring along a full retinue of underlings and slaves, and the expedition grew to an unwieldy crowd of some 50,000 people. Ranavalona commanded that a road be built, as the group proceeded, in order to smooth her progress. The expedition devolved into disaster as it went on, for it had departed with little advance planning; there were no food supplies for the workers other than what they could extract from villages along the way, and even noblemen were forced to pay exorbitant prices for rice. As road builders fell ill and died, they were replaced by fresh recruits. "The royal road was littered with corpses, most of which were not even buried, but simply thrown into some convenient ditch or under a nearby bush," wrote Laidler. "In total, 10,000 men, women, and children are said to have perished during the 16 weeks of the queen's 'hunt.' In all this time, there is no record of a single buffalo being shot."
Eventually even Ranavalona's son, Rakoto, and her confidant, Laborde, turned against her and conspired with a French shipping merchant, Joseph Lambert, to drive her from power. The plot, launched in 1857, was well documented by an Austrian world traveler, Ida Pfeiffer, who was visiting Madagascar at the time and unwittingly became entangled in the intrigue. Ranavalona, probably with the help of spies, foiled the plan and toyed with the conspirators. Rakoto survived the resulting purges and pleaded for the lives of his European friends, and Ranavalona seemingly agreed.
Her actual plan, however, was to send them on a forced march through malaria-ridden swamps. Many of the conspirators died, but Laborde survived. He later returned to Madagascar as an adviser to Radama II after Ranavalona's death on August 16, 1861. The intrigues suppressed by the queen's brutal rule returned with a vengeance after she died, and Radama II was assassinated after only two years on the throne. A series of increasingly weakened rules opened the country to European exploitation, and in 1896 Madagascar became a French colony. Today the island is unusually rich in traditional arts—probably because it remained free of European influence for much of the nineteenth century.
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