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Queen Ranavalona: Ruthless Ruler of Madagascar

Queen Ranavalona: Ruthless Ruler of Madagascar

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Ranavalona was the 19th-century ruler of the Kingdom of Madagascar. She lived during a time when there was increasing contact between the island kingdom and Europeans. Ranavalona, however, pursued a policy of isolationism, and self-sufficiency, so as to reduce dependency on these foreign powers. This has been interpreted as a means by which the queen fought off the encroachment of Europeans and protected the sovereignty of her kingdom. This, however, is a more recent re-assessment of Ranavalona’s reign. Traditionally, scholars depict the queen as a tyrant whose policies caused great suffering to her subjects, a view first propagated by her European contemporaries.

The Early Life of Queen Ranavalona

Queen Ranavalona was born in the Kingdom of Madagascar, known also as the Merina Kingdom, in around 1788. Her birth name was Ramavo. The names of the future queen’s biological parents have unfortunately been lost to history.

According to historical stories, when Ranavalona was still a child, her father alerted Andrianampoinimerina, the King of Madagascar, to a plot against his life. The conspiracy to assassinate Andrianampoinimerina was led by one of the king’s uncles, who, along with other conservative traditionalists, opposed his support for the adoption of Western ways in the kingdom. As a reward for saving his life, the king adopted Ranavalona as his own daughter, and betrothed her to his son and heir, Prince Radama.

King Andrianampoinimerina of Madagascar. (Philippe-Auguste Ramanankirahina (1860-1915) / Public domain)

King Andrianampoinimerina of Madagascar. (Philippe-Auguste Ramanankirahina (1860-1915) / Public domain)

Andrianampoinimerina is arguably the most famous ruler of the Kingdom of Madagascar. His name loosely translates to mean “the king who is not like the stupid,” or “the one who will always stay in the Merina’s hearts.” The Kingdom of Madagascar traces its history all the way back to Andrianerinerina, a legendary king said to have descended from heaven, who subdued the Vazimba people.

Written records about the kingdom’s rulers before the 16 th century, however, are not known. Nevertheless, it is known that prior to Andrianampoinimerina’s reign, the Kingdom of Madagascar was a small polity, and its territory was confined to the central highlands of the island. Moreover, as a result of a civil war in the 18 th century, the kingdom was split into four smaller states.

In 1787, Andrianampoinimerina seized the throne of one of the Merina kingdoms, and initiated the unification of Madagascar. In the years that followed, he pursued an expansionist policy, and by 1806 had conquered the three remaining kingdoms. Andrianampoinimerina’s ultimate goal, however, was to unite the entire island as one big kingdom under his rule.

Andrianampoinimerina’s reunification of the Kingdom of Madagascar alone would have ensured his legacy. Nevertheless, the king also established a number of reforms within the kingdom, which contributed further to his fame. These include setting up rice storage depots for orphans and widows, a new penal code, as well as rules for rice cultivation, street cleaning, and social life.    

Andrianampoinimerina did not achieve his goal of uniting the whole island of Madagascar, as he died in 1810. He was succeeded by his son Radama, who was only 18 years old at the time. Fortunately for Andrianampoinimerina, his son also shared his ambitions, and therefore the new king continued to pursue his father’s policies.

King Radama I follows in the footsteps of his Western-friendly father, Andrianampoinimerina. (Philippe-Auguste Ramanankirahina (1860-1915) / Public domain)

King Radama I follows in the footsteps of his Western-friendly father, Andrianampoinimerina. (Philippe-Auguste Ramanankirahina (1860-1915) / Public domain)

Radama Follows As King In His Father’s Footsteps

In 1824, King Radama defeated the Betsimisaraka people, who occupied the island’s east coast. Following this victory, the king is alleged to have proclaimed, “Today I own the whole country – Madagascar has a king now!” Indeed, Radama succeeded in conquering most of the island.

King Radama was also similar to his father in his adoption of Western ideas. This is seen, for instance, in the permission he granted to British missionaries to operate in the kingdom. In addition to spreading Christianity amongst the Madagascans, the missionaries also built schools, and developed a written language for the people.

Apart from that, Radama began to abolish the slave trade in his kingdom, through the intercession of the British. The modernization of the Madagascan army was also accomplished with British help. Incidentally, the British were willing to help Radama strengthen his army in part due to their desire to use the kingdom to counter the influence of the French in the area.

Interestingly enough, even though Radama was eager to adopt Western ideas, he himself did not convert to Christianity. Some of his actions may even be regarded as “un-Christian,” most notably, perhaps, is the fact that he had 12 wives.

Since Ranavalona was Radama’s first wife, she was the only one who was officially referred to as “queen.” In spite of her high status, Ranavalona was not the king’s favorite wife, and never bore Radama any children. The king, by the way, had several children with his other wives. One of the reasons for the incompatibility between Radama and Ranavalona was the fact that the queen, in direct opposition to her husband, had a more conservative and traditional outlook. Whilst the king was still alive, however, Ranavalona was unable to do much about her husband’s policies.

In 1828, Radama died prematurely at the age of 35. The historical records provide conflicting accounts as to the cause of the king’s death, though it is commonly thought that it was heavy drinking that ultimately led to his early death.

Radama had not named a successor at the time of his death. Nevertheless, according to local custom, he would have been succeeded by Prince Rakotobe, one of his nephews. Had the prince succeeded Radama, he would have had to eliminate Ranavalona. This was due not only to the fact that she was Radama’s queen, but also due to a local tradition which states that any children she bore would be considered as Radama’s own, regardless of the father. Such a child would have a stronger claim to the throne than Rakotobe.

Queen Ranavalona ascends the throne and begins to undo the Western-friendly work of the previous two kings. (Philippe-Auguste Ramanankirahina (1860-1915) / Public domain)

Queen Ranavalona ascends the throne and begins to undo the Western-friendly work of the previous two kings. (Philippe-Auguste Ramanankirahina (1860-1915) / Public domain)

Queen Ranavalona Rises To the Throne and Changes Everything

Radama’s modernization program had alienated the more conservative elites of his kingdom. And these elites viewed Ranavalona as a means to restore the old ways. Therefore, they rallied to her cause, and garnered enough support from the military to take the throne for her by force.

It seems that Rakotobe and his supporters were unable to offer any resistance, and therefore the prince was forced to give up his claim to the throne. Rakotobe and his mother were amongst the first victims of Queen Ranavalona, as they were obviously regarded as threats to her position. The queen also put to death many other political rivals to secure her position.

Queen Ranavalona did not disappoint her supporters, as she immediately overturned the reforms instituted by her late husband. The queen cancelled the trade deals that her kingdom had with Britain and France, and expelled European merchants, teachers, and diplomats from Madagascar.

In retaliation, the French launched an attack on Ranavalona’s kingdom. The Madagascans, however, successfully repelled the invasion, thanks largely to the fact that many of the French soldiers were struck down by malaria. After the battle, the queen had 21 enemy soldiers decapitated. Their heads were stuck onto pikes, and lined along the beach, so as to warn their countrymen against attempting another attack.

Queen Ranavalona also targeted the missionaries and their local Christian converts. Christianity was outlawed, and those who refused to give up their faith were treated cruelly. These Christians were beaten, tortured, and executed by various means. The relatives of these Christians are said to have been forced to watch these brutal punishments, so as to instill fear in them. On one occasion, the queen ordered 15 Christian leaders to be dangled over a rocky ravine by ropes. She then had the ropes cut, sending them plunging to their deaths.

Queen Ranavalona on her throne as she begins to change the legal system and adopts increasingly "cruel" ways. (H. Linton / Public domain)

Queen Ranavalona on her throne as she begins to change the legal system and adopts increasingly "cruel" ways. (H. Linton / Public domain)

Queen Ranavalona Also Resumed Cruel Legal Practices

Apart from overturning her late husband’s Western-friendly policies, and her persecution of Christians, the queen, as a conservative traditionalist, reintroduced traditional practices. These included trials by ordeal, which were used to determine if a person accused of a crime was innocent or not.

One of these trials is known as the tangena, named after a poisonous nut that causes a person to vomit after eating it. This trial was used in particular against people suspected of disloyalty and involved the accused eating three pieces of chicken skin, followed by the tangena nut. If the accused was innocent, he/she would regurgitate all three pieces of the chicken skin. If the accused was unable to do so, he/she would be declared guilty.

One of the people subjected to the tangena by Ranavalona was Adriamihaja, a young military officer who had supported Ranavalona’s claim to the throne following Radama’s death. Adriamihaja was also the queen’s lover, and the biological father of her son, Prince Rakoto. Adriamihaja was rewarded with the post of Prime Minister, but eventually met his end as a result of his unfaithfulness. Adriamihaja was caught by the queen with another woman and was given the chance to undergo the tangena trial. He refused, however, preferring to be executed instead.

Ranavalona’s cruelty was certainly not limited to those close to her, or even the Christians whom she persecuted. Even ordinary Madagascans were not spared: nobody in the kingdom was safe from her. For instance, she made full use of the tradition of fanompoana, or forced labor in lieu of the payment of taxes in money or goods. In other words, these laborers were slaves, and suffered greatly.

Working conditions were brutal, the laborers worked far away from their homes, had to return home on foot, and were malnourished. Consequently, many lost their lives under such appalling living conditions. It has been estimated that by the end of Queen Ranavalona’s rule, the population of her kingdom had been reduced from 5 million to about 2.5 million people.

Ranavalona may have also been mentally unstable. In 1845, she demanded that her entire court embark on a buffalo hunt. Along with the servants and slaves, the hunting party consisted of around 50000 people. It seems that the hunt was a haphazard decision by the queen, as the hunting party brought with them insufficient supplies. Moreover, a road had to be built as the hunting party advanced. It is alleged that by the end of the hunt, which lasted for four months, 10000 people had died from hunger and exhaustion. Incidentally, no buffaloes were killed during the hunt.

Rakoto, Queen Ranavalona’s son, plotted against her unsuccessfully more than once but still rose to the throne. (William Ellis / Public domain)

Rakoto, Queen Ranavalona’s son, plotted against her unsuccessfully more than once but still rose to the throne. (William Ellis / Public domain)

Plots Against Queen Ranavalona By Her Son Rakoto

Ranavalona’s son, Rakoto, opposed his mother’s policies, and held views that were more in line with her predecessor’s. Rakoto participated in several plots against the queen, all of which ended in failure.

One of these plots was launched in 1857, and involved two Frenchmen, Jean Laborde, and Joseph-François Lambert. Although the queen was generally opposed to Europeans in her kingdom, she was shrewd enough to recognize their value when needed. Laborde, for instance, had arrived in Madagascar in 1831, following a shipwreck off the island. The queen accepted him into her inner circle, as he had the knowledge required for the manufacture of guns, gunpowder, and other industrial goods. Laborde was also responsible for constructing a palace for the queen on a hill in Antananarivo. Unfortunately, the palace was destroyed in a fire in 1995.

Despite being one of the queen’s confidants, Laborde supported Rakoto, and turned against her in 1857. The plot was foiled, and the conspirators were purged. The Europeans were spared, perhaps due to the prince’s intervention, but exiled from the kingdom. The Madagascans who participated in the plot, on the other hand, were less fortunate, and put to death. As for Rakoto, he remained as heir to the throne, even though he attempted to overthrow his mother several times.

Queen Ranavalona ruled the Kingdom of Madagascar for a total of 32 years and died in her sleep in 1861. Her death was mourned throughout the kingdom for nine months, and part of the funerary rituals involved the slaughter of thousands of animals, whose meat was then distributed to the people. Ranavalona was succeeded by her son, Rakoto, who adopted the name Radama II.

Although the historical records portray Queen Ranavalona as an extremely cruel despot, it must be said that she was a shrewd politician, as she managed to maintain her grip on power for such a long time.

Moreover, it was in part due to her isolationist policies that the Kingdom of Madagascar was able to maintain its sovereignty in the face of colonialism. By contrast, her successors were much less capable than her, and in 1895, Madagascar became a French protectorate. In the following year, the island was reduced to the status of a colony.

Top image: A modern vision of the mixed associations that come to mind when looking at the “revised” legacy of Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar, who resisted European influences but also instituted cruel practices and laws. Source: chainat / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren                                                                                                     


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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