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Hidden Queens of Africa: Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar

Updated: Jan 3, 2023

A Malagasy Queen who fought against European control and succeeded.

Ranavalona Manjaka I was a Malagasy leader of Madagascar, reigning for 33 years, and unknown to majority of the world. She is remembered as both patriotic and barbaric, depending on who’s talking. She became ruler of the Merina people which was the dominant tribe of Madagascar at the time and her late husband had achieved the title “King of Madagascar” through his many battles with other Malagasy tribes such us the Hova and the Zana Malata (mulattos). When her husband died, there was much debate over who would take the throne and after much discussion and bloodshed, Ranavalona I was crowned Queen of the Great Red Island, now known as Madagascar. The French made several attempts to downgrade her title from Queen of Madagascar to Queen of the Merina, but they were paid no mind.

Her reign is one of high significance due to her loyalty to traditional Malagasy beliefs and traditions, however she was a merciless Queen who some refer to as a serial killer.

Before I dive into Ranavalona I politics, I’d like to point out that she wasn’t born into royalty. Her father was a noble man and exposed a conspiracy to kill King Adrianampoinimerina (andria-nampo-ini-merina), who then took it upon himself to adopt his daughter and give her a better life. When Ranavalona was 22, the King proposed she married her adoptive brother Prince Radama who was next in line for the throne, aged 16. When Prince Radama became King, he executed anyone who may conspire to dethrone him, including all of Ranavalona’s blood kin, which at the time provoked no emotional response from the Queen.

Ranavalona I was the King’s first wife and so her offspring were most entitled to the throne should he pass away, however, when the king did pass, she had not bore any children for him and in 1828 she was given the throne. Whether it was the natural paranoia of the monarch to remove any potential threats, or Ranavalona was sworn to revenge for her family, she executed any kin of King Radama.

Many publications, books, and reports all portray Ranavalona as a barbaric and xenophobic tyrant which basically means she wasn’t open to other cultures and practices. The other portrait painted of Ranavalona is as a heroin figure with strong belief in self sufficiency for Madagascar. Her husband had created a connection with the English and the French allowing them to trade and teach European history and Christianity at the London Missionary School. Within her first few years as Queen, she had annulled the Anglo-Merina treaty which stopped yearly payments from the British in return for what was basically exploitation of Malagasy resources (natural and human).

Ranavalona I was civil with the Europeans until she realised her people had forsaken the ancestors and their tradition and she then passed a law that forbade any Malagasy to practice the foreign religion in 1832, whilst allowing the foreigners to follow their own beliefs. Most of them were in Madagascar as missionaries, so they set sail for France, which caused the Queen to be suspicious of the Europeans… she had sussed their desire for control and kept them at arm’s length. She established close personal relationships with the Europeans to draw expertise but limited their activity to restrict their influence.

Ranavalona was a big believer in Merina tradition and took offence to anyone who refused to submit to customs that had worked for so long, sentencing thousands to death including public hangings, burning people alive, burying people alive and sentences including flogging and rape. Her punishments were distressing to read about… especially sentencing someone to rape. In no means does this report support her actions and sanctions, but I wanted to share all information to avoid bias. One punishment that was common, originating from Madagascar was the “Tangena Ordeal”. Poison was extracted from the nut of the native Tangena and ingested with 3 chicken skins and lots of water to provoke vomiting. If all 3 chicken skins were vomited out, then the defendant was deemed innocent, however the digestion of any skins proved guilt and the Queen would then decide how they should be killed. Her suggestions were often gruesome, like the cutting of limbs or burning. Many people were put to trial under the Tangena Ordeal and not many survived. It’s hard to say how accurate this trial was.

The French made many attempts to gain control over Madagascar through use of arms and attempts at negotiation, but the Queen had always dismissed them. She was very aware of what they were after and had no intentions of giving it to them. In 1829, the French launched an attack on Foul Pointe and Ivondro which Merina soilders successfully repelled, forcing the French soldiers to retreat. As a warning to potential invaders, the Queen had the heads of dead soldiers chopped off and stuck on poles by the coast. These heads were there for years until Ranavalona’s requests were made years later. Not only had she won the battle, but requested the French pay her $15,000 reparation for the attack which they paid in 1853. This was a big success for Ranavalona and restored faith in her leadership within the Merina people.

Although the Merina people were subject to her rule, whether they agreed with her methods or not, other Malagasy tribes were loyal to their own leaders and operated as their own kingdoms. The Merina soldiers used to go to their villages to take for themselves whatever they pleased, execute anyone who rebelled, and collect slaves for illegal trading. As well as fighting European forces, the Queen also was in battle with other tribes, the majority of which she won, but she did lose mass numbers of men.

After Ranavalona I’s death in 1861, Madagascar was taken over by Europeans culturally and politically. The Frenchman Jean Laborde, had helped the Queen using his knowledge of European military operations to produce weaponry, and she also entrusted him with the responsibility of educating her son Radama II with hopes of him taking over the throne after her death. Her wishes were met, however, she failed to realise that Laborde had raised her son glorifying European traditions, rather than Malagasy so with the help of Joseph-Francois Lambert, they were able to guarantee themselves personal riches and an heir to the throne, determined to work with the Europeans.

The lesson:

I decided to do research into Ranavalona I because she was true to her Malagasy traditions and customs even in a position of power, although she exploited that power for her personal gain and delivered harsh punishments. Overall, she played a smart game with the Europeans, using them to help the Great Red Island (Madagascar) develop internally before expanding externally, whilst keeping their influence away from the Merina people.

European sources commemorate her reign as “The Rule of a female Caligula”, whereas the Malagasy people acknowledged her strength as a ruler, despite disagreeing with her politics.

Do you think Ranavalona was a good Queen or evil one?

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