The Terror of Queen Ranavalona I in Madagascar
Her harsh punishments reduced the nation’s population from 5 million to 2.5 million.
“She is certainly one of the proudest and cruel women on the face of the earth, and her whole history is a record of bloodshed and deeds of horror.” — Ida Pfeiffer (an explorer)
In the Indian Ocean, there was an island called Madagascar, situated off the southeast coast of Africa. The island is known for its rich biodiversity hotspot. History considered this evergreen tropical island with ravishingly beautiful diverse ecosystems as the “paradise on Earth.”
In the sacred landscape of Madagascar, there was an evil ruler named Ranavalona. History labeled her as “evil” because of her vicious reign of thirty-three years over the Madagascar kingdom. Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar was the island’s monarch during the European expedition.
Born in 1788 in Madagascar, she was also called Ramavo and hailed from humble origins as a commoner’s daughter. During her reign as queen, she proved to be brutal, cruel, and ruthless. Ranavalona established a reign of terror to preserve the culture, traditions, and independence of the kingdom. This ruthless governance of hers resulted in the death of more than one-third of her subjects.
Known in history as both the “Mad Queen of Madagascar” and “Ranavalona the Cruel,” the totalitarian rule adopted by her makes her emerge as the most ruthless queen in history.
History before Ranavalona’s reign
For centuries, Madagascar was an undiscovered island to foreign invaders. By the eighteenth century, European travelers located the island and tried to claim their rights over it. For the Englishmen, Madagascar served as the perfect stopping station on their voyage to India. On the other hand, the French were eager to add Madagascar as part of their already expanding African nation.
After years of internal warfare, many of the battling tribes were united under wise King Andrianampoinimerina (1787–1810), bringing peace and prosperity in the region. This king honored the people by giving them their pieces of land to carry on with their livelihood.
King Andrianampoinimerina was in favor of Western teachings in his kingdom. However, the idea faced opposition from the traditionalists and priests of his court. Later, the king’s uncle tried assassinating him. Yet, his life got saved by the intervention of one of the local tribesmen who pre-warned the king about the conspiracy. Humbled by his gracious act, the king decided to adopt the tribesmen’s daughter, Ranavalona, into his court as a possible wife to his son, Prince Radama. Eventually, Ranavalona became the first wife of Radama out of his twelve wives. This gave her a position of prestige in the kingdom.
However, the relationship between Ranavalona and the prince wasn’t very stable. Their thoughts and decisions clashed. Thus, Prince Radama started giving less attention to his first wife, finding her overly tumultuous and noisy. She also argued with the prince, who abided by his father’s policies, mostly about foreigners. Over time, their relationship weakened, resulting in a childless marriage.
King Andrianampoinimerina passed away in 1810, and Prince Radama became the king with Ranavalona as his queen. After his father’s death, Radama brought changes in the country with his modern 19th-century ideas. As a way forward, he allowed foreign invasion on the island, especially by the British missionaries. They transformed the island by building schools and helped in developing a written language. Furthermore, they introduced Christianity, and efforts were made to convert the natives.
These modernized ideas displeased Ranavalona. She stood in horror at how the newly introduced religion threatened the ancient worship of the Malagasy Gods.
In 1828, King Radama died at the age of thirty-five due to a debilitating illness. A few of Radama’s officers hid the news of his death until two days after his demise to replace the king’s throne with his nephew, Prince Rakatobe. No sooner, this plan came to the knowledge of Ranavalona, who immediately gathered supporters to bring down their agenda. Her next aim was to become the immediate successor of the throne.
To emerge victoriously, she spread a rumor about God’s message, which destined her to be the immediate ruler. Adriamihaja, a young army officer, supported her in the mission and later became the first minister in Ranavalona’s court. He might have possibly been her lover and father of her son, Rakoto, who was born eleven months after King Radama’s demise. Over time, Adriamihaja got executed because of secretly cheating Ranavalona.
The rise of Queen Ranavalona I
Declaring herself as the Queen of Madagascar in 1829, Ranavalona immediately killed all her rivals, including Rakatobe. She also locked Rakatobe’s mother away and starved her to death. This terror was a political dominance move carried by the new queen towards the kingdom's royal members.
A staunch anti-European, Ranavalona’s next mission was to wipe out the reforms carried out by her husband in a bid to modernize the nation. She expelled the European merchants, teachers, diplomats, and trade deals with Britain and France were immediately canceled. After one successful battle against an invasion, she slit the heads of Europeans, stuck them on pikes, and lined them on the beaches as a measure of repelling against foreign invaders.
She also banned the teachings of Christianity in Madagascar.
“Whoever breaks the laws of my kingdom will be put to death — whoever he may be.”
Being intolerant, Ranavalona adopted harsh methods to eliminate those practicing Christianity. They were beaten, tortured, starved, pushed from cliffs, poisoned, beheaded with their relatives made to watch the brutal death scenes. Between 1837 and 1856, the queen ordered the detention and persecution of about a hundred Christians.
She replaced the “Trial by Jury” with that of the previously old-fashioned “Trial by Ordeal,” which implicated punishment by making the person drink the tangena plant’s poisonous juice. This “trial by tangena” involved eating three chickens’ skin, followed by a toxic tangena nut or kernel. Then, Ranavalona induced vomiting in the person. If all the three skins came up, the person was considered innocent. If the opposite happened, then the person was guilty. This method was used by Ranavalona to test the loyalty of her subjects.
In 1845, Ranavalona ordered thousands of her subjects to go on a buffalo hunt. Some fifty thousand large, the group took a small number of supplies and had to build a road on their way to ease the travel as per the Queen’s order. The road construction across the jungles caused the death of the subjects. However, the group progressed regardless of human misery. Astonishingly, the buffalo hunt lasted for four months, during which around ten thousand people died from exhaustion, starvation, and malarial disease, with no single buffalo being killed.
The ancient medieval period’s penchant for torture and execution heavily inspired Ranavalona. She included many evil techniques to punish people and practiced it with gusto. During Ranavalona’s reign, her descendants and criminals would be dumped slowly in boiling water and oil or tied down with ropes and burned alive. She would place others into coffins, and some were buried into holes with dirt showered upon them.
Ranavalona followed the tradition of Fanompoana — forced labor in place of tax payments in money or goods. She sold her subjects into slavery to boost the country’s economy, which involved brutal labor conditions, staying far away from homes, and malnutrition-related deaths. These people were either considered traitors, victims of war, non-taxpayers, or Christians who secretly practiced their religion. Approximately twenty thousand to thirty thousand pupils lost their lives yearly for various offenses.
Consequently, Ranavalona’s reign brought down the nation’s population from five million to around two and a half million at the end of her rule.
Over time, the queen became increasingly paranoid and used inhumane trial methods for even minor offenses as her reign progressed.
The queen’s march towards her end
The European invention of soap sparked curiosity in Ranavalona. Once she acquired the knowledge of soap making from people, she considered them useless. Must say, Queen Ranavalona had hidden propaganda behind her every move.
Once every year, she used to take a public bath on her balcony, which attracted large crowds of spectators from across miles. This public engagement served as a way to bring profit to the town. After completing the bath, she poured the water over the balcony to finally spray it upon the spectators. Public bathing was her way of getting connected to the age-old Malagasy Gods.
Despite Queen Ranavalona’s atrocities, the country managed to thrive. Like her father-in-law, Ranavalona wanted her countrymen to be self-sufficient. A French arms manufacturer whose boat remained shipwrecked off the island coast helped Ranavalona in her nation’s progress. With his metallurgy knowledge, he helped her build up factories that manufactured modern weapons and ammunition. Madagascar prospered as a military and academic power under his guidance. Later, he became the Queen’s lover as well.
On August 16, 1861, Ranavalona died at the age of seventy-nine during her sleep at the Manjakamiadana palace. People mourned her death in great honor for approximately nine months. The aftermath rituals involved slaughtering the animals and distributing meats to the people.
In an ironic twist for the anti-imperialist Queen, a spark ignited an explosion during her funeral that killed thousands of people and destroyed nearby royal buildings. Even after her death, Ranavalona is associated with the loss of life. Her son, Prince Rakoto, succeeded the queen as King Radama II. Soon after, the traditionalist, tyrannic, and extremist policies of Ranavalona were withdrawn under her son’s reign.
In the modern world, Queen Ranavalona’s reign is considered controversial. Most condemn her power as a tyrant leader, while others appreciate her efforts to preserve the ancient traditional Malagasy culture. Regardless of their feelings towards her domestic policies, many people consider her as a woman of commendable strength and a remarkable figure in Malagasy history.
As a female ruler, Ranavalona was aware that she would face trouble ruling over people. According to her, women was never considered to be qualified as rulers, hence in her coronation speech, she cautioned:
“Never say, ‘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!”
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