I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
In 1828, King Radama I of Madagascar died from alcoholism, syphilis, or murder. During his life, he conquered most of the island but had not nominated an heir to the throne. His widow, Ranavalona, seized the opportunity to murder her way to the top.
What follows is the best available account of her life, with the caveat that most of what is known about her was recorded by her enemies, such as Christian missionaries.
Royal by Accident
Little is known about Ranavalona’s early life except that she was a commoner and member of the Merina ethnic group that dominated the island. Her father became aware of a plot to kill Andrianampoinimerina, a man destined to become king. The plot was thwarted and, when Andrianampoinimerina became king, he rewarded the informer by adopting his daughter, Ranavalona. As an added prize, Ranavalona was then betrothed to the king’s son, Radama.
Radama became king 1810 at the age of 18. He reached out to the British and signed a commercial treaty. He also worked with the London Missionary Society to open schools and teach literacy. The missionaries, of course, spread the word of Christianity.
With British help, Radama built up his military force and used this to unify the entire island under his rule. He brought an end to the slave trade, a business that had enriched his predecessors in the Merina monarchy.
His premature death at the age of 36 triggered palace squabbling over who should inherit the crown. Customarily, the monarchy would have been given to Rakotobe, the eldest son of Radama’s eldest sister. He had been educated in England and leaned in favour of European culture.
Ranavalona preferred the traditional beliefs of the island as did members of the military. With the support of senior officers and other powerful people, Ranavalona declared herself queen claiming, falsely, that this was according to the wishes of her deceased husband.
What followed was a customary bloodletting. All those with a claim to the throne, no matter how tenuous, were rounded up and put to death. Rakotobe, of course, was one of the many casualties.
“Years of Darkness”
Having bumped off all potential rivals for the crown, including close relatives, Ranavalona, reigned supreme for 33 years, a period the Malagasy people call the “Years of Darkness.”
As noted by The Encyclopedia of World Biography, “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.”
Queen Ranavalona turned her back on the reforms of her predecessors by severing ties with European powers. She gathered around her shamans and nobles to whom she ceded some power; but anybody in her circle had to remember that she demanded total and unwavering loyalty.
If there was a hint of resistance to the queen an old ordeal called tangena was resurrected. The suspect was forced to take a poison taken from the tangena nut. After that, came the swallowing of three pieces of chicken skin. Vomiting up all three pieces of skin was taken as proof of innocence.
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Those who didn’t regurgitate the bits of poultry or who died from the poison were deemed to be guilty; survivors were executed. The traditional belief was that divine judgement determined whether or not the suspect threw up.
Anybody could allege any other person of a crime and the tangena ordeal was used to adjudicate. It was employed so frequently, that it took the lives of thousands. In a 2009 article in The Journal of African History, Gwyn Campbell writes that the trial cost the lives of an estimated 100,000 people in 1838 alone.
The queen also enjoyed inflicting many other forms of torture on those who she imagined crossed her.
Ranavalona also brought back the traditional practice of fanampoana, this was the use of forced labour in lieu of taxes. Another name for this is slavery.
Attack on Christianity
As with many monarchs, Ranavalona believed she was divinely appointed; unfortunately, for the missionaries, the deity involved was not the Christian one. So, the missionaries were added to the queen’s long list of villains.
Initially, she let the missionaries carry on much as they had before but, by 1832, she saw Christianity as a threat to her power. The number of converts to Christianity was growing and the belief in Jesus was in conflict with belief in the ancient customs of the kingdom.
Baptisms and the taking of sacraments were banned. In February 1835, she banned the religion in its entirety and believers were forced underground. Foreigners were allowed to practice their own faiths, but for Malagasies following Christianity was a death penalty offence. In his 2005 book, Female Caligula: Ranavalona, the Mad Queen of Madagascar, Keith Laidler wrote of what he called the “judicial murders of Christians.”
Descent into Tyranny
Not that Queen Ranavalona I wasn’t already a monster, but in her later years she became more and more despotic.
The infamous buffalo hunt of 1845 highlights the capricious nature of her whims and orders. All nobles were commanded to take part in the hunt and to bring along sufficient slaves and staff to support them. And, to ease the queen’s travel on the hunt she ordered a road to be built.
The whole circus swelled to 50,000 people but nobody had thought to plan ahead for supplies such as food. So, as the mob progressed, villages were ransacked. The road builders started to drop from heat, malaria, and malnutrition, and the bodies were just pushed into the bush for scavengers to feast on.
Keith Laidler writes that “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.”
As her outrages grew, her son, Rakoto, tried to soften the effects of her brutality. He became friendly with a French businessman, Joseph Francois Lambert and together they plotted a coup in 1857. The plan came unstuck, Lambert fled the country, and Rakoto somehow escaped the purges that followed.
The end came on August 16, 1861, when, unsatisfactorily for her enemies, Queen Ranavalona I died in her sleep at the age of 83.
She was succeeded by Rakoto, who took the title Radama II. He lacked his mother’s ruthlessness in squashing opposition and was assassinated after two years on the throne.
- Such was the slaughter during Ranavalona I’s reign that during her 33 years on the throne, the population of Madagascar went from five million to 2.5 million.
- Frenchman Jean Laborde swam ashore on the coast of Madagascar when the ship he was aboard wrecked. He managed to insert himself into the court of Queen Ranavalona and became a trusted adviser and, perhaps, the father of her son, Rakoto.
- Among the many victims of Ranavalona was a military man named Andrianamihaja who was also a lover of the queen. She found out he was sweet on another woman and commanded he undergo the dreaded tangena ordeal. He refused and opted for execution instead.
- “Ranavalona I Reign of Terror.” Masika sipa, Mada Magazine, undated.
- “Queen of Madagascar Ranavalona I.” Encyclopedia of World Biography, undated.
- “The State and Pre-Colonial Demographic History: The Case of Nineteenth-Century Madagascar.” Gwyn Campbell, Cambridge University Press, January 22, 2009
- “Female Caligula: Ranavalona, the Mad Queen of Madagascar.” Keith Laidler, Wiley, 2005.
- “Ranavalona I of Madagascar.” Historycollection.com, undated.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on December 06, 2020:
I agree. The English or European held that the African had no history. Well that's a misconception. Here it is demostrate the powerful story of an African queen or femme fatal. Rupert, thanks for the interesting read.
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on December 06, 2020:
Very nice narration. Well presented.