Her Majesty Queen Ranavalona I of the Kingdom of Madagascar was considered an insane, bloodthirsty tyrant. Some even consider her the female counterpart of Caligula. Whatever your opinion of her after reading this article, one thing we can all agree on is she was an uncompromising monarch. During her entire 33 year reign, she successfully staved off British and French colonization with her dainty iron fist in an effort to protect the dynasty she ruled from those invaders. This was a monumental feat in and of itself. The historical records speak loud and clear of the destruction of many kingdoms ruled by male monarchs on the continent that fell to European invaders during their reigns.
Queen Ranavalona was no one’s plaything and describing her as ruthless is an understatement. Mary Queen of Scots, better known as Bloody Mary, looked like a saint in comparison. Queen Ranavalona was like a mama bear shielding her cubs from danger. In this case, her cubs represented her kingdom and it’s loyal subjects. Any dissension from traitors meant certain torture, death, or exile. She meant business and no one dared come against her if they valued their lives.
Birth and Political Intrigue
Her Majesty Queen Ranavalona I given name was Rabodoadrianampoinimerina. She was also known as Ranavalo-Manjaka I. It's possible that because her names were such a mouthful to pronounce they were shortened to Princess Ramavo. She was born at the imperial palace in Ambatomanoina in 1778 to Prince Adrianantsalamanjaka and Princess Robodonadriantombo.
As a young girl, she experienced her first political intrigue when her father warned her grandfather, His Majesty Adrianampoinimerina, of a plot to kill the King by his uncle, Adrianjafy. His uncle resented the fact that he had been forced from the throne at the royal city of Ambohimanga and sought revenge. For his loyalty, King Adrianampoinimerina promised Princess Ramavo to his son Prince Radama I. The union was a loveless marriage that produced no children.
The reason for this match made in hell may have been twofold: King Radama I openness to European influence and his ordering the assassination of her relatives after her grandfather’s death, in an effort to secure the throne. He would later die from mysterious circumstances while in the company of two “trusted” aides who were secretly resistant to his openness to foreigners. Since King Radama died without producing any heirs, his aides would have preferred his young nephew and rightful heir to the throne, Rakotobe, in the seat of power as a way to mold and shape him for their purposes.
King Radama I
Ascension to the Throne
The aides, fearing implication in the death of King Radama I, hesitated to mention his demise and decided to keep it a secret as long as possible. Their plan fell apart when high-ranking military officers, loyal to the Princess, discovered what happened and acted quickly to inform her of the news and save her from being murdered upon Rakotobe’s coronation. Upon hearing this news, Princess Ramavo took swift action.
She messaged all of her loyal officers with the news of King Radama I death and promised them gratuities in exchange for their help. They devised a plan to hide her in a safe place, gathered allies for further assistance, and ensured the army was on her side. The plan worked like a charm. She took the throne on the pretense that King Radama I ordered her ascension and that she was the rightful heir. She assumed the name Ranavalona and systematically had the late King Radama I entire family assassinated, including his nephew Rakotobe. On August 12, 1829, one year after the death of King Radama I, her coronation ceremony took place.
Upon taking the throne, Queen Ranavalona made it very clear how she planned to strengthen her empire and solidify her power. She announced her decision with these foreboding words: “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!”
Contention with Foreign Invaders and Reforms
From the very beginning of her reign the Queen had to contend with the onslaught of foreign invaders throughout the kingdom. She knew they were thirsty for control and domination so she took small steps to prevent that from happening. Her ultimate goal was independence. She sought to accomplish this by discontinuing the practice of depending on them for weapons and preventing their influence in the economic, political, and social matters of her territory.
The first thing she did was to break the treaties with Britain and France brokered by her late husband. The French, in particular, were determined to colonize the country as they did with other islands on Madagascar, and consolidated their energies with England toward that goal. In 1849, the failed attack by both European powers led to their complete humiliation and defeat. 21 of their men's skulls were put on poles and placed on the seashores to discourage future invasions. As a credit to her tenacity and the strength of her army, no one else tried to invade the country during her reign.
Second, Her Majesty's desire to continue the ancestral customs and traditions before the encroachment of European invaders, were evident in the eventual demise of the Christian population residing there. She appreciated and acknowledged the contributions of these foreigners. However, she believed they were not making a significant contribution to the country, so they had to go. She no longer tolerated their influence and sought to completely rid the country of all but a few of them. Increased restrictions were imposed on the main faction, the London Missionary Society. They were banned from proselytizing and promoting their dogma, and it became a capital offense to continue it's practices. To avoid further sanctions, many left the country or went underground, while others were killed for not renouncing their faith.
Her third measure was to become self-sufficient. In order to accomplish this, she relied heavily on the forced labor of her subjects instead of imposing taxes upon them in return for goods and services. She increased her power and influence over the kingdom by enacting strict measures upon anyone who opposed her. The provision of labor and materials to build arsenal factories ensured the necessary firepower her army needed to defend the realm and helped in its expansion. This effectively ended her reliance on England and France for weaponry.
Finally, to maintain control within her territory, she continued the long practice of using the tangena nut as a way of proving guilt or innocence based on the outcome derived from this fruit. The accused were made to ingest the poison from this nut along with a few pieces of chicken skin. If all of the chicken skin were puked back up, the accused were considered innocent. If all of the pieces were not vomited or if the accused died, they were considered guilty of their crimes. Hundreds of thousands of deaths occurred between the 1820’s and early 1860’s from this method. Although the practice was finally banned in 1863, it was secretly continued in Merina during her reign and during the reign of subsequent rulers.
It’s believed all of this combined, including the military campaigns and her harsh brand of justice, shrank her kingdom by millions of people within a 13 year period. Although the loss of life for any reason is never easy to reconcile, an important distinction to make here is during Queen Ranavalona I reign the Kingdom of Madagascar was never colonized. She may have even saved more lives by preserving the kingdom and keeping it unspoiled from invaders.
Crown of Ranavalona I
Advisors and Marriages
The establishment of her rule was firmly in place and the kingdom overflowed with prosperity from her many reforms. As a result, Queen Ranavalona was free to secure a bevy of conservative advisors from aristocratic bloodlines. These men had a love for the traditional values set forth before European ideals held sway with previous Merina rulers. Some of these advisors also became her intimate companions and spouses.
A noted advisor who was an exception to the conservative values she prized and who also held influence over the Queen early in her reign was Adrianamhaja, a Major-General in the army. He served as her Prime Minister and is believed to have fathered her only child. Because of his liberal, pro-European views on foreign trade, her more conservative advisors sought to break his ties with the Queen and did so by deceiving her into signing his death warrant. They quickly went to Adrianamhaja’s home and killed him. She then wed a conservative this time who served in her court for more than two decades as First Minister then as Prime Minister and, finally, as Commander-In-Chief. When he died, she wed another conservative who remained with her until her peaceful death in 1861. Her son and heir, Prince Radama II, succeeded her on the throne.
Her Majesty's Unprecedented Legacy
Early historians considered her unsavory tactics as those of a tyrant or crazed woman. Historians from the 1970’s to the present, as well as this author, view her in a different light. It cannot be stressed enough that her triumphant reign as the first female monarch of the Kingdom of Madagascar is evidenced by the fact that she prevented European imperial powers from having undue influence upon her and her people. She refused to be their puppet and allow them to undermine her authority.
History is replete with Black Afrikan rulers who succumbed to the often subtle and greedy influence of European invaders, as Queen Ranavalona’s great-granddaughter, Queen Ranavalona III, discovered when Madagascar fell to the French in 1896 during her reign. I don’t agree with all of Queen Ranavalona I tactics. I do realize, however, it was the price of doing business in keeping the land and its inhabitants pure from outsiders who didn’t have the kingdom’s best interests at heart. For that reason alone, Queen Ranavalona I was uncompromising and an unmitigated success.