‘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 (explorer)
Once upon a time in the Indian Ocean, there was a magical land called Madagascar located off the south east coast of Africa. This lush, ravishingly beautiful tropical island, ‘a paradise on earth’ which is now known mainly for its vanilla beans and cuddly cartoon animals, was teeming with vast tracks of rain forest and rich arable land. But there was a serpent in this Garden of Eden, and her name was Ranavalona. In her 33 year reign, she proved to be just as ruthless and cruel as any male tyrant that had sat on a throne. She established a reign of terror in the name of preserving its traditions and independence which resulted in the death of more than a 1/3 of her subjects.
In 1810, Prince Radama succeeded his father as King. Ranavalona became increasingly frustrated at her inability to check her husband’s modernizing ideas. He was eager to bring his country into the 19th century. King Radama began to allow more foreigners onto the island, particularly British missionaries, who began efforts to convert the natives to Christianity. They built schools, and helped to develop a written language. Ranavalona watched in horror as the new religion slowly took root threatening the worship of the Malagasy gods.
In1828, King Radama died after a long, debilitating illness. Two of his officers decided to keep the news on ice until they could place his nephew, Prince Rakatobe on the throne. But Ranavalona got wind of the plan and mobilized her supporters, which included the priests and the hard-core traditionalists. She spread rumors that the gods were telling her that she was destined to be the next ruler. She was aided and abetted by a young army officer named Adriamihaja who served as her first minister (and may also have been her lover and the father of her son, Rakoto, who was born 11 months after Radama’s death) until he got on her bad side and was summarily executed. After declaring herself Queen, she had all immediate rivals to the throne captured and put to death, including Rakatobe.
Once that was out of the way, Ranavalona turned her sights on the foreigners polluting her kingdom. As far as Ranavalona was concerned, the only good foreigner was a dead one. She broke treaties with both the English and the French and banned Christianity. With a fanaticism that would have made Mary Tudor proud, she came up with creative and inventive ways to eliminate any one caught practicing Christianity. They were tortured, flung from cliffs, boiled in water, poisoned, flung off cliffs or beheaded if they didn’t recant. She also got rid of trial by jury and brought back good old fashioned ‘Trial by Ordeal’ which was decided by forcing the accused to drink the poisonous juice of the tanguena plant. If they survived, they were innocent. Both the French and the British spent considerable time and effort trying to dislodge Ranavalona from the throne but to no avail. After one successful battle against an invasion, Ranavalona cut off the heads of the dead Europeans, stuck them on pikes, and lined them up on the beach, to repel any future invaders. After that little display, the French and the English decided that were better off concentrating their efforts on other third world countries not ruled by insane females.
There was one European invention she had any use for, which strangely enough, was soap. When the French brought it to the island, Ranavalona became obsessed, and determined to discover how it was made. Once she obtained the recipe, she had no more use for the people who gave it to her. Like Cleopatra, Ranavalona was a master at propaganda and ritual. Once a year, she would take a public bath on her balcony. People would come from miles around to see it; it was the best ticket in town. After her bath, she would pour the water over the balcony to sprinkle the spectators. It was her way of allying herself with the ancient Malagasy gods.
Things weren’t all bad in Madagascar. Ranavalona wanted her people to be self-sufficient. Divine providence brought her a French arms manufacturer whose boat was shipwrecked off the coast. He helped her to build up her arsenal, and became her lover as well. Before long Madagascar had built factories to produce guns, bullets, sugar, clothing and booze. She founded cities, and was one of the few African rulers to successfully hold off colonial rule. However, it came at a high prize. To boost the economy, Ranavalona turned to selling her own subjects into slavery. Those who were sold were considered traitors, spoils of war, or Christians caught practicing their religion in secret. She continued the wars of expansion, determined to bring the entire island under her thumb. Her actions decimated the population from a high of 5 million people down to 2.5 million at the end of her reign. It was estimated that 20,000 to 30,000 were killed a year for various offenses.
Ranavalona died peacefully in her bed at the age of 79 in 1861, managing to survive a coup by her son. The European powers rejoice, they had generally condemned her policies, whispering that she was insane. In 1898, during the reign of Ranavalona III, the French finally managed to colonize Madagascar. Today, Ranavalona’s actions are seen in a different light, not those of a despot but those of a Queen attempting to protect her people and their culture against European domination.
Klein, Shelley. (2003). The Most Evil Women in History. London, England: Michael O’Mara Books Limited.
Laidler, Keith (2005) Female Caligula: Ranavalona: the Mad Queen of Madagascar. London: John Wiley & Sons.
Stradling, Jan. (2008). Bad Girls: The Most Powerful, Shocking, Amazing, Thrilling and Dangerous Women of all Time. New York, New York: Metro Books.