Ranavalona I, Queen of Madagascar (1828-61) a strong advocate of African values and culture. Date circa 1861. © Mary Evans Picture Library
|"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!"-Ranavalona I|
Princess Ramavo who became Ranavalona was born in 1778 at the royal residence at Ambatomanoina, Antananarivo, to Prince Andriantsalamanjaka (Andrianavalontsalama) and Princess Rabodonandriantompo. When Ramavo was still a young girl, her father alerted King Andrianampoinimerina (1787–1810) to a murderous plot against him by Andrianjafy, the king's uncle, whom Andrianampoinimerina had forced from the throne at the royal city of Ambohimanga. In return, Andrianampoinimerina betrothed Ramavo to his son, Prince Radama, whom the king would later designate as his heir. He furthermore declared that any child from this union would be first in the line of succession after Radama. However, despite her elevated rank among the royal wives, Ramavo was not the preferred wife of Radama and did not bear him any children. The relationship between Radama and Ramavo may have become strained following Radama's execution of a number of Ramavo's relatives in order to secure his succession upon Andrianampoinimerina's death.
ACCESSION TO THE THRONE
When Radama died without leaving any descendants on July 27, 1828, according to the local matrilineal custom, the rightful heir was Rakotobe, the eldest son of Radama's eldest sister. An intelligent and amiable young man, Rakotobe was the first pupil to have studied at the first school established by the London Missionary Society in Antananarivo on the grounds of the royal palace. Radama died in the company of two trusted attendants who were favorable to the succession of Rakotobe. However, these attendants hesitated to report the news of Radama's death for several days, fearing possible reprisals against them for having been involved in denouncing one of the king's rivals, whose family had a stake in succession after Radama. During this time, another attendant discovered the truth and discreetly transmitted the information to Ramavo. She contacted two colonels from her home village and promised them several rewards for their loyalty and assistance in taking the throne. These soldiers hid Ramavo and one of her friends in a safe location, then visited judges and the keepers of the sampy (royal idols) to secure the support of these influential power brokers. Their loyalty assured, the soldiers were then able to rally the army behind Ramavo, such that on August 3 when she declared herself successor to Radama on the pretense that he himself had decreed it, there could be no immediate resistance. Ramavo took the throne name Ranavalona ("folded", "kept aside"), then followed royal custom by systematically capturing and putting to death her political rivals, including Rakotobe, his family and other members of Radama's family, much as Radama had done to the queen's own family upon his succession to the throne. Her coronation ceremony took place more than a year after the death of Radama, on August 12, 1829.
Ranavalona's 33-year reign was distinguished by an ongoing struggle to preserve the political and cultural sovereignty of Madagascar in the face of increasing European influence and competing French and English bids for domination over the island.
The fact that she was a woman ruler was not so remarkable in itself, for Merina culture had a strong matrilineal element, partly overlaid by male-dominant gender roles that had come to Madagascar from the Arab world. But the speed with which Ranavalona moved to consolidate her rule was remarkable.
Engraving depicting Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar traveling on her filanzana (palanquin), accompanied by her son Radama II and a party of slaves.
She took incremental steps to distance Madagascar from the purview of European powers, first putting an end to a friendship treaty with Britain, then placing increasing restrictions on the activities of the missionaries of the London Missionary Society, who operated schools where basic education and trade skills were taught in addition to the Christian religion. By the mid-1830s, she would forbid the practice of Christianity among the Malagasy population and oblige the departure of foreigners from her territory. Putting an end to most foreign trade relationships, the queen pursued a policy of autarky, made possible through heavy reliance on the long-standing tradition of fanompoana—forced labor in lieu of tax payments in money or goods. Ranavalona continued the wars of expansion conducted by her predecessor, Radama I, in an effort to extend her realm over the entire island, and imposed strict punishments on those who were judged as having acted in opposition to her will.
Merina society was restored to its traditional structure, and those who were suspected of resistance were given an age-old loyalty test called tangena . The tangena was a poisonous nut that caused the eater to vomit; suspects were forced to eat three pieces of chicken skin, and had to vomit all three of them up to show their innocence. If nobles (andriana) or freemen (hova) were compelled to undergo the ordeal, the poison was typically administered to the accused only after dog and rooster stand-ins had already died from the poison's effects, while among members of the slave class (andevo), the ordeal required them to immediately ingest the poison themselves. The accused would be fed the poison along with three pieces of chicken skin: if all three pieces of skin were vomited up then innocence was declared, but death or a failure to regurgitate all three pieces of skin indicated guilt. According to 19th-century Malagasy historian Raombana, in the eyes of the greater populace, the tangena ordeal was believed to represent a sort of celestial justice in which the public placed their unquestioning faith, even to the point of accepting a verdict of guilt in a case of innocence as a just but unknowable divine mystery. More serious accusations were met with torture by progressive amputation.
One unfortunate person mandated to undergo the tangena was a high-ranking military official and former lover of Ranavalona named Andrianamihaja. He may have been the father of a son born to Ranavalona in the early years of her reign—it is unclear exactly when—but she turned against him after he was linked romantically with another woman. Andrianamihaja refused the test, and was speared in the throat as he coolly directed his executioner as to where the spear should enter his body. Tribes other than the Merina, living in different parts of Madagascar, suffered under her rule as her troops were given free rein to make annual pillaging trips to their defeated villages.
Jean Laborde (1804-78) and Queen Ranavalona I (1788-1861) of Madagascar in c.1855, c.1910-20 (w/c on paper)
Christian missionaries from Europe also felt Ranavalona's power in the form of a series of restrictions on their activities. At first, however, Ranavalona was wary of confrontation with the missionaries. She could not hope to prevail in a direct conflict with European powers, and she needed the income that their cottage industries generated. Christianity, today practiced by about half of Madagascar's inhabitants, continued to grow in influence as the missionaries set up European schools and compiled a Malagasy-English dictionary.
That situation changed after Ranavalona made a shrewd decision to allow a European into her inner circle—a young French fortune hunter named Jean Laborde who had swum ashore after a shipwreck in 1831. Laborde and Ranavalona may have had a romantic as well as a political relationship; he has also been proposed as the father of her son, Rakoto, the future King Radama II. More important was Laborde's breadth of practical knowledge. An ingenious man with a broad grasp of metallurgy, munitions, and engineering, he directed the construction of a new factory town called Mantasao, some miles from the capital of Antananarivo. There he supervised the manufacture not only of guns and gunpowder for Ranavalona's army, but also of soap, silks, ceramics, and other items for which the kingdom previously had to trade. He also directed construction of an elaborate palace for Ranavalona on a hill above Antananarivo, which was destroyed by fire in 1995.
The forge Laborde built for Queen Ranavalona I at Montasoa. The guns and cannons forged here allowed her to keep the European imperialists at bay.
REPRESSION OF CHRISTAINITY
Ranavalona was prosperous as well as powerful, and French forces, distracted by political upheaval at home in the 1830s, had completely given up their attempts to establish a foothold in the country. She was regarded by the Malagasy people as a ruler favored by powerful gods, and now she turned her attention to the last vestige of European influence: the Christian church. Ranavalona was determined to uphold customary rites and traditional beliefs and to defend her realm from the encroachment of European powers. The queen grew wary of foreigners' influence on the island and demanded the departure of any foreigner not able to make what she deemed a valuable contribution to her country. Ranavalona was especially suspicious of the political and cultural effects of Christianity, which she saw as leading the Malagasy to forsake the ancestors and their traditions.
Therefore in a kabary (formal speech) on February 26, 1835, Queen Ranavalona formally forbade the practice of Christianity among her subjects. In her discourse, she was careful to differentiate between her own people, for whom the new religion was forbidden and its practice a capital offense, and foreigners, to whom she permitted freedom of religion and conscience. She furthermore acknowledged the valuable intellectual and technological contributions that European missionaries had made to the advancement of her country, and invited them to continue working to that end on the condition that their proselytizing would cease."Christianity involved a repudiation of the ancestral customs of the country, established by previous monarchs who were her ancestors. The queen's legitimacy depended entirely on her relation to her predecessors, who had given the kingdom to her. Furthermore... she was queen because she was the descendant of the royal ancestors, who were in a mystical sense the ancestors of all the Merina. To deny her mystical power was to repudiate not only her but also the ancestors, the quintessence of good and blessings... She was the custodian of a holy trust... Christianity was therefore treason... in Ranavalona's words it was 'the substitution of the respect of her ancestors, Andrianampoinimerina and Radama, for the respect of the ancestor of the whites: Jesus Christ.' She saw the introduction of a new religion as a political act, and there is no doubt that she was right."—Maurice Bloch, From Blessing to Violence (1986), pp.18–19"
"To the English or French strangers: I thank you for the good that you have done in my land and my kingdom, where you have made known European wisdom and knowledge. Do not worry yourselves—I will not change the customs and rites of our ancestors. Nevertheless, whoever breaks the laws of my kingdom will be put to death—whoever he may be. I welcome all wisdom and all knowledge which are good for this country. It would be a waste of time and effort to grab the customs and rites of my ancestors. Concerning religious practice—baptism or assemblies—it is forbidden for my people who inhabit this land to take part whether on Sunday or during the week. Concerning you, foreigners, you can practice according to your own manners and customs. Nevertheless, if skilled handiwork and other practical skills exist, which can profit our people, exercise these skills that good will come. These are my instructions which I make known to you."
—Ranavalomanjaka, Kabary, February 26, 1835.
The teaching of Christianity in mission schools was restricted, then banned, and missionaries began to leave the island or go underground. In the mid-1830s, a series of what Laidler called judicial murders of Christians began with an especially notorious incident—the 1836 martyrdom of 14 Christians who had resisted orders to give up their religion.
European artist's depiction of the execution of Malagasy Christians by Ranavalona I
Despite her attempts to resist Western influence, Ranavalona had a curiously ambivalent attitude toward the West. It was French life that fascinated her; she had courtiers dressed in French clothing, often mixing the styles of a variety of eras, and she kept a battered piano on hand, sometimes inviting visitors to play it. When it came to economic and political matters, however, Ranavalona was the West's implacable foe. A combined French and English attack on Madagascar in 1849 failed miserably as European sailors were surprised by a false-fronted native fort that concealed a much more substantial structure. A struggle between French and English troops over a temporarily captured Malagasy flag also contributed to Ranavalona's victory. A set of 21 European skulls was mounted on poles and placed along the shoreline to discourage future invasions.
This event forever cemented Ranavalona's belief in her own divinely ordained power and in the later years of her reign, her actions apparently became more and more capricious and violent. In 1845 she ordered a buffalo hunt, requiring attendance from all of the nobles at her court. Each courtier had to bring along a full retinue of underlings and slaves, and the expedition grew to an unwieldy crowd of some 50,000 people. Ranavalona commanded that a road be built, as the group proceeded, in order to smooth her progress. The expedition devolved into disaster as it went on, for it had departed with little advance planning; there were no food supplies for the workers other than what they could extract from villages along the way, and even noblemen were forced to pay exorbitant prices for rice. As road builders fell ill and died, they were replaced by fresh recruits. "The royal road was littered with corpses, most of which were not even buried, but simply thrown into some convenient ditch or under a nearby bush," wrote Laidler. "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."
FOREIGN PLOTS AGAINST RANAVALONA
Ranavalona's foreign contemporaries strongly condemned the queen's policies and viewed them as the actions of a tyrant or even a madwoman, a characterization that persisted in Western historical literature until the 1970s. Eventually even Ranavalona's son, Rakoto, and her confidant, Laborde, turned against her and conspired with a French shipping merchant, Joseph Lambert, to drive her from power. The plot, launched in 1857, was well documented by an Austrian world traveler, Ida Pfeiffer, who was visiting Madagascar at the time and unwittingly became entangled in the intrigue. Ranavalona, probably with the help of spies, foiled the plan and toyed with the conspirators. Rakoto survived the resulting purges and pleaded for the lives of his European friends, and Ranavalona seemingly agreed.
Her actual plan, however, was to send them on a forced march through malaria-ridden swamps. Many of the conspirators died, but Laborde survived. He later returned to Madagascar as an adviser to Radama II after Ranavalona's death.
The original wooden Manjakamiadana, constructed for Ranavalona I between 1839 and 1840 (left), was encased in stone by James Cameron in 1867 on the orders of Ranavalona II (right). In both images, Tranovola is visible to the left of Manjakamiadana.
Ranavalona died in her sleep in August 16, 1861, at the Manjakamiadana, the palace she had constructed on the grounds of the Rova compound at Antananarivo, having successfully resisted the attempts of the European powers to gain control of the island over the course of her 33-year reign. Twelve thousand zebu were slaughtered and their meat distributed to the populace in her honor, and the official mourning period lasted nine months. Her body was laid in a coffin made of silver piastries in a tomb at the royal city of Ambohimanga. During her funeral, a spark accidentally ignited a nearby barrel of gunpowder destined for use in the ceremony, causing an explosion and fire that killed a number of bystanders and destroyed three historic royal residences in the Nanjakana section of the compound where the event was held. In 1897, French colonial authorities disinterred and moved the queen's body and the remains of other Merina sovereigns to the tombs at the Rova of Antananarivo in an attempt to desacralize Ambohimanga. Her bones were placed within the tomb of Queen Rasoherina. Her son, Prince Rakoto, succeeded her as King Radama II.
The Queen's Palace after the fire
The intrigues suppressed by the queen's brutal rule returned with a vengeance after she died, and Radama II was assassinated after only two years on the throne. A series of increasingly weakened rules opened the country to European exploitation, and in 1896 Madagascar became a French colony. Today the island is unusually rich in traditional arts—probably because it remained free of European influence for much of the nineteenth century.
Ranavalona's son and heir Prince Rakoto [Radama II]
See some other Eurocentric stories done about the character of Queen Ranavalona I
http://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=3988511051603684451#editor/target=post;postID=7525626112982482696(Queen Ranavalona I - The Mad Monarch of Madagascar (1782 - 1861)
Female Caligula: Ranavalona, The
Mad Queen of Madagascar [Hardcover] Keith Laidler