Indian History Revisited, and Ranavalona the Cruel

Today I completed a revision of my Indian history series.  No, I didn’t write a new paper, or update the latest one, though an update definitely is needed (I revised the last chapter in 2000).  Because the papers were short compared to ones on other parts of the website, I reduced the number of chapters from six to four.  To do that I combined Chapter 1 with Chapter 2, and Chapter 4 with Chapter 5.  Click here to see how that series of papers is organized now.

Also, not too long ago I realized that I only briefly mentioned one of Africa’s more notorious queens – Ranavalona I of Madagascar (1828-61).  Therefore I rewrote my section on Madagascar in the 19th century to give her more attention.  It now reads as follows:


Radama had twelve wives, and the chief one, Ranavalona I, deserves attention because she was the first Malagasy matriarch to rule the whole island. The story of this queen began forty years earlier, when the uncle of Adrianampoinimerina plotted to assassinate him, and one of the king’s servants learned of the plot in time to stop it. Adrianampoinimerina rewarded the informer by adopting his daughter Ranavalona into the royal family, and when the future king Radama was old enough to marry, Ranavalona became his chief wife. However, this arranged marriage appears to have been a loveless one, for the queen had no children, and Radama liked his other wives better. Ranavalona especially resented how the royal family did not allow her to make any important decisions, so when Radama died in 1828, she abruptly seized power and killed anyone who disagreed with the idea, starting with a nephew of the late king who was the rightful heir. It took a year to hunt down all the rivals, so she had two coronations, first a traditional one in which she was annointed with the blood of a freshly killed bull, and then after all opposition was quenched, she had a more modern coronation where she wore a French-style dress. To those attending the second ceremony, she said, “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!” In 1840 she annexed Boina, thereby completing the unification of Madagascar.

Those who hadn’t converted to Christianity, especially the pagan priests and much of the upper class, felt threatened by the new religion and the young educated men it produced, and Ranavalona took over with their help, so during her reign a reactionary trend set in. She cancelled the treaties with Great Britain, ended trade with the French, and ordered the missionaries to leave. Some Christians were killed in the persecution that followed, but the stories missionaries told of the atrocities in Madagascar may have been exaggerated. Most of the time she didn’t kill Christians outright, but looked for more creative ways to bring back the old-time paganism. These included torture, progressive amputations, forced marches through malarial swamps, and selling Christians into slavery. On top of all that, she did away with trial by jury and brought back trial by ordeal. With trial by ordeal, the defendant was made to drink the juice of a poisonous plant called tangena, and eat three pieces of chicken skin. If he threw up afterwards, he was judged innocent; if he died or failed to puke, he was guilty.

Naturally the British and the French were upset at being locked out. To show they weren’t going to go away quietly, the French bombarded and occupied the eastern port of Tamatave in 1829, and held it briefly until enemy gunshots and malaria killed off most of the troops. In 1835 a combined British-French army made a second attempt on Tamatave, and this time they fared even worse. Ranavalona cut off the heads of twenty-one dead Europeans, and stuck them on pikes on the beach facing the ocean, as a warning not to mess with her again. Europeans got the message, and stayed away from Madagascar as long as it was ruled by a “Female Caligula,” but nearby islands remained fair game; in 1841 the French took Mayotte in the Comoros (which had been conquered a few years earlier by Boina’s King Adriansouli), and Madagascar’s offshore island of Nosy Bé. Queen Ranavalona still wouldn’t yield, and suspended all overseas commerce, except with the United States.

Despite all this, Ranavalona wasn’t a total xenophobe, and kept a few foreign advisors around to make the country self-reliant. The most remarkable of these was a Frenchman, Jean Laborde, who built a center for manufacturing and agricultural research at Mantasoa, near Antananarivo; eventually it employed 20,000 workers producing guns, glass, soap, silk, tools and cement.

Today’s Malagasy have mixed feelings about Ranavalona I. One the one hand she successfully resisted colonialism, keeping European invaders out of her country for as long as she lived, something few African rulers could do in the nineteenth century. But it came at a terrible price, one which gave her the title “Ranavalona the Cruel.” And as with Shaka, the brutality got worse as time went on. Because of her military campaigns, deaths caused by forced labor, and her Draconian system of justice, the population of Madagascar is estimated to have dropped from 5 million to 2.5 million in the 1830s.

At least once the lives lost were simply wasted. In 1845 the queen ordered a buffalo hunt. This was a traditional ritual which required all the nobles to come with the monarch, and each of them had an entourage of servants and slaves; soon 50,000 people were going on the expedition. To make the journey easier, Ranavalona commanded that a road be built, but there was little advance planning about how to feed either the road workers or the unwieldy expedition. Consequently road workers died (which were immediately replaced) and the price of rice skyrocketed in the area near the road. As Keith Laidler put it, “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. 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.”

In 1853 the Europeans paid Ranavalona $15,000 in compensation, and she lifted the trade ban, only to see foreigners, local Christians and others plot a coup against her. They wanted to replace the queen with her son, Radama II, but Radama sided with his mother, and thus was spared when the queen retaliated against the plotters. Then Ranavalona died peacefully in 1861, and Radama became king legally. However, this Radama was too peaceful and pro-European, so he only lasted on the throne for two years. He signed treaties with the British and French that gave them exemptions from tariffs and other duties, and promised perpetual friendship with France. Then he tried to remove the leaders of two prominent clans, but instead the nobility strangled him, and crowned his wife, Rasoherina, in his place.

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