Ranavalona I

Ranavalona I

Infobox Monarch
name =Ranavalona I
title =Ranavalona I, Queen of Madagascar

caption =
reign =1 August 182815 August 1861
coronation =12 August 1829
othertitles =
full name =
predecessor =Radama I
successor =Radama II
heir =
queen =
consort =Radama the Great
spouse 1 =
spouse 2 =
spouse 3 =
spouse 4 =
spouse 5 =
spouse 6 =
issue =Prince Rakoto
royal house =
dynasty =Merina
royal anthem =
father =Andrian-Tsala-Manjaka, King of Menabe
mother =Rabodo Andrian-Tampo
date of birth =1782
place of birth =Rovan' Ambatomanoina Fokontany of Masombahiny
date of death =16 August 1861
place of death =Lapan' Manjakamiadana, Rovan' Antananarivo
date of burial =1893
place of burial =Tomb of the Queens, Rovan' Antananarivo|

Ranavalona I ( born Rabodoandrianampoinimerina (Ramavo); c. 1782 – August 15, 1861 Antananarivo) was a Merina Queen of Madagascar. After succeeding her husband, Radama I, and becoming Queen, she was also known as Ranavalo-Manjaka I. Over the course of her bloody reign, and after it, she was referred to by Western scholars as the "Modern Messalina", the "Bloody Mary of Madagascar", "Most Mad Queen of History", "Wicked Queen Ranavalona", and the "Mad Queen of Madagascar" and "Female Caligula". Many Africans, especially people in Madagascar, do not share that point of view; while they recognize that her regime was autocratic they see her as a ruler who resisted foreign economic and cultural invasion. [ cite news
first = Simon
last = Edge
title = The Female Caligula
publisher = The Express
location = U.K.
date = 7 Nov. 2005

Early life

Ranavalona's background is in dispute. One source indicates that she was born into the Menabe tribe somewhere between 1782 and 1790. Little is known of Ranavalona's early life, but it was during her first years that the King Andrianampoinimerina was attempting to unite Madagascar's various factions under a single crown. The king of the Menabe ruled the western portion of the island, and he was unwilling to unify. Because of this, Andrianampoinimerina's successor, Radama I, did the next best thing by marrying the eldest daughter of Andrian-Tsala-Manjaka and his wife Rabodo Andrian-Tampo.Fact|date=May 2007

Laidler indicates that Ranavalona was adopted by King Andrianampoinimerina as a reward to her father who had uncovered a plot. She was later married at the age of 22 but cheated on him with his favorite son.cite book |author= Keith Laidler |title= Female Caligula. Ranavalona, the Mad Queen of Madagascar |pblisher=Wiley (2005) ISNB -13 978-0-470-02223-8 (HB)]

Radama then became king of the Merina upon his father’s death, and succeeded in unifying the island. Ranavalona is suspected to have caused Radama’s death by poisoning him.

When Radama died in 1828, he left no descendants, and according to the local matrilineal custom, the rightful heir was Rakotobe, the eldest son of Radama's eldest sister. Ranavalona however gained knowledge of her husband's death before Rakotobe and his followers, secured the loyalty of the military leaders, and captured her potential opponents. She took the throne on August 1, 1828 after eliminating any potential rivals.

Restoration and repression

Ascending to the throne, Ranavalona swore to uphold the customary rites and old beliefs, and to defend her realm. Radama had started to modernize and westernize the country, but now with Ranavalona restoration was instituted as the old power brokers – priests, judges, slave merchants – regained control, supported by the Merina military. Ranavalona had most of the relatives of her late husband Radama I executed, repudiated the treaties he had negotiated with the British empire and legalized the slave trade. A preferred method to determine the guilt of an accused was the tanguena ordeal. Xenophobic and warned about European colonial expansion, she persecuted and expelled foreigners, including the island's six British missionaries, who left the island in 1835 not without having established a Malagasy-English dictionary.

In addition to a prosperous farming activity, the Merina economy was driven by the annual predatory military expeditions against other Madagascar tribes during the dry season. However more and more historians think that she allowed for the unification of Madagascar through Merina supremacy. Robbing and plundering, the Merina forces descended from the highlands and left a destructive path in the countryside. In this war against their own countrymen converted to European religion, she maintained control and supremacy of her loyalists.

Christian persecution

Ranavalona was a violent persecutor of the native Christians after expelling the alien missionaries failed to eradicate Christianity from her island. All people who possessed a bible, or outwardly claimed to be Christian, were executed. Some were trussed up like chickens and thrown from hilltops repeatedly until they died. Others were dressed in the bloody skins of animals and had hunting dogs set upon them. Some were yoked together like cattle and placed in the thick tangled jungles of Madagascar where they would break their necks trying to get free, or would get caught in the undergrowth and starve to death. One of Ranavalona's favorite methods of execution was to have a prisoner placed in a pit at the bottom of a hill and have her soldiers, at the top of the hill, tip over pots of boiling water; when the water reached the pit, it would slowly rise up and boil the prisoner alive.


The French, who held some islands off Madagascar, were interested in gaining control over Madagascar; a move that was opposed by the British who had an interest in maintaining a safe passage to India. With the abrogation of the Anglo-Merina friendship treaty, however, Ranavalona became vulnerable as British arms were no longer being delivered. She was able to repel a French attack on Foule Point in 1829, but in the long run, she was in a precarious position. Fortunately for her, help arrived when Jean Laborde got shipwrecked off Madagascar in 1832.

Laborde was introduced to the Queen and, given his knowledge and background, was commissioned to produce cannons, muskets, and gun powder. He was given the manpower and resources to create an early industrial empire in order to fulfill the needs of a modern army, making the kingdom independent from the supply of weapons from the colonial powers. In addition, there is little doubt that he had to attend to the queen's personal wishes.


Her son, Prince Rakoto, was officially born in 1829 and his official father was King Radama I who had actually died more than nine months prior to the birth. However, according to the local custom of the time he was considered Radama's son. Laborde was close to him and educated him. With mounting hate of the queen's reign, both on Madagascar and in Europe, Joseph-François Lambert sought the help of the French to end her reign. He travelled to her court in May 1857, and conspired with Laborde and local leaders to topple her and place her son Rakoto on the throne. The world traveller Ida Pfeiffer was unwittingly drawn into the plot. The conspiracy, however, was discovered, locals executed, and the Europeans banned. Ranavalona did not dare to execute the Europeans as not to give cause for reprisals. However, she made sure that the normally week-long trip to the coast became gruesome and protracted to 53 days so that the Europeans arrived emaciated at the embarkment port. Ida Pfeiffer never fully recovered and died the following year, presumably from malaria.


During the final years of her reign, threatened by news about European colonialism expansion over Africa and Asia, she maintained her brutal and repressive control. She died peacefully on August 15, 1861 in her sleep after a rule of 33 years. More than a third of her population had died due to the atrocities of her rule, however she had resisted the attempts of the colonial powers to gain control of the island for the time being. With the opening of the Suez canal in 1869 British interests to keep the French out of Madagascar subsided and soon the island would become a French dominion.

Her son, Prince Rakoto, succeeded her as King Radama II.

In fiction

In George MacDonald Fraser's novel Flashman's Lady adventures take place at Ranavalona's court where the queen is described as follows:

She might have been anywhere between forty and fifty, rather round-faced, with a small straight nose, a fine brow, and a short, broad-lipped; her skin was jet black and plump – and then you met her eyes, and in a sudden chill rush of fear realized that all you had heard was true, and the horrors you'd seen needed no further explanation. They were small and bright and evil as a snake's, unblinking, with a depth of cruelty and malice that was terrifying.

— George MacDonald Fraser



* [http://print.google.com/print?id=XOO7rnXBN60C&lpg=PA1&pg=PA3&sig=_xNsjNNODyMGZsMZj-5AkjmbcHs Meanings in Madagascar by Oyvind and Yvind Dahl]
*"Madagascar Rediscovered" by Mervin Brown.

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