Ranavalona I (1792–1861)

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Ranavalona I (1792–1861)

Monarch of Madagascar, persecutor of Malagasy Christians, and opponent of European imperialism. Name variations: Ramavo. Pronunciation: rah-nah-VAH-loo-nah. Born Ramavo in Madagascar in 1792; died in Madagascar in 1861; member of the Hova royal family; married King Radama, year unknown; children: Rakoto.

Assumed power upon the death of her husband (1828); met French invasion (1829); began persecution of Malagasy Christians (1836); deprived Europeans of trading privileges (1845); had all Europeans expelled from Madagascar (1857).

Ranavalona I is alternately characterized as a bloodthirsty despot or an anti-imperialist heroine, although the truth of her reign probably lies somewhere in between. Little is known of her life before she ascended the throne at age 36 as the wife and cousin of King Radama I of Madagascar. Ranavalona could neither read nor write, but she proved herself to be a formidable political strategist and a ruler of iron will.

A member of the Hova royal family, she was named Ramavo at the time of her birth in Madagascar in 1792. She was still known as Ramavo when her husband Radama I, an exceptionally able administrator and warrior, modernized the Malagasy (people native to Madagascar) army according to the European model and extended his kingdom at the expense of the other tribes of the island. Perhaps of more lasting significance was his friendly attitude towards Europeans generally. While he hoped to enlist their help in subduing the island, he was also both curious and tolerant of their culture. Although he was not a Christian, he enthusiastically welcomed Protestant missionaries, who opened churches and schools and introduced the printing press, and he was even persuaded to abolish slavery, despite the objections of some of the king's most prominent and powerful subjects. Radama also surrounded himself with European advisors. Unity and material progress, innovation and the readiness to avoid isolationism, and a strong belief in education were the primary characteristics of his reign.

Having produced no heirs, Ramavo was excluded from the succession by Radama. Instead, he chose his nephew Rakotobe as heir. But Ramavo was patient, gathering around her a constituency of counselors and military men. On July 27, 1828, after a prolonged illness, the king—in a fit of delirium brought about either by malaria, blackwater fever and/or the excessive consumption of rum—took his own life. Six days later, Ramavo put all the king's closest relatives to death in a coup d'etat. These included the heir to the throne, the king's cousins and brothers, and the queen mother. Because it was against the law to spill royal blood, each member of the royal family was either strangled or starved to death.

Wearing a massive crown lined with red velvet and sporting seven golden spear points topped with a gold bird (the royal Malagasy emblem), Ramavo ascended the throne, taking the royal name of Ranavalona. The new queen revealed the tenor of her future administration when, two days before the funeral of her husband, she firmly issued a revised code of laws, based upon the legal traditions of the Hova tribe. Her rule would mark the ascendancy of a mixed Hova tribal plutocracy—composed of military men, traders and nobles. For the most part, they were conservative and discontented with the growing European influence in Madagascar.

[Ranavalona I] was one of the proudest and most cruel women on the face of the earth.

—Ida Pfeiffer

King Radama was laid to rest in a coffin made of the melted-down silver of Spanish piasters, French francs, and Mexican dollars. In the royal tomb, he was surrounded by his military uniforms, his weapons, and by the portraits of his European contemporaries, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Napoleon Bonaparte, and George IV of Britain.

To become the female ruler of Madagascar presented few difficulties for Ranavalona, as the Malagasy had long been a matrilineal society. However, increasing European influence during the previous two reigns had led the royal family to adopt a patrilineal succession. To definitively secure her position, Ranavalona therefore declared herself to be a member of the male sex. Obviously, this made the issue of remarriage tricky. It was decided that while the new queen could not remarry, she might have lovers, and that any offspring she had would be declared a child of the dead king. This conformed comfortably with the notions of the islanders, who believed that the spirit of the deceased king still watched over them, and that his spirit returned to the queen's bedchamber at night.

Ranavalona quickly began to implement policies which contrasted profoundly with those of her husband. In November, she refused to grant an interview to the British ambassador and repudiated the Anglo-Malagasy treaty of friendship signed by King Radama. Of infinitely greater significance, however, was her reinstatement of slavery as a social and economic institution of Madagascar.

The queen did retain one significant pillar of her husband's rule. She attempted to emulate his conquests, seeking to expand her kingdom at the expense of the Sakalava tribe. Ultimately, her policy failed, for her aggression drove the Sakalavas to seek French protection. In August 1829, when a punitive French force landed on Madagascar, Ranavalona sent an army of 14,000 conscripts to meet them, but they were defeated. The episode illustrated the military and political vulnerability of Madagascar. Though the French occupied the two small islands of Nossi-Be and Ste. Marie, the defeat strengthened Queen Ranavalona's resolve to oppose any further European interference in the affairs of Madagascar.

On September 23, 1829, the queen gave birth to a son and heir Rakoto, who was to be her only child. His father, one of her generals, was assassinated a year later by Rainiharo, who rose to fill the political vacuum left by his predecessor and became the queen's lover. Rainiharo managed the island's foreign policy with a practiced hand, sending delegates to both London and Paris in an attempt to forestall foreign intervention.

Much of royal policy was decided by using divination-boards known as sikidy. Upon these boards, beans were thrown and a mathematical combination divined, which guided important decisions. Apart from intrigue and mysticism, however, chance also played an important part in the early reign of the queen. On a stormy day in November 1831, a shipwrecked castaway named Jean Laborde washed up upon the shores of Madagascar. This young French adventurer had been hunting for sunken treasure off the coast of Mozambique when his ship ran into foul weather. Seeking shelter off the southeast coast of Madagascar, Laborde's ship was caught in a cyclone and sunk.

By royal decree, all castaways were automatically the property of the crown. Although the ruling was designed to discourage European exploration of Madagascar, it meant that men like Laborde were usually received at court. Thus, he was led to the palace of Antan, one of the biggest wooden structures in the world. From its towering steepled roof to the ground, it measured 120 feet, and in the intervening space, balconies and galleries faced in every direction. All told, approximately 15,000 slaves had died in the construction of the building. As well, it was customary to bring a gift for the queen. The present had to be in pairs. Two Mexican dollars, for example, was the gift that Laborde supplied to Ranavalona, who was always formally addressed as "great glory" or "great lake supplying all water."

Upon the recommendation of another French resident, Laborde signed a contract with the government to manufacture rifles and cannons. Thus, a local industrial revolution was started, which would later see 10,000 islanders employed in the manufacture of everything from cloth to soap, rum, sugar and many other staples and luxuries. Laborde and the queen enjoyed a tolerable working relationship for many years, and he was to have a happy influence upon young Prince Rakoto.

There was one innovation, however, that Ranavalona forbade: no roads were to be built, as they might aid an invading European army. The only exception was when the queen herself traveled, in which case an army of slaves built the road in front of her. At night, they erected an entire town for the queen and her court; it was then abandoned in the morning.

In the seventh year of her reign, Queen Ranavalona, aged 43, was stricken by illness, and it was feared that she might die. Once recovered, she attributed her cure to the devotion she had exhibited during her infirmity towards her ancestors. These ancestors, or fetishes (objects regarded as the embodiment of potent spirits), were enshrined in a traditionally decorated, steep-roofed cabin. Neither a person on horseback, nor a European, nor a hog were allowed to enter the grounds or cabins. All fetishes were guarded by their personal sorcerers. The fetish to which Ranavalona attributed her recovery was Majakatsiroa, the "Peerless Sovereign." He took the physical form of a small sack, a sachet, and another small bag carried by a well-known sorcerer. This fetish was also the talisman carried by the monarch into battle.

Attributing her recovery to traditional Malagasy spirituality only reinforced Ranavalona's prejudice towards the Christian missionaries of the island. On February 26, 1835, she enjoined all missionaries to respect the cultural traditions of the nation and to cease baptizing its subjects.

When this proved ineffective, Ranavalona banned the practice of Christian worship altogether. All missionaries were expelled from Madagascar on June 18, 1835, and all mission schools were closed.

What had begun as an effort to safeguard the culture of Madagascar quickly dissolved, however, into a seemingly endless round of persecutions against the island's Christian converts and the queen's political enemies. On August 14, 1836, Ranavalona ordered the first execution of a Christian convert, a woman of 37 named Rasalama . She was speared to death, and her body hurled from a cliff, where the dogs and the carrion picked the corpse clean. Many converts, even of the highest rank, were enslaved, burned at the stake, boiled alive, dismembered, starved to death, flayed alive, or thrown from the rocks upon which the capital stood.

With a new tribal legal system in place, all of Ranavalona's subjects were liable to trial by ordeal, often being forced to ingest poison. Many were simply put to death. Paranoia seems to have gripped the court, as a reign of terror spread across the land. Facilitated by the prodigious secret service which the queen maintained, such terror did not lift until her death. It has been suggested that Ranavalona was responsible for the deaths of fully one half of the island's inhabitants.

In 1845, all Europeans were deprived of their trading privileges in the interior of the country and were informed that forced labor would be required of them. Those who disagreed with this arrangement were asked to leave the island within a fortnight. Not surprisingly, many did.

The queen was famous for the exotic galas she held at the palace every two or three months, usually on the anniversary of her birth, accession, marriage and so on. They took place in the great courtyard in front of the palace, and the elite of Malagasy society attended. They ate beef rice, in honor of the queen, and consumed vast quantities of rum. Such occasions always produced a fantastic display of fashion, with men dressed in Arab, Turkish, Spanish, and French costumes, and women wearing sarongs, saris, and European evening gowns. Native dancers entertained the crowd and the royal family, and as the night wore on the behavior of the guests grew more outrageous.

As the years passed, Ranavalona began to distinguish less and less between her personal fancies and her public duties. She became increasingly disinterested in the administration of the realm, mismanaging the economy and allowing her ministers great latitude. By the early 1850s Prince Rakoto had grown into a young, educated, intelligent man. Largely as a result of his relationship with Laborde, he was sympathetic to European ideas and culture. In January 1854, the prince dispatched a secret letter to Napoleon III, asking the French emperor to send a military expedition to Madagascar in order to depose his mother's advisors. Nothing came of the prince's treacherous communiqué, as the French were preoccupied with events in the Crimea, Mexico and elsewhere.

Luckily for him, Prince Rakoto was one of the few people that the queen did not mistrust. It was not until 1857 that the plot was discovered, and Ranavalona reacted by expelling all Europeans from Madagascar and confiscating their possessions, including the factories of Jean Laborde. The prince's actions were attributed to those of an inexperienced young man, led astray by bad advice. From this period until her death, the queen ruled with an iron fist. The slightest hints of opposition or dissent were crushed ruthlessly.

Four years later, in 1861, Ranavalona died. Her reign, which had lasted for 33 years, had engendered a period of terror and religious persecution on a grand scale, given the size of Madagascar. But Ranavalona's reign also marked a period of cultural renewal. Although several other plots were fomented to depose and assassinate her, she managed to foil them all—a testimony to her political acumen, absolute power, and extensive network of spies. With her death, the era of expansionary conquests ended, and no Malagasy monarch was to ever successfully subdue the entire island. After her death, Ranavalona I was generally referred to as "Ranavalona the cruel."


Ellis, William. Three Visits to Madagascar during the Years 1853–1854–1856. London: John Murray, 1858.

Molet, Louis. Le Bain Royal a Madagascar. Tananarive, 1956.

Pfeiffer, Ida. The Last Travels. London: Routledge, 1861.

Stratton, Arthur. The Great Red Island. NY: Scribner, 1964.

suggested reading:

Croft-Cook, Rupert. The Blood-Red Island. London: Staples Press, 1953.

Hugh Stewart , M.A., Guelph, Ontario, Canada