Remember our feature on Queen Ranavalona III? I know some of you were disappointed that despite her education and intelligence, she wasn’t able to actually rule. Well, that’s not a problem for Queen Ranalanova I. Hold on to your hats and pearls, for this is quite a story.
Ranavalona I is often referred to as the Mad Queen, but that title is an unfortunate misnomer. Brutal as her methods were, her political motives were primarily strategic. Everything she did was deliberate: the good, of which there was a lot, and the bad, of which there was more. Let’s take a look at this ruthless and somewhat forgotten historical figure. There’s even some fashion involved. We haven’t entirely forgotten our mission here!
Ranavalona I was born in 1788 in the Merina Kingdom, a precolonial state which covered most of what is the modern state of Madagascar. She started out in life as a girl named Ramavo, the daughter of a commoner, or a minor prince, depending on the story you choose to believe. Her father, a man with his ear to the ground, heard talk of a plot to murder the future king of the Merina Kingdom, Andrianampoinimerina. Ramavo’s father got word to the king, and in a gesture of thanks, the king adopted Ramavo as his own daughter.
Ramavo must have been a savvy young girl and a quick study of the ways of the court, for eventually it was not only arranged for her to be the wife of the king’s son, Radama, but that she would the first and primary of what would eventually be his twelve wives. King Radama was the first Malagasy to be recognized as King of Madagascar. He ran a westernized court, and invited European missionaries to establish schools and churches in the kingdom. He entered into treaties with both England and France. He was also, unfortunately, a person of questionable moral character, who ignored his wives and died young of syphillis and the effects of alcoholism.
Ranavalona and the king had no children, and the designated heir was one of Radama’s nephews, Rakotobe. Before he could take the throne, Ranavalona again showed her considerable political savvy. She rallied her allies, seized power and established herself as Queen. So quick was her ascension, many of the King’s advisors did not know he was dead until they saw the new Queen actually sitting on the throne. She summoned Rakotobe and his family to the capital, and had the entire family executed.
June 12, 1829 was her Coronation Day. She was the first female sovereign of Madagascar, and she made no secret of her platform: to protect the borders, to return the land of her birth to traditional Merina ways, and to expel the influence of western culture and Christianity.
This dislike of western infuence did not extend to dress, however. On her coronation day, she wore a fine dress of Parisian design, and indeed for her public appearances she would often wear western clothes, usually in finely embellished red. Her public appearances were few but strictly coordinated to project an image of power and authority.
Abolished under her husband, she re-established the practice of fanompoana, the use of forced labor in lieu of tax payments. She set about building a modern industrial empire that was completely run by Madagascar natives and fanompoana workers, who could be described in more direct terms as slaves.
A young Frenchman, Jean Laborde, was shipwrecked off the coast and brought to the Queen as a potential fanompoana worker. Despite her dislike for Europeans, Ranalanova spent some time with him, and learned that he was a trained engineer. She sent him off to establish a city of industry in which the country could build their own weapons, ammunition and gunpowder. He responded with a fortress that would help the small kingdom withstand invasions from both the imposing French and English military forces. He would remain in Madagascar until he was expelled and sent back to France for conspiring to overthrow the Queen. He was one of the lucky ones, for many others who crossed the Queen in lesser ways did not escape with their lives.
Ranavalona would reign for 33 years, in a way that was terrifying to Europeans and others watching from afar, and, often her own subjects. She relentlessly purged most western religion from the kingdom, and those suspected of practicing Christianity were often executed. Between years of wars, high death rates among slaves and the harsh tangena justice meted out under her rule, the population of Madagascar is estimated to have declined between 30 and 50 percent in the first six years of her reign. Still, she has been hailed as a protector of Malagasy sovereignty against European cultural and political influence, and with effectively blocking the encroaching colonialism which engulfed much of the African continent.
Although she did not remarry, the Queen did have a son, Radama, during her reign. She maintained the polite fiction that he was the son of her late husband, although he was born 14 months after the death of the former king. When the Queen died at age 83 on August 16, 1861, he succeeded his mother. She left behind a complicated legacy, including plenty of brutality, but also a nation with a strong identity, and a military and industrial endowment that would serve her descendants well.
We don’t have a lot of portraits of the Queen, so if you are interested in her fashion, check out our other post today on what the other royals of the era were wearing.