Born Ramavo in 1788, on Madagascar soil, Ranavalona had humble origins as a commoner’s daughter. Her ascent to the monarchy began with an accidental fate when her father learned of a plot to murder his master, the future king, Andrianampoinimerina. He informed him of what was afoot and hence, the plot failed. When Andrianampoinimerina later became king. As thanks for saving his life, he adopted Ramavo as his own daughter and also arranged for her to marry his son, Radama.
Months bled into years and Radama became King Radama I, making Ramova the first of his 12 wives. The marriage was apparently not a particularly close one and Ramova had no children making the question of who would succeed Radama at his death very much an unsettled one.
Radama was an exceptionally able administrator and warrior who 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. While he hoped to enlist the help of the Europeans 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, 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. Also, he 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.
Since he had no child with Ramavo, his nephew Rakotobe was chosen as heir. However, Ramavo was patient, gathering around her a constituency of counselors and military men who she used to accomplish some malevolent plans.
On July 27, 1828, after a prolonged illness, the king, in a fit of delirium brought about either by malaria, black water fever and/or the excessive consumption of rum took his own life. Six days later, Ramavo, who one would think should be mourning the demise of her husband put all the king’s closest relatives to death in a coup d’état. These included Rakotobe, the heir to the throne, the king’s cousins, brothers, and the queen.
Wearing a massive crown lined with red velvet and seven golden spear points topped with a gold bird (the royal Malagasy emblem), Ramavo ascended the throne, taking the royal name of Ranavalona.
The first days of her reign brought bizarre proclamations to accompany the brutal violence. To express mourning for her departed husband, she declared that every single person must, for ten months, keep their heads shaved with the exceptions of the nation’s professional mourners (yes, it’s a thing), who were only spared so they would have hair to tear out amidst their hysterical weeping. She kept his body on display for weeks, with round-the-clock legions of slaves tasked with keeping the flies off. During the mourning period, she made it illegal to dance, bathe, play music, sleep on a mattress, look in a mirror, or clap your hands. The punishment was to be sold into slavery which was not an idle threat.
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 the portraits of his European contemporaries, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Napoleon Bonaparte, and George IV of Britain.
Furthermore, Ranavalona quickly began to implement policies which contrasted profoundly with those of her husband. In November of that year, she refused to grant an interview to the British ambassador and repudiated the Anglo-Malagasy treaty of friendship signed by King Radama.
On Sept. 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.
Of much greater significance, however, was her reinstatement of slavery as a social and economic institution of Madagascar. Slavery, recently abolished to appease the British, returned to one of the cornerstones of the economy. Her favorite slave was undoubtedly Jean Laborde, a shipwrecked young Frenchman whose presence drastically transformed the country. Once Ranavalona found out he was an accomplished tradesman, she set him to work with making a massive industrial complex. 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. Within a couple years of his arrival, Madagascar was self-reliant for weaponry, ammunition, and gunpowder – one of the first industrial revolutions to occur outside of Europe. Laborde and the queen enjoyed a tolerable working relationship for many years but 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. This however, enabled her to keep out the combined forces of the French and the British which was no small feat. They repeatedly attempted invasions but failed.
In the seventh year of her reign, Queen Ranavalona, aged 43, was stricken by illness, and it was feared that she might die but did not. 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. Attributing her recovery to traditional Malagasy spirituality only reinforced Ranavalona’s prejudice towards the Christian missionaries of the island.
On Feb. 26, 1835, she enjoined all missionaries to respect the cultural traditions of the nation and to cease baptising 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 into a seemingly endless round of persecutions against the island’s Christian converts and the queen’s political enemies. On Aug. 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. 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 part 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 and not surprisingly, many did.
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 Jan. 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 other regions.
Fortunately for him, Prince Rakoto was one of the very few people that the queen did trust. 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. She attributed the prince’s actions as that 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.
On Aug. 16, 1861, Ranavalona died in her sleep at the Manjakamiadana palace in the Rova of Antananarivo. Her reign, which had lasted for 33 years was no doubt brutal but she was also a good politician and leader as well. She did her best to retain her country’s cultural heritage, defended it against more powerful foreign nations who wanted to take advantage of the island’s resources and expanded her territory to cover nearly the entirety of Madagascar. That said, the death toll associated with Ranavalona did not stop with her death. 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 compound where the event was held. Perhaps, a seemly end to her reign.