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Madagascar, the world's fourth largest Island situated in the Indian Ocean off Africa's southeast coast, is also called the Great Red Island because of the blood red color of its soil. It had many tribe kingdoms until the Merina monarchies united the Island before ultimately falling to European colonial rule. A very notable period in the Island's pre-colonial history is the reign of Queen Ranavalona I from 1826 to 1861.
Birth and Kinship
Queen Ranavalona I Rabodoandrianampoinimerina (Ramavo) was born sometime between 1782 and 1790 into the Island's Menabe tribe. She was the eldest daughter of Andrian-Tsla-Manjaka and Rabodo Andrian-Tampo from tribal factions occupying the eastern portion of Madagascar (Ranavalona I, Wikipedia, 2006, 1).
Ascent to the Throne
Ranavalona was married almost as a child to King Ramada I. The King arranged for the marriage in accordance with his the intent of his father, King Andrianampoinimerina, to unite the tribes of Madagascar.
Not much is known of her youth as the Queen, known also as Ranavalo-Manyka I, but an account of her physical description when she was already an adult is provided by George MacDonald Fraser in his novel Flashman's
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 (Flashman's Lady as cited in Ranavalona 1, Wikipedia 2006, 1-3).
Ranavalona ascended to the throne with the death of her husband in 1828. The Queen, said to have been in cahoots with Protestant English Missionaries, supposedly killed Ramada I by poisoning him. Since Ramada left no descendants, The English Protestants who were then her friends helped Ranavalona secure the throne. (Worldwide Guide, 2005, 1).
Reign as Queen (1828 - 1861)
Soon after becoming Queen, Ranavalona was able to extend her rule to cover the entire Island. To eliminate threats to her throne, she had most of her family relatives assassinated.
The few extant British and French accounts of her reign focused on stories of the Queen's cruelty against the Christians and British tirades against the re-establishing of inland slavery. On the other, Malagasy historians generally short of deifies Ranavalona's successful repulsion of British and French colonial schemes (Kamhi, 2002, 4).
Commanding an army of about 20,000 men, Queen Ranavalona I's rule was in essence reactionary to the pro-Western reign of her husband Ramada I. She distrusted foreigners and their foreign cultures and traditions and worked to eliminate their presence in Madagascar.
Her husband had earlier welcomed outside influence and modernized Madagascar along European lines. Ramada was able extend his Merina kingdom to almost the whole of the Island by wisely playing off the opposing interests of Britain and France. The King also encouraged the Protestant missionaries to set up churches and schools and to introduce the technology of the printing press to Madagascar (Precolonial Era, US Library, 5 & 6).
Initially, she expelled foreigners from the Island, including French and English consuls who later tried to exact revenge by attempting to depose her. In turn, Ranavalona I lashed back at the Europeans left in the Islands. (Worldwide Guide, 2002, 1).
Queen Ranavalona, however, did not completely sever ties with the Europeans even as many of them fled the Island. The oligarchy, which lorded over the land and commerce during her reign, permitted a few Europeans to deal with commodities such as rice and cattle and French traders enjoyed monopoly in the slave trade by providing remunerations to the Queen (Precolonial Era, US Library).
Persecution of Christians
Before the reign of King Ramada I, Christian missionaries had conducted unsuccessful sporadic efforts to set up Catholic missions in the Island. With the reign of Ramada I, the original exponent of European modernization and culture, the missionaries were able to penetrate the Malagasy population, built churches, opened schools, even developed a written form of their language and started out the translation of the Bible. (Madagascar, SIM, 6-7).
When Ranavalona, who didn't believe in Christianity and was suspicious of the White Europeans, came to power she at once expelled the missionaries and persecuted the believers left behind. The Queen forbade the Christian religion, charging among others that its followers despise the Malagasy gods/idols, spend all the time praying, only affirm and would not swear, make women practice chastity and observe as sacred the Sabbath day.
As the Bible was banned, churches closed, baptisms prohibited and suspected Christian converts arrested, some 1,600 faithful pleaded guilty to Ranavalona's charges in 1835. Those who refused to renounce Christianity were either persecuted or killed. There was a renewed anti-Christian persecution in 1849 when 19 believers from influential families were condemned to die by being thrown off a high cliff. (Christian Martyrs, 4,5 & 8).
Queen Ranavalona I has been largely regarded as a cruel persecutor of Christians because her initial efforts including the expulsion of the Christian missionaries was unable to eradicate the foreign-introduced religion. Under her reign, the horrific methods of persecution included being repeatedly thrown from hilltops; being forcibly dressed in bloodied animal skins for hunting dogs to chase them; being yoked together and left to die in the jungles, and being boiled to death in a pit at a bottom of the hill from where pots of boiling water are tipped to fill the pit. (Ranavalona I, Wikipedia, 2006, 4).
Under Ranavalona I, hundreds of Christians were killed. Upon her death in 1861, and with the ascension of a Christian, Ranavalona II, to the throne, the Christian population in Madagascar grew from 37,000 to a quarter of a million within the same year (Christian Martyrs, P 14).
Implementation of Hasina
With her ascension to power, the people of Madagascar had to pay hasina, a tribute given to the sovereign leader as token of their allegiance. During the yearly Queen's bath, everyone had to pay the hasina and as well, to put out all fires at night so that only Ranavalona’s fire in the palace remained lit (The oral and the Visual, p. 6).
Independence for Madagascar
Both colonial Britain and France, which had axes to grind, tried to remove her from power but failed. France's Louis Philippe had Frenchmen leave the Tidtinque post. The last unsuccessful effort against Queen Ranavalona I was made by Captain Romain-Desfosses who was only able to bombard Tamatave. (Worldwide Guide, 2005, 1).
Ranavalo-Manyka I staunchly and ably fought for her reign and Madagascar's independence. She led her army, earlier modernized under Ramada I's association with the British, to victory against the combined fleet of French and British navy ships. (Kamhi, Madagascar and Me, 2002).
Comparing Ranavalona I
Comparing Queen Ranavalona with the previous Merina rulers—her husband King Ramada I and King Andrianampoinimerina—their reigns were all characterized by political effectiveness that led to the further expansion of their kingdoms until virtually the whole of Madagascar was united. The army under each reign was organized and served the interests of the kingdom well. Central power was secure and even expanding; social order then was easy to maintain as the subjects or Malagasy people generally accepted or at least offered no serious resistance to the rulers.
In terms of foreign alliances, King Ramada I proved to be more open-minded and accepting of outside influence, spiritual matters included. Beyond that, he had the diplomatic wisdom and skill to use foreign interests in
Madagascar to further strengthen and expand his kingdom.
Queen Ranavalona I, for her part, only engaged in foreign alliances restricted to the economic realm. She was definitely intolerant of foreign cultural and religious influences undermining the native traditions of her people. This is where perhaps her greatest strength lies that more than makes up for what Europeans deem as the bloodthirsty character of her rule.
The courage and the principle to resist colonial cultural onslaught is what largely shaped Queen Ranavalona I's reign and to a measured extent, the history of Madagascar. There are now in the Island state conscious revisionist efforts to present the nationalist rationale behind the Queen's anti-Christian acts. But more telling is the pro- or anti- Western divide in Malagasy consciousness as illustrated by the fierce pro-French and nationalist positions of the 2001 presidential hopefuls. (Alison, Perceptions, 2002, P 29-31)
Madagascar Under Her and Now
By 1896, Madagascar had her last Malagasy monarch, Queen Ranavalona III exiled by the French after Britain traded her for Zanzibar. (Madagascar: Erotic Tombs, 24). The country became a French colony until its independence in October 1958.
Madagascar today is a largely politically and economically mismanaged country, being one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world. Its economy is mainly subsistence agriculture although tourism is booming and the Island state has significant mineral deposits and exotic wildlife resources.
Madagascar's politics of the present largely contrasts with that under Queen Ranavalona I. Half a century after its independence, the modern country has suffered several political crises and upheavals, including the November 2006 coup against President Marc Ranavalonana; whereas, Ranavalona I wielded strong political control such that she managed to thwart European colonial offensive against her crown.
The culture of the Malagasy peoples today, however, can be said to be attributable to the early 19th policies imposed by Queen Ranavalona I. Despite over 50 years of Western Christian rule, approximately half practices traditional religions, exceeding the 40 percent figure of self-professed Christians.
The observance of the rich and various traditions of funeral and conception rites, folklore, wood and stone carvings, publicly rendered traditional performing arts and traditional celebrations is widespread today in the land. (Madagascar, Culture, 8-9). Ranavalona I is also directly credited by revisionist historians for the preservation of traditional poetry forms. (Ranavalona I, Wikipedia, 5).
Madagascar's population as of 2005 is estimated to be over 18 1/2 million, up from the 1993 census of over 12 million. (Madagascar, Wikipedia, 2006, Table). For the larger part of the 20th century, though, Madagascar has had stable population growth. The first systematic census undertaken by the colonizers showed a 2.2 million population in 1900; it then increased from 7.6 million in 1975 up to the current figures. Population increase is attributed to the increasingly youthful and healthy composition of the people. (Country Profile, Culture, 1-2).
DNA tests have shown that majority of the population has mixed Malay and African stock (Madagascar, Wikipedia, Demographics). Recent scholarship points to the normal migration trend, more than the slave trade engaged in during and before Queen Ranavalona's reign, as responsible for the Magalasy’s African descent. As of 1988, the foreign population of Madagascar totaled to around 70,000 Comorans, French, Indians and Chinese. (Country Profile, Culture, 1-5).
Concededly, Queen Ranavalona I ruled Malagasy with bloody iron hands. Terrible persecution, particularly of Christians and foreigners, was a hallmark of her reign. How to spell out her contributions, however, is a matter of interpretation and of viewpoint.
From the points of view of Christians, British and French, her rule was a terrible period in the Island's history—an era of persecution and setbacks for the missionaries or their colonial interests. For the nationalist and traditional Malagasy, on the other, Queen Ranavalona I was a true-blue Malagasy heroine who stood up to assert and protect native traditions and sovereignty against European onslaught and domination. As Ranavalona I perceived, the dangers of European domination, she, in her own, albeit cruel way, staged what would be the last truly Malagasy stance before the European colonization of the Great Red Island.
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