Ranavalona I, Queen of Madagascar: History, Reign & Facts

Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar (1788-1861)

Queen Ranavalona I ruled the Kingdom of Madagascar from 1828 to 1861. This was during an era when much of Africa had fallen under European rule as a result of colonial expansion. In a bid to preserve her sovereignty and the stability of her kingdom, she pursued a policy of self-sufficiency. The queen’s goal was to decrease her kingdom’s dependency on foreign powers. Historians have described her as an oppressor whose policies culminated in extreme agony among her subjects. Ironically, this view of the African queen was also held by many of her European counterparts.

Who was Ranavalona? And was she actually a tyrant?

In the article below we explore the life and reign of Ranavalona I of Madagascar.

Early Years & Family

Ranavalona was born in the Palace of Ambatomanoina to Prince Razakaratrimo, the Prince of Ambohitrambo, and  Princess Rafarasoa Ramasindrazana.

She was raised by Christian principles and often participated in the secret prayer meetings that went on during the years of the persecution.

At a young age, her father discovered a murder plot against King Andrianampoinimerina. He informed his master and the conspirators were apprehended. In appreciation for saving his life, the king gave Ranavalona in marriage to his son and heir apparent, Radama.

Radama I of Madagascar

In 1810, King Andrianampoinimerina died and his son and heir Radama succeeded him as king. The new king married eleven more wives, putting a strain between him and Ranavalona. Compounding her problems was the fact that she could not bear any children. As a result, many questions were raised about who would succeed Radama.

After Radama’s death in 1828, Prince Rakatobe, the son of his sister, became the rightful heir to the throne. In Malagasy tradition,  however, any children Ranavalona would bear would be considered Ramada’s although he was dead. Upon this knowledge, Rakatobe’s mother arranged to have Ranavalona killed but failed.

After a series of contentions, Ranavalona, with the help of her high-ranking military friends, proclaimed herself king.

Ranavalona’s reign

Ranavalona was crowned in 1828 and was designated as Queen Ranavalona I. She was the first to be crowned as a Christian Queen in Madagascar. One of the queen’s earliest actions was to put to death Rakotobe and his mother as well as all political rivals she considered as a threat to her reign and the stability of the kingdom.

During her 33-year reign, she was concerned with promoting Madagascar’s political and cultural supremacy. She launched reforms and policies that isolated Madagascar from the influence of the British and French who sought to colonize the island.

Ranavalona quickly reversed many of her husband’s policies that contrasted sharply with her own ambitions. She ended a friendship pact with Britain and Madagascar had almost no foreign trade relations.

Ranavalon drew new policies to make her kingdom self-reliant and instituted a tradition of forced labor.

Territorial Expansion

Ranavalona sought to expand the territories of her kingdom. She even led a number of military invasions to pacify conquered territories such as the Menabe and the north-east regions of the island.

Suppression of Christianity and European influence

As a nationalist, she opposed foreign influence, especially that of Christian missionaries. As a result, she outlawed Christianity in her kingdom and forbade such practices as Sunday services, the sacrament, Christian marriages and baptisms.

Christians who broke the law were either exiled or charged with witchcraft. Like many monarchs, she considered herself “divinely appointed” and saw Christianity as a threat because she considered the tenets of the faith were at odds with the traditions of her kingdom.

By early 1835, Christianity had been entirely banned in Madagascar. Foreigners were allowed to practice their own faith but they could not teach her people. Many foreigners fled the kingdom, leaving their convents to be slapped with prison time and fines. Others faced execution and torture. In 1836, over ten Christians were martyred because they had refused to renounce their religion.

Acts of Tyranny & the Buffalo Hunt

Ranavalona employed acts of brutality to maintain discipline during her reign. If a person were to be found disloyal, they were made to eat three chicken skins and a tangena nut, a poisonous nut that induced vomiting. The person’s faithfulness is only proven if they could throw up all three chicken skins.

More serious crimes were punished with amputation. Over the years, her actions became increasingly callous and erratic, earning her the nickname, “Mad Queen.”

In 1845, she ordered her entire court to go on a buffalo hunt. Each courtier was required to bring with them underlings and slaves. About 50,000 people set out on the hunt for buffalo. They carried with them little supplies and were instructed to build a road as they journeyed. The hunt became catastrophic as road builders fell ill and dropped dead in the streets. It is believed that about 10,000 people died during the four-month long journey that yielded no buffalo.

The Queen’s Heir

Ranavalona’s only son and heir, Prince Rakoto was crowned King Radama II after the death of the queen

In 1829, the Queen gave birth to her only son named Prince Rakoto who was immediately proclaimed as heir. She had earlier been married to a man who had been dead for almost a year, and could not have been the father of her son. Many people believed that Andrimihaja, the queen’s lover, was the father of Rakoto. It was an open secret that the prince was a “bastard heir.”

Death & Legacy

In August 1861, the queen died in her sleep in the Manjakamiadana Palace. Her bones were placed in the tomb of Queen Rasoherina, Madagascar’s queen from 1863 to 1868. Her son, Rakoto, ascended the throne as King Radama II.

Following her death, the age of extensive conquests was brought to an end and no Malagasy monarch was able to attain the level of military conquest that was chalked up by Ranavalona.

Despite Queen Ranavalona’s “madness” and cruelty, she was no doubt an effective politician and a brave leader. She’s been praised for preserving Madagascar’s cultural heritage.

Her policies helped ward off foreign powers that aimed at exploiting the country’s resources and encroaching her kingdom. Though her successor, Radama II, overturned many of her policies, he proved incapable of discerning assassination plots. He was murdered a few years after his coronation.

British author and screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser wrote a fictionalized story about Ranavalona in his book, “Flashman’s Lady.” In the novel, the secret agent, Harry Paget Flashman, becomes the queen’s lover.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *