Saturday, June 28, 2014

Radama I: Great King of Merina

Radama I
While Europe was engulf by the Wars against Napoleon Bonaparte, in the small but rising Malagasy Kingdom of Merina, a new ruler emerged. Although young, his mind and ambition was fit for the task of ruling a country. Military, diplomatically, educationally, and economically, he brought development into his kingdom. King Radama I brought progress to his people that his later successors would destroy and cherish.

In the island of Madagascar in East Africa. King Radama I was the son of the founder of the Merina Kingdom, Andrianampoinimerina. He was born in 1783. His father was a renowned military leader that expanded the reach of the Merina Kingdom. What only hindered his conquest of the whole island were kingdoms that occupied the coast. King Andrianampoinimerina would not see the conquest of the coastlines. In 1809, the King died, his son ascended to the throne. The reign of Radama I began.

As King, he wanted to achieve an equal stature as his father before him. He wanted to be known as a great military ruler. In order to succeed he played a diplomatic game. Near the island of Madagascar, the French and the British were fighting for access to India. Small islands could play a key role for the domination of the Indian Ocean. In Mauritius, the British created a colony. The French had control over the Reunion Island.

The tensions between the two imperialist powers were high. The other was hampering the advance of the other. They made sure that the influence of the other side does not expand to other places. In this game, Radama exploited and used to his advantage.

He played the two powers against each other. The French were eyeing to expand their influence to the Madagascar Island and began making relations with coastal kingdoms. The British governor of Mauritius, Robert Townsend Farquhar, sensed the move. In order to thwart the French advance, the British must had an alliance with a Kingdom within the island. In 1815, Farquhar and King Radama made a contact. Farquhar needed an ally in the island, and came in form of Radama. Radama, meanwhile, needed a foreign ally for military modernization as well as recognition and protection from the French.

The Anglo-Merina relationship flourished. For two years, talks on establishing diplomatic relations dragged on. On February, 1817, the Great Britain and Merina Kingdom signed a treaty of friendship between the two.  Under the treaty, Britain recognized Radama as the king of all Madagascar. Radama would then receive an equivalent. An equivalent included financial aids in form of gold and silver. Radama would also receive firearms, such as muskets and flintlocks. Also the British would provide uniforms and supply of gunpowder. British military advisers were also sent to the Merina Kingdom to train the army. All of which were important for the creation of a modern army.

In exchange for the generous aid, Radama would outlaw slave trade. The British wanted the tradition to be extinguish to deplete the sugar and slave based agricultural economy of the French Reunion Island. For Radama, it was equally strategically important. With the ban on slave trade, the coastal kingdoms that relied on the trade would be out of business. In the domestic front, powerful families that profited from slave trade would be weakened, thus he could assert his dominance. The outlaw of slave trade and the arrival of British aid significantly strengthen Radama’s position.

With the modern army in his disposal, Radama proceed in his invasion of many neighboring kingdoms. He defeated to the north the kingdom of Boina. To the south, he vanquished the kingdom of Betsileo. And most importantly, to the east, he defeated Betsmiskara Kingdom of Ratsimilaho. By 1825, Radama held almost completely the whole eastern coast of Madagascar, from Fort Dauphin to Vohemar. The only Kingdom that remained independent was the western kingdom of Sakalava under King Andrimisara I.

On the sideline of his military conquest, King Radama I also strengthen his Kingdom’s education and economy. Alongside the military aid and recognition in exchange of slave trade abolition, the King also grant freedom for the entry of Protestant missionaries. The most prominent group of missionaries was the London Missionary Society that arrived in 1820. The arrival of the missionary gave benefits to the kingdom. The Society founded the first western style school in Tomasina with 3 pupils. With King’s protection and patronage, and with the hope of modernizing the minds of his people, more school opened. The biggest was the school in the Palace of Besakana. The King valued education. In 1825, he decreed that all noble children were mandated to attend school. But some were lazy and sent their slave instead, spreading western education to the lower strata of society. By the time of Radama’s death in 1828, 29 schools catered about 2,300 pupils inside the kingdom. Other than schools, some intellectuals were sent to Mauritius and even to England to learn more knowledge of the outside world.

The London Missionary Society introduced new knowledge and techniques to Malagasy people. They introduced the Latin alphabet that set in motion the establishing of the written Malagasy language, as time went on, a bible was published in Malagasy language. Knowledge spread quickly as the Society introduced the printing press. In economic terms, the missionaries introduced new skills. Carpentry, tanning, tin plating were introduced to the Malagasy people. Among the most prominent promulgator of the skill was James Cameron, who stayed and worked for Radama’s successor. The wives of the missionaries also played a role in teaching Malagasy women skills of dressmaking, weaving, and housekeeping. The Kingdom of Merina experienced progress in wide range of everyday lives.

The active and young king helped the Kingdom to advance militarily, and educationally. However, his active and energetic lifestyle, best displayed in drinking became his weakness. Through his reign, the King drank so much alcohol. In 1828, it took a toll on him and he died. However, some suggested it was poisoned by his successor and wife, the merciless bloody Queen Ranavalona I. She would reverse all his policies and brought misery to the Kingdom.

Nevertheless, Radama I was a modern and clever king. He used the prevailing conditions to his advantage and succeeded very much. He introduced a new modern era for his citizens. However, all were to be ruined by his hapless. Ruined but not dead, his policies inspired Ranavalona’s successors and rebuild and continue his policies.

Ajayi, J. F. A. General History of Africa: Africa in the Nineteenth Century until 1880'sCalifornia: University of California Press, 1998.

Akyeampong, E. & H. Gates (eds.). Dictionary of African Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Halpern, G. The Healing Trail: Essential Oils of Madagascar. New Jersey: Basic Health Publications, Inc., 2003

Harber, C. (ed.). Education in Southern Africa. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., 2013.

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