Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Ranavalona I: Bloody Queen

Ranavalona I
In the 19th century, European influence in the African coast grew tremendously. It was to engage in the lucrative trade of slaves, initially, gold, spices, and salt. In the biggest island of Africa, Madagascar, a Queen rose against the foreigners in the defense of local traditions and customs. Her methods, however, displayed high level of cruelty. This was the Merina Queen Ranavalona I.

Ranavalona I (1778 – 1861) was the infamous ruler of the Madagascar Kingdom of Merina. She was known for her brutal oppression of Christianity. She brought death and hardship not just to foreigners, but her own people as well. She was a strong leader, determined to cement her rule and to protect her kingdom’s independence. But her actions and ways led her to be known as Ranavalona the Cruel.

Ranavalona was born as Princess Ramavo during 1780’s. His father served well under the founder of the Kingdom of Merina, Andrianampoinimerina. Because of his father’s loyal service to the King, Ramavo was married to the son of the King, the future Radama I. The marriage was cold. No children was the product of the marriage. In addition, Ramavo spent most of her time along with foreigners, ironically, than her husband. She was said to have been neglected by his husband.

In 1810, King Andrianampoinimerina passed away. His son, Ranavalona’s husband, became King Radama I. Radama’s reign was characterize by the open relations to foreigners. His reign, however, was average in length. At the age of 32, and after an eighteen year rule, Radama died.

A bloody coup then followed. Ramavo eventually appeared in the top. She took the crown in 1828 and took the name Ranavalona. To consolidate her hold of power by killing all her opponents and threat to her throne. She ordered the death of the nephew and heir of King Radama. Relatives of the previous King were killed.  The blood bath at her rise would not be her last.

One of the first concerns of Queen Ranavalona was the rising number of Christians and foreign influence within her Kingdom. Schools of missionaries, especially, the London Missionary society, began to spread. During the early 1830’s, the Queen was said to have suffered an illness. But with the help of the local religion based on the sampy or talismans, she was cured. In order to show her gratitude, she wanted to promote the tradition. To do so, she must first remove the biggest threat to its existence – Christianity. Ranavalona then sided with the traditionalist and reversed the policies of her deceased husband. In 1835, she illegalized Christianity. She then halted all the activities of the missionaries and expelled them from the country. She added that Christianity was not part of their ancestor’s tradition and beliefs.

But the expulsion of the missionaries were not enough for her, she wanted to cleanse her Kingdom of all traces of Christianity. And so in 1837, the purge of Christians among her citizens began. Among her first victim was a woman named Rasalama. She was first martyr and suffered execution by being speared.

Known as the ny tany maizin or time when the land was dark, was the period of toil and blood. Many Christian subjects of Ravalona would perish under her policies. Some were pushed off a cliff in 1849 near the Royal Palace. Some Christians were poured with hot boiling water. Some perished with the ordeal with tangena tree. The ordeal caused the accused to eat the poisonous fruit of the tree. If the accused spitted it out, he or she was innocent. However, most of the accused did not and so many died on these way. Under Ranavalona, it was estimated that 150,000 of his subjects out of estimated a million died because of the purge.

Another part of Ranavalona’s policy was strengthening the Merina economy. She sought the help of some foreigners to realize it. During the early years of her reign, he had a Scotsman to help, James Cameron, who introduced the printing press and helped to design a part of Ranavalona’s palace, Manjakamiadana, in the capital, Antananarivo. When in 1835, the missionaries were all expelled, Cameron, who was a member of the London Missionary Society left Madagascar. But another foreigner stayed because of the Queen’s favor, the Frenchman Jean Laborde. Laborde landed accidently to Madagascar in 1831. Laborde was credited by bringing economic independence to the Merina Kingdom. He constructed a factory power by water mills in Mantasoa where various products were made. Its products included guns, gunpowder, pottery, glass, silk, porcelain, soap, candles, soap, tiles and bricks, and other small and light products. With his factory in Mantasoa, the Merina Kingdom was able to halt trade with Europeans.

Laborde was so trusted by the queen, that he was made tutor of the son and heir of the Queen, Rakoto. Rakoto admired the Europeans. He talked to them and spent time with them. Eventually, the relationship was brought to a next stage in 1857.

The Europeans wanted to end the brutal, repressive, and anti-western policy of Ranavalona. In 1845, a combination of British and French forces engaged the Merina forces in Tamatave. The Merina forces scored a victory against the Anglo-French forces with 80 European soldiers dead. In 1857, they took advantage of Prince Rakoto’s pro-European stands. Rakoto along with some French representatives plotted a coup to depose Queen Ranavalona. But, the Queen discovered the plot and had all foreigners expelled from the country, including Laborde.

When Laborde left, workers in the Mantasoa factory complex destroyed most of the facility. It was due to anger for another policy promulgated by Ranavalona. Under Ranavalona I’s rule, mandatory service was issued. Other words, force labor became institutionalized by her reign.

Ranavalona’s reign was not always filled with the massacre of her own people. She also ordered a code of laws to be made in 1828. Most of her law included the punishment of slavery, but not just for the perpetrator, but for the whole family of the suspect. In 1830, she ordered the invasion of Ihosy which led to the foundation of the town of Fianarantsoa.

Ranavalona’s reign lasted for 33 years. In 1861, Queen Ranavalona I passed away. It paved the way to Prince Rakoto to seize the throne as King Radama II.

Queen Ranavalona I was brutal and a strong ruler. She killed a lot of her relatives and her own subjects. It was in the name of her Kingdom’s tradition, independence, and her rule.  But some describe Ranavalona in a lighter way. They argue that she was a nationalist. Perhaps, but the interpretation of her reign would be based on time it was made. Nevertheless, Ranavalona I’s reign could only be characterized by toil and strength.

See also:
Merina Kingdom
Radama I
Radama II
Ranavalona II
Ranavalona III

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