QUEEN RANAVALONA I of Madagascar
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1788 – 1861 (Born the same year as Queen Elizabeth I of England). Ruled for 33 years.
Queen Ranavalona I staged a swift and violent coup to seize power upon the death of her husband, the king, in 1828. He had been currying favour with the British in exchange for weapons and had just formed the country’s first army. The couple were childless, and the throne would have passed to a male relative, but Ranavalona moved swiftly to have him executed, along with most of the royal family.
Once queen, she introduced numerous bizarre proclamations and meted out brutal punishments for any violations. During the mourning period for her husband, she decreed it compulsory to shave your head, and illegal to bathe, dance, play music, sleep on a mattress, look in a mirror or clap your hands. Anyone caught disobeying these orders was sold into slavery. Her belated husband had abolished slavery to appease the British, but Queen Ranavalona reinstated the practice and used it to bolster the island’s economy.
Queen Ranavalona I was a traditionalist who loathed and mistrusted foreigners, despite a great love of European fashions. She banned Christianity, insisting that her subjects follow the traditional religion of the ancestors. One age-old rite that she reinstituted was The Tanguena Ordeal to which Christians, and later most of the Madagascar population, were subjected, as a test of loyalty. You’d be forced to swallow 3 pieces of chicken skin soaked in the highly poisonous juice of the local tanguena nut. If you managed to throw up all 3 pieces of chicken, you were declared innocent and loyal to the throne. Anything less implied, by decree of the divine powers, that you were guilty, and subjected to one of several creative methods of execution: burial in a coffin while still alive; tied by the ankles with a secured rope and thrown over the edge of the island’s steep cliffs; shackled to fellow convicted souls and left without food or water, until every last one perished; confined in a metal cage and hoisted high above the heads of onlookers, to die of starvation and exposure…
One of her prized slaves was Jean Laborde, a young shipwrecked French engineer. With his expertise, Ranavalona had a palace built, and within a few years of his arrival, the island has achieved an industrial revolution. It may have been the very first to occur outside of Europe. Able to manufacture its own weaponry, ammunition and gunpowder, the island managed to defend itself from attack. It is possible that Queen Ranavalona I was vilified as a tyrant by the European writers of history, as she is best known for her defiance against colonialism. Her armies thwarted countless invasions by the French and British, and those vanquished soldiers that remained on the beaches were beheaded. Their heads were displayed on pikes on the fortresses and beaches… a grisly warning to future would-be colonisers!
Queen Ranavalona I preserved the political sovereignty of Madagascar despite the aggression of European colonialism. Despite the harshness of her methods, they were in accordance with ancient historical traditions, and she was nonetheless considered a great sovereign and patriotic leader by her people.