Ranavalona showed her brutal side at the very start of her reign: she “unalived” every member of the royal family she could get her hands on. It was taboo to spill royal blood, so she had them strangled, or locked in a cell and starved to death. Her throne was secured against domestic challengers, she turned her attention to encroachments from European colonial powers, and exterminated or expelled nearly all foreigners. She nullified all treaties with Britain and France and banned Christianity. She also isolated Madagascar from the outside world, and turned it into a hermit kingdom. Domestically, in lieu of a legal system, she introduced trial by ordeal: the accused were fed poison and three pieces of chicken skin. If they vomited all three pieces of skin, they were innocent. If they did not, they were not and were accordingly executed.
Ranavalona introduced widespread forced labor, whereby Madagascar’s poor – the majority of the population – performed labor in lieu of high taxes they could not afford to pay. These de facto slaves were used to build houses and palaces, clear lands and maintain roads, carry nobles and royal dependents in litters, serve in Ranavalona’s army, and carry any other tasks set them by the queen. They were unpaid, poorly fed, if at all, and died in droves. In the meantime, the British and French were unhappy with being shut out of Madagascar, where they had been welcomed by previous rulers. So they mounted joint punitive expeditions, but the attempts ended in failure. When the Europeans retreated, Ranavalona beheaded the corpses of their dead, put the heads on stakes, and lined them up on Madagascar’s beaches, facing the ocean.
Queen Ranavalona sent her army on numerous punitive expeditions into the parts of Madagascar that defied her or expressed anything less than enthusiasm for her governance. The queen’s men engaged in scorched earth policies, and devastated regions resistant to her rule. As object lessons, Ranavalona’s soldiers routinely massacred the inhabitants of towns and settlements viewed as disloyal. Those spared from the mass executions were enslaved and brought back to the queen’s domain, to toil the rest of their lives away on her projects. Between 1820 to 1853, over a million slaves were seized. The percentage of slaves rose to one-third of the population of Madagascar’s central highlands, and two-thirds of the population of Antananarivo, Ranavalona’s capital.
Between massacres, mistreatment, forced labor, and widespread famines caused by Ranavalona’s brutal scorched earth policies and heavy-handed repression, Madagascar’s population crashed. In just a six-year stretch from 1833 to 1839, the island’s population is estimated to have declined from 5 million to 2.5 million inhabitants. In Ranavalona’s own home district, the population took a nosedive from about 750,000 in 1829, to a mere 130,000 by 1842. These are genocide-level figures, comparable to those inflicted by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge on the people of Cambodia a century later. Unlike Pol Pot, however, Ranavalona was not chased out of power. After a 33-year reign, she died in her sleep of natural causes, at age 83.
Speaking of Pol Pot, that Cambodian communist revolutionary who led the Khmer Rouge into seizing power in 1975. As depicted in the 1984 movie The Killing Fields, Cambodia was then transformed into a nightmarish dystopia. Pol Pot and his fanatical followers carried out a genocide that eliminated a quarter of Cambodia’s population. In an insane attempt at social engineering, the cities were evacuated, and the urban masses were forcibly converted into peasants, to toil on poorly run collective farms. Roughly three million people were exterminated or starved to death before the nightmare ended when the Khmer Rouge was driven from power in 1979.
Pol Pot’s background gave little to indicate just how much of a monster he would become. Born Saloth Sar into a prosperous family, he had received an elite education in Cambodia’s best schools, before moving to Paris, where he joined the French Communist Party. Pol Pot eventually returned to Cambodia, where he became a college professor who frequently spoke about kindness and humanity. He was beloved by his students, who remembered him as “calm, self-assured, smooth featured, honest, and persuasive, even hypnotic when speaking to small groups“. Many of those students followed him into the Khmer Rouge, and became the most ruthless executioners of what came to be known as the Cambodian Genocide.
If the question of who was history’s most brutal ruler was asked, many would assume it must have been Genghis Khan. However, while Genghis is one of history’s scariest people, he was not as lethal as an even deadlier medieval warrior: Tamerlane (1336 – 1405). Byname Timur Link, which means “Timur the Lame” in Turkish, Tamerlane was the last of the great Eurasian Steppe conquerors to terrify the civilized world with widespread devastation and butchery. He is chiefly remembered for his savagery, and his wide-ranging rampage, from India to Russia and the Mediterranean and points in between. Tamerlane is estimated to have exterminated about 17 million people, or about 5 percent of the world’s population at the time. That would be equivalent to almost 400 million people in 2022.
A Muslim Turko-Mongol who claimed descent from Genghis Khan, Tamerlane was born in the Chagatai Khanate in today’s Uzbekistan. It was ruled by Genghis’ descendants at the time, and Tamerlane’s rise began in 1360, when he led Turkic tribesmen on behalf of the Chagatai Khan. However, the Khan was executed by rivals, and that triggered a struggle for power. When the dust settled, Tamerlane had emerged as the power behind a throne occupied by a figurehead Chagatai puppet, through whom Tamerlane ruled.
2. A Steppe Warrior Who Spent Decades Terrorizing Everybody
Tamerlane’s supposed descent from Genghis Khan might have been dubious. That did not stop him, however, from using it to justify his conquests as a restoration of the by then-defunct Mongol Empire. He claimed that his conquests were a re-imposition of legitimate Mongol rule over lands that had been wrongfully seized by usurpers. With those justifications, Tamerlane spent 35 years roiling the medieval world. In that stretch, he earned a reputation for brutal savagery as he brought fire and sword to the lands between the Indus and Volga rivers, the Himalayas and the Mediterranean.
Among the cities he left depopulated and in ruins were Damascus and Aleppo in Syria; Baghdad in Iraq; Sarai, capital of the Golden Horde, and Ryazan, both in Russia; India’s Delhi, outside whose walls he massacred over 100,000 captives; and Isfahan in Iran, where he massacred 200,000. Tamerlane was also in the habit of piling up pyramids of severed heads. Additionally, he liked to cement live prisoners into the walls of captured cities, and erected towers of his victims’ skulls as object lessons and to terrorize would-be opponents.
1. “When I Rise From the Dead the World Shall Tremble“
Tamerlane’s most dramatic victory came at the expense of the Ottoman Turks. A rising power in their own right, the Ottomans were as exuberantly confident in their prowess as was Tamerlane. For years, heated letters were exchanged between Tamerlane and the Ottoman Sultan, Bayezid, until Tamerlane finally showed up with his army in 1402, crushed Bayezid, and took him captive. In one of history’s greatest acts of ownage, Tamerlane humiliated his prisoner by keeping him in a cage at court, while Bayezid’s favorite wife was made to serve the victor and his courtiers, naked.
Tamerlane’s decades-long rampage finally ended in 1405. As he prepared to invade China, he took ill, and died before he could launch the campaign. His grave was reportedly cursed. His body was exhumed by Soviet anthropologists on June 19th, 1941. Carved inside his tomb were the words “When I rise from the dead, the word shall tremble“. Two days later, the Nazis launched the largest military operation of all-time against the USSR, and the Soviets survived only by the skin of their teeth. Just to be on the safe side, in November 1942, shortly before Operation Uranus which led to the first major Soviet victory at Stalingrad, Tamerlane was reburied with full Islamic rituals.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading