China’s First Emperor Was a Real Jerk to His Subjects
Chin Shi Huang Di (259 – 210 BC), whose name means “First Emperor of Chin”, started off as king of the Chinese state of Chin – one of several rival kingdoms in China’s Warring States Period (475 – 221 BC). He ascended the throne as a child, and in his teens, wrested power from the regents and courtiers who had governed during his minority. To consolidate his power, the young monarch massacred palace plotters who sought to usurp his prerogatives, then went on the warpath. He pushed back the northern barbarians, defeated and conquered all other Chinese states by 221 BC, and consolidated them under his rule. He then declared himself the First Emperor of China. Chin Shi Huang ended the chaotic feudalism that had prevailed in China for over five centuries. In its place was now a unified, peaceful, and efficiently governed centralized state.
Unification, pacification, and efficiency, came at a high price: tyranny and great oppression. Because he was a major jerk to his people, Chin Shi Huang was greatly abhorred by most Chinese despite his key role in China’s foundation. His most trusted and influential official was justice minister Li Ssu. He was not just a bureaucrat, but also a philosopher who followed a school of thought known as “Legalism”. It advocated strict laws and draconian punishments for even petty crimes. As Li Ssu put it: “If light offenses carry heavy punishments, one can imagine what will be done against a serious offense. Thus the people will not dare to break the laws“. That was music to the First Emperor’s ears. Criticism of the law became a capital offense, and cowed citizens were expected to inform on their neighbors.
With unchecked power and the resources of an entire empire to draw upon, Chin Shi Huang grew megalomaniacal, and launched huge projects with massive amounts of forced labor. One such project had 700,000 laborers toil on the First Emperor’s tomb for thirty years. The famous Terracotta Warriors site, discovered in the 1970s and now open to tourism with its thousands of life size statues, is but a fraction of his gigantic tomb complex. The bulk of it is yet to be unearthed. Millions more labored to dig canals, level hills, make roads, and build over 700 palaces. The biggest project of all was the Great Wall of China, which did double duty: keep out the northern barbarians, and keep in the Chinese seeking to flee the emperor’s heavy taxation and heavy-handed rule.
What Chin Shi Huang was most interested in was immortality through a “Life Elixir”. However, his quest to live forever backfired. His efforts to find a Life Elixir not only failed, but also did the opposite of what China’s First Emperor wanted, and shortened his life. In pursuit of immortality, Chin Shi Huang solicited advice from numerous philosophers, alchemists, opportunists, sketchy characters, and outright charlatans. One adviser gave him mercury pills, which he claimed were a life-prolonging intermediate step in his research for immortality drugs. Using them every day should tidy Chin Shi Huang over until the Life Elixir was ready.
Queen Ranavalona I (1778 – 1861), birth name Rabodoandrianampoinimerina, ruled Madagascar from 1828 until her death in 1861. Nicknamed “Ranavalona the Cruel”, she was a tyrant at best, a certifiably insane madwoman at worst, and a major jerk to her subjects either way. Her 33-year-reign was a complete and utter disaster for Madagascar’s people. Between murder, massacre, mass enslavement, repression, and resultant famines, millions of her subjects perished. During the craziest stretches of her reign, about of Madagascar’s population died, either directly per her orders, or as a result of her disastrous policies.
Ranavlona’s rise began when her father informed Madagascar’s King Andrianampoinimerinandriantsimitoviaminandriampanjaka (they went for ludicrously long names in Madagascar) of a plot against his life. To show his appreciation, the king selected the informant’s daughter to marry his son and heir. The marriage proved loveless and produced no issue. When Ranavalona’s husband died childless in 1828, she engineered a coup and seized power. She massacred all potential rival claimants to the throne, then proclaimed herself Queen Ranavalona I. It was a bloody start to a bloody reign.
Ranavalona inaugurated her reign by killing every member of the royal family she could get her hands on. It was taboo to spill royal blood, so she ordered them strangled, or locked in a cell until they starved to death. 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. Having secured her throne against domestic challengers, she turned her attention to European encroachments, and killed or expelled nearly all foreigners. She nullified all treaties with Britain and France, banned Christianity, isolated Madagascar from the outside world, and turned it into a hermit kingdom.
Ranavalona introduced widespread forced labor, whereby Madagascar’s poor – the majority of the population – had to perform labor in lieu of high taxes they could not pay. Such de facto slaves built houses and palaces, cleared lands and maintained roads, carried nobles and royal dependents in litters, served in Ranavalona’s army, and performed 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.
Ranavalona sent her army on numerous punitive expeditions into those parts of Madagascar that she deemed defiant. 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 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, and 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 scorched earth policies and repression, Madagascar’s population crashed. In just a six year stretch from 1833 to 1839, the island’s population declined from 5 million to 2.5 million inhabitants. In Ranavalona’s own home district, the population plummeted from about 750,000 in 1829, to a mere 130,000 by 1842. Such genocide-level figures are 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.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading