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