Ranavalona’s rise began when her father informed Madagascar’s king Andrianampoinimerinandriantsimitoviaminandriampanjaka (they had ludicrously long names in Madagascar) of a plot against his life. So the king showed his appreciation by selecting 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, inaugurating her reign by massacring all potential rival claimants to the throne. She then proclaimed herself Queen Ranavalona I. It was a bloody start to what would prove a bloody reign, that began with her killing every member of the royal family she could get her hands on. Spilling royal blood was taboo, so she had them strangulated, or locked in a cell and starved to death.
Having secured her throne against domestic challengers, Ranavalona turned her attention to encroachments from European colonial powers, and killed or expelled nearly all foreigners. She nullified all treaties with Britain and France, and also banned Christianity.
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. She also isolated Madagascar from the outside world, and turned it into a hermit kingdom.
Ranavalona turned Madagascar into a nineteenth-century version of North Korea. She introduced widespread forced labor, whereby the poor – the majority of the population – were made to toil 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 perform any other tasks set them by the queen. They were unpaid, poorly fed, if at all, and they 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 resistant to her rule or expressing anything less than enthusiasm for her overlordship. The queen’s men engaged in scorched earth policies and devastated insufficiently obedient regions. As object lessons, Ranavalona’s soldiers routinely massacred the inhabitants of towns and settlements that were deemed 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, 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 resulting from Ranavalona’s scorched earth policies and heavy-handed repression, Madagascar’s population crashed. During 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 nose dive from about 750,000 in 1829 to a mere 130,000 by 1842.
Those were genocide-level figures, comparable to the toll inflicted by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge upon 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