The west called her The Female Caligula, but if half what they said is true, he was more a male Ranavalona. This famously cruel ruler of Madagascar ostensibly killed between 30-50% of the entire population during her reign via unspeakable means — yet simultaneously, she kept her country independent, repeatedly defeated the combined forces of the English and French, and instigated one of the first industrial revolutions seen outside of Europe. She, uh, also tried making a giant pair of scissors to chop invaders in half. Unequal parts conqueror, protector, and lunatic, she was, at the very least, not boring.
It’s a long entry, but you don’t want to miss anything. Well, maybe one or two things.
First: this is another one of those “history is written by the victors” deals where most of what’s known about her comes courtesy of pissed-off foreign missionaries — basically, don’t take any of the following stories at face value. More on that later (under the "There isn’t Enough Salt in the World" header).
Second: want to play a game? Here’s some bingo sheets, which should give you an idea of how dark this entry is going to get. Pick one and follow along! When you win, I suggest drinking to forget.
Her Story (According to Racist White People)
So, Ranavalona! She came to power when her husband died at 36 (from either alcoholism, syphilis, murder, or some delicious cocktail of all three). His sudden death left the kingdom in a weird state: he’d spent years cozying up to the British in exchange for some of their weaponry (he’d just started the nation’s first standing army!), and was starting to turn on the British when he died. The main claimant to the throne (as Ranavalona had no kids with him), however, was looking to maintain cozy ties with the British.
Well, Ranavalona was having precisely none of that shit, so she assembled a”screw foreigners” posse, and staged a coup. She took control so fast that some of the king’s elite bodyguards only found out he was dead when they saw her on the throne. When a handful of them politely raised an objection, she gently replied by having them stabbed in the gut with thirty spears. She went on to execute most of the royal family — in one case summoning a man to the capital, then killing him for abandoning his post.
The first days of her reign brought bizarre proclamations to accompany the brutal violence. To express mourning for her departed husband, she declared that every single person must, for ten months, keep their heads shaved. Practically the only exceptions were the nation’s professional mourners (yes, it’s a thing), who were only spared so they would have hair to tear out amidst their hysterical sobbing. She kept his body on display for weeks, with round-the-clock legions of slaves tasked with keeping the flies off. During the mourning period, she made it illegal to dance, bathe, play music, sleep on a mattress, look in a mirror, or clap your hands. The punishment was she’d sell you into slavery.
This was not an idle threat: under Ranavalona, slavery, recently abolished to appease the British, returned to one of the cornerstones of the economy. Her favorite slave was undoubtedly Jean Laborde, a shipwrecked young Frenchman whose presence drastically transformed the country. Once Ranavalona found out he was an accomplished tradesman, she set him to work with making a massive industrial complex. Within a couple years of his arrival, Madagascar was self-reliant for weaponry, ammunition, and gunpowder — one of the first industrial revolutions (if not THE first) to occur outside of Europe.
This enabled her to keep out the combined forces of the French and the British, which was no small feat. They repeatedly attempted invasions, which usually went something like this: “we’re gonna bombard the shit out of you from our boats! Okay, you’re retreating, great, we’re gonna head onto land and chase you! Wait, what the hell, there’s ANOTHER ENTIRE BACKUP FORTRESS hidden behind the one we just blew up!? Oh fuck oh fuck oh f-*death gurgle*” She’d later decorate her fortresses with the decapitated heads of invaders on pikes.
She was not content to merely destroy her enemies, though: she was hellbent on being a full-on D&D Dungeon Master. At one memorable council meeting, Laborde was tasked with making: giant metal shields for each ports that would bounce cannonballs back at European ships; a massive wall that would cover the entire 3,000 mile coastline; and four enormous pairs of scissors that she could hide on the tracks leading to the capital, then use to snip invaders in two.
He never quite got around to making those.
Her craziest stunt, though, was definitely the buffalo hunt. At one point she decided to go hunting and brought along her 50,000 closest pals. Only problem was that there weren’t any roads going where she wanted to hunt, so she had people go ahead and make a road for her as she went. Moreover, they had to make a new town for her to sleep in every night. This went on for 16 weeks, and 10,000 workers died. No buffalo were shot.
What she was best known for in her time, though, was her hatred of foreign religion, particularly Christianity. While she’d initially been tolerant of missionaries, she quickly came to see them as an invading force when several openly advocated her overthrow. As a reaction, she delved deeper into traditional religion, particularly a rite called the tanguena ordeal, which she made practically everyone in Madagascar do (Christians first). In it, you’d swallow poison and three bits of chicken skin. If you barfed up all three pieces, you were innocent, and free to go! If you died from the poison, even if you were actually innocent, it was chalked up as a divine mystery of the universe. But if you didn’t barf up all three pieces of chicken? You were guilty, and that’s where the real trouble began.
The Tanguena Challenge
In this next section, things get increasingly graphic. Seriously, the mood moves from “slasher movie” to “horror porn” to “Cormac McCarthy novel.” If you want to skip this, just scroll down until you see a picture of bunnies. If you want to stay in, welcome to the Tanguena Challenge: try to make it to the end without barfing (or at least yak up three pieces of chicken).
Ranavalona’s methods of execution included:
- Burning on a pyre.
- Tossing you from a ceremonial cliff.
- Tossing you from said cliff, catching you, making you think you’re safe, then cutting the ropes.
- Making you kiss her feet, except she’d coat them in poison so you’d die horribly afterwards.
- Tying you in a giant burlap sack and hanging said sack from a pole until you died.
- Chaining you to four other people and assigning guards to prevent anyone from giving you food. When one of the four died, you’d just have to drag around the corpse until you, too, died.
- Flaying your skin off while you were still alive.
- Crushing your testicles in a steel vise.
- Sawing you in half (lengthwise, head first).
- Tying you to a wooden stake in a pit, then filling the pit with boiling water, so your body would cook while you were still alive.
Still here? Fine, here’s the worst one. At one point, she was to have four people executed, including an incredibly pregnant woman. As the four prayed fervently for help, her guards built a massive fire to toss them in. Soon, though, it started raining, dousing the flames. The guards kept rebuilding the fire until the storm broke, revealing a triple rainbow. Many people took this — as well as the pregnant woman suddenly giving birth — as a sign that the accused were divinely protected, and fled the scene. Undeterred by this, though, the guards threw the newborn in the fire, followed by his mother and the other three.
THAT IS THE WORST THING I HAVE EVER WRITTEN. OH GOD. BUNNIES BUNNIES BUNNIES. HERE ARE SOME BUNNIES.
She held onto the throne for decades, foiling multiple coup d’etats with the grace of a veteran supervillain. As an example: when her son, the prince, partnered with Laborde and several Europeans (including a very unfortunate 60-year-old tourist) to try and oust her, she not only discovered their plot, but toyed with them for months. She would terrify them by spontaneously sending the military in… only to have them do random, benign tasks, like picking up presents. She would randomly summon the terrified Europeans to do impromptu piano performances and dance recitals, during which she would stand on a balcony overlooking them, completely silent throughout. She held a 6-hour-long meeting on how, exactly, she was to execute the treasonous Europeans, only to surprise them the next day by merely banishing them.
Their banishment, however, was a death sentence in everything but name. When the poor conspirators finally left the capital, they did so with a military accompaniment. Said accompaniment repeatedly led them on long detours through malaria-infested jungles and prevented them from contacting any doctors, turning a 7-day journey into a 53-day-long ordeal. She knew she could not have gotten away with outright killing Europeans, so she just made it increasingly likely that they would die of malaria. It worked, killing all but two of them.
Three years later, Ranavalona died peacefully in her sleep. She was 83. Afterwards, her son took over and undid virtually all of her major decrees within the first month, to the relief of many.
There is Not Enough Salt in the World
So, in case you couldn’t tell, a lot of what you just read was racist imperialist bullshit: centuries-old bogeyman stories concocted by missionaries with an agenda to delegitimize her. Problem is, it’s *really* difficult separating fact from fiction here — especially for a non-French-speaker such as myself when most of the relevant documents are in French. Some of the stories, like Laborde’s extended Madagascar Malaria Tour, probably did happen as described. Others, like the hoary tale about the pregnant woman, were almost undoubtedly made up — you can find parallels to that exact story in other martyr tales here and here.
The truth of the matter is probably somewhere in between. She was undoubtedly a hardline ruler, if not an outright despot, and it’s indisputable that a great many died under her reign. But she saw herself, not unreasonably, as a sovereign at war, and in that context she was an arguably fantastic leader. By associating herself so strongly with the native beliefs, she legitimized her reign. This enabled her to make the country self-reliant, strengthen her own nation’s culture, and repel the team-up invasion efforts of the two most powerful nations in the world — a feat that her successors failed at, to dire consequences.
Oh, what’s that? You think that everyone lived happily ever after once she died? HAH! Here’s what actually happened:
Like I said, her son Rakoto undid everything in her reign immediately: abolished the tanguena ordeal, ended slavery, established freedom of religion, and opened the borders to outsiders. Foreign merchants were allowed to trade without even paying duties, as long as they didn’t sell weapons or ammunition.
Fast forward a year: the country is awash in imported alcohol (one contemporary described one out of four buildings being a liquor store, and the townsfolk permanently drunk). The upper class is furious at Rakoto for not enforcing import/export duties, and destroying their livelihoods. Rakoto starts losing it, and institutes dueling as a method of solving disputes. Finally, the island is simultaneously wracked with a deadly plague and a spasm-inducing cholera, which makes it appear that people are uncontrollably dancing. Many consider this the ghost of Ranavalona coming back to haunt them.
Within thirty years, the island became a French colony, and stayed that way for over a hundred years. Christianity spread like wildfire and became one of the dominant religions. As recently as 2001, people on the street talked matter-of-factly of Ranavalona as one of their country’s greatest villains — for her brutal treatment of the people, yes, but often more for the refusal to accept European culture. One person surveyed remarked, “there is no development in Madagascar if there are no Europeans in Madagascar.”
That is, of course, one small sample, and should in no way be taken as representative of the whole. But it, and the rest of the study, is indicative of a lack of critical rigor as regard’s Ranavalona’s actual history, even in her native Madagascar.
- She’s seen here on the second floor of her colossal wooden palace. Designed by Laborde, it was the largest wooden structure ever built at the time, and considered one of the wonders of the world.
- You can see the conspirators dancing, playing piano, and plotting around blueprints of the giant scissors. Rakoto is, rather unwisely, stationing possible troops in between the shears.
- The interior is loosely designed on some parts of Versailles. The checkerboard pattern doubles as a metaphor for the chess game she was playing with her captives. Note that she has knights stationed a single chess move away from killing any of them.
- Continuing the chess metaphor, the group leaving in chains is being led by a bishop, and is moving diagonal to the board.
- The tray next to her has 3 chicken skins and some poison. In actuality, the poison was more of a powder than a liquid, which I realized too late.
- Her skin tone is supposed to be a bit lighter, since the Magalasy people were actually of half Indonesian descent (seriously, it’s fascinating — look up the history of Madagascar ethnicities).
- About the only English-language book on Ranavalona is The Female Caligula, by Keith Laidler. I’m sorry, but fuck this book. That guy is a learned historian — a freaking doctor — and had access to primary materials about her. What does he do? Write a book with zero citations (it lists quotes but doesn’t even say what he’s quoting), and uncritically repeats all of the craziest rumors about her (I didn’t even get into some of her bacchanals). The dude should know better. It’s disappointing, but it’s almost all I had to go on.
- Alison Kamhi did a study on modern-day Malagasy perspectives on Ranavalona, which was fairly useful. Perceptions of Ranavalona I: A Malagasy Historic Figure as a Thematic Symbol of Malagasy Attitudes Towards History.
- Gwyn Campbell wrote a 900-page book on the missionaries’ documentation of Madagascar, which is virtually the only thing out there taking them to task. It’s useful but it’s also dense as hell. His pithier academic articles were all locked up behind pay walls, unfortunately.
Y’all got it right! Lordy, there were a lot of you this time.
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NEXT WEEK ON REJECTED PRINCESSES
You just read a little bit about her, but you probably didn’t realize it.
(submit guesses here, please!)