Queen Ranavalona I, ruthlessly ruled the large part of the Indian Ocean island from 1828 until her death. Very little is known about the early life of the queen and most life accounts came from individuals who suffered at her hands- Christians whom she persecuted and exiled. Most accounts do agree that thousands of people were killed because Queen Ranavalona suspected them of plotting against her.
It is thought Queen Ranavalona was born in Madagascar in 1788 and may have been named Ramavo. Her ancestry, like that of many other members of the island’s dominant Merina ethnic group, was probably mostly Indonesian; Madagascar’s language and culture, denoted by the adjective Malagasy, are more closely connected to Southeast Asia, from whence pre historic colonizers had come, than to the African mainland. She was a commoner, not part of any hereditary noble family by birth. Instead, her ascent to the monarchy began with an accident of fate—her father happened to learn of a murder plot against future Merina king Andrianampoinimerina and informed his master of what was afoot.
After the plot foiled, Andrianampoinimerina became king and rewarded his informer by adopting Ranavalona as his own daughter. As an additional reward, Ranavalona was given in marriage to the king’s son, Radama. Later on, Radama became King Radama I, and Ranavalona was the first of his 12 wives. The marriage was apparently not a particularly close one, and Ranavalona had no children. This became particularly problematic when the King died after complication of syphilis.
The rightful heir to the throne was Prince Rakotobe, Radama’s nephew. However, Malagasy tradition stated that any children that Ranavalona bore would be considered children of Radama, whether they were actually his or not. This would obviously threaten Rakotobe’s claims. The smartest thing for Rakotobe to do would be to kill Ranavalona—and she knew it.
Ranavalona knew several people who believed in the traditional Merina (their tribe) way of life. Her husband had allowed Christian missionaries onto Madagascar, earning him many enemies, and people feared that Rakotobe would follow in his uncle’s footsteps. Many traditionalists believed in Ranavalona, and she was able to rally enough military men to hold down the palace in those first few days after Radama’s death.
When people came defending Rakotobe’s right to the throne, they were met with a choice: accept Ranavalona as queen or face the consequences. She was crowned Queen on June 12, 1829. Some of her first acts were to kill Rakotobe and his mother, along with many of his relatives. At her coronation, she proclaimed:
“Never say, ‘she is only a feeble and ignorant woman, how can she rule such a vast empire?’ I will rule here, to the good fortune of my people and the glory of my name! I will worship no gods but those of my ancestors. The ocean shall be the boundary of my realm, and I will not cede the thickness of one hair of my realm!”
One of her earliest acts involved identifying and killing potential threats (both legitimate and imagined) to her throne. Ranavalona never fully trusted that her power was adequate enough to ensure that her subjects would obey. Thus, she officially banned Christianity from the island in 1835. Eventually, Ranavalona’s paranoia was certainly extended to the British and the French. She ordered the cliff hangings of multitudes of Christian martyrs in Madagascar. Other potential threats she would order they be burned to death, beheaded, or poisoned.
During Queen Ranavalona I’s 33-year reign, it is estimated that between 50-75% of Madagascar’s population met untimely deaths due to war, disease or the Queen’s barbaric and ruthless system of justice. Queen Ranavalona I died in 1861.