Queen Ranavalona I was referred to as Ranavalona the Cruel,  she was also know as The Mad Monarch of Madagascar  and Ranavalona the Wicked...she was called this with good reason.

During her dictorial reign between 1828 and 1861, she decimated a third of the Madagascan population with over zealous religious and xenophobic purges.

Queen Ranavalona I had hundreds of thousands executed and many hundreds of thousands more tortured to death, simply for being the followers of Christianity.  The Holy Bible was outlawed and anyone found with a copy was burned...along with the book.


The island of Madagascar is located off south-eastern Africa, situated in the Indian Ocean.  In the 1800's it was a country rife with civil war and general unrest along with wars with European invaders.  The King was under constant pressure and united as many of his countries tribes together as possible to form the Kingdom of Merina.

Ranavalona was born in 1778, she was the daughter of a local tribesman, like the rest of the Madagascan population, she grew up being quite illiterate.  Madagascar did not actually have an official written language until the turn of the century.

One day Ranavalona's father, apparently overheard of a conspiracy by Andrianjafy, the king's uncle, to kill King Andrianampoinimerina.  Her father managed to warn the King of the conspiracy and the King took steps to prevent its occurrence.

The King was of course delighted that he had been saved from assassination and in gratitude he betrothed his son, Prince Radama I to marry his daughter...Ranavalona.

Radama I  1793 – 1828

Ranavalona was actually to be the first of twelve wives that Prince Radama finally ended up marrying.  When the King retired in 1810, Radama I succeeded to the throne of Madagascar.


Prince Radama decided that he wanted his country to be more in line with European ways and means and to bring Madagascar into the "modern" 19th century.  He began to allow more immigration to his land and many foreigners did indeed settle, particularly British missionaries.

These missionaries then began an earnest effort to convert many of the islanders over to Christianity, much to Ranavalona's disgust.


The missionaries had schools and churches erected and basically preached Christianity in them all day long. Ranavalona was horrified, as the new religion slowly took hold and the traditional Malagasy gods were being forgotten.

Ranavalona tried in vain to curb her husbands wishes of this new order that was taking place.

On July 27th, 1828, whilst at his residence, Radama became ill and died from an unidentified debilitating sickness. Historians tend to believe that Ranavalona may have been responsible for his demise.


There were many conflicting reports about the Kings demise.  Radama was known to be a heavy drinker and was intoxicated most of the time and his death is thought to have been alcohol related.  It is thought that Radama who fought with an acute and painful affliction of the throat stabbed himself in the throat during an intoxicated fit of delirium tremens.

Ranavalona may have arranged or even committed the killing herself, the circumstances remain suspicious but his death was still recorded as death due to heavy intoxication of strong liquor.

Ranavalona immediately started to spread rumors that the Gods were telling her that she was destined to be the new queen and therefore set herself on the throne saying it was all just and correct.

The real heir and successor to the throne was actually Radamas nephew Prince Rakatobe and he decided to have Ranavalona arrested and executed as an imposter.

However, Ranavalona had made a lot of alliances whilst she was in the royal palaces, making friends with powerful ministers, royal advisors, priests, hard core fundamentalists and even several sorcerers.

Ranavalona 1778 - 1861

At forty-six years of age Ranavalona was not about to let anyone dispose of her, so she rallied a powerful contingent of palace guards and recruited mercenaries from the villages to defend the palace from anyone whatsoever of trying to enter.


Ranavalona was determined that Prince Rakatobe and any of his supportive relations did not get any chance to usurp her from the throne.  The first thing she did was to have all the surviving members of the royal family murdered including Prince Rakatobe, also anyone who questioned her reign was also arrested and ultimately killed.

When she had eliminated all those that opposed her, she then ordained her coronation.  So on August 1828, she was traditionally anointed with fresh bulls blood and coronated Queen and ruler supreme of Madagascar.

During this period in history the European colonialists were attempting to influence and colonize Madagascar, enforcing their policies, treaties,  traditions and religion...that of Christianity.  Ranavalona hated all matters of foreign policies in her land, fearing how they could expand and convert the country in ways that she detested.

During her 33 year reign, Ranavalona fought to uphold the customary, cultural and political sovereignty of Madagascar over hostile French and British influences.  She did this by war and persecution, killing millions to maintain a sovereign Madagascar.


Ranavalona totally rejected all the treaties that her husband had previously signed with Britain in 1825 and issued a royal edict that prohibited immigration and the practice of Christianity.

She started off by enforcing her new edict by expelling all British missionaries from the island under threat of death if they refused.  She then began severe persecution of all those who had converted to Christianity on the island.

She gave all Christians a choice...that of denouncing Christianity or death at her hands.  Hundreds of thousands refused to denounce their Christianity, so she basically had them all rounded up and killed.  She publicly tortured thousands in hope to frighten and intimidate the population into doing as she requested.

She had people boiled alive in tar or water, thrown off cliffs, dismembered, impaled, burned alive at the stake, disembowelled, beaten to a pulp with cudgels, sliced up with sharp weapons, crucified, stabbed to death...the list goes on.

In fact any and every method of death and torture that she could think of was procured at some stage during her terrible and sadistic reign.

She did show mercy to some of those who recanted their Christianity...she sold them all into slavery, this added much needed coffers to her dwindling treasury.  Ranavalona had turned her land into a vision of hell with the countryside littered with the dead and dying.  Her inquisition made the infamous Spanish inquisition look rather tame by comparison.

Extract below from the book Female Caligula: Ranavalona, The Mad Queen of Madagascar  by Author Keith Laidler, tells of how several Christians were executed...

"The seven Christians stood together in the bright sunlight, bound with ropes singing a hymn to their foreign saviour as the spearmen advanced. Around them a crowd of jostling men, women and children, more than sixty thousand strong...cheered enthusiastically as the spears were driven home and one by one, the men and women fell and writhed on the sandy ground, their hymn fading slowly into silence...above the still writhing bodies, on a ridge, a score of crosses stood in mute witness, carrying their ghastly burdens, some of whom still lived despite the day and a half they had hung upon the wood."


Ranavalona dissolved trial by jury and instigated trial by ordeal, similar to what was practised in English medieval times, except that the accused drank poison instead of holding red hot irons.  The trial was done by the accused having to drink a poisonous substance, a juice that was extracted from the nut of the native tangena shrub.


The poison of the Tangena shrub Tanghinia veneifera,  is medically known as a cardiac glycoside cerberin which is an alkaloid toxin related to digoxin.  The poison reacts in the bloodstream and affects the hearts operation.

Depending on the quantity ingested, and the acidity of the persons gut, people have survived tangenan poisoning.  It is highly toxic but not extremely toxic such as cyanide or strychnine for example.

Digoxin formulas of 0.25mg dosage are actually used to treat people with heart conditions and work in a reverse manner in that they can save life.

The accused persons guilt or innocence was decided on the outcome of the ingested poisons effect on the system.  The accused would be force to eat three pieces of chicken skin along with the poison.

If all three pieces of skin were vomited up the person was deemed innocent and allowed to go free...usually dying later from the poison.  If they did not vomit up any of the skin or not all three pieces, then they were deemed guilty and put to death before the poison could take effect.

In a way it was a no win situation, as if you were deemed innocent then the ingested poison would probably kill you, there were  reports that the poison did not always kill though and that maybe up to 50% actually recovered, though they were severely ill for several weeks afterwards.

It is estimated that as many as one hundred thousand people or about twenty percent of the population died through the dreaded Tangena Ordeal.


The French did not like Ranavalona's oppressive tactics or her  " unconstitutional " stance, so they launched an offensive and attacked the port city of Tamataye.  The French troops had slight gains in their war against the Madagascan defenders as they took control of the city.

The Madagascans regrouped their forces and counterattacked, eventually regaining their city.  Although the French fought on they could not make any ground and retreated.

Several months later the coalition forces of British and French forces again attacked the port of Tamataye, however, the defences had been heavily fortified so they had to retreat again.

Ranavalona had instigated physiological scare tactics by beheading all the French and European prisoners and having their heads impaled on long spikes, these were placed all along the sea front facing out.  This was her way of warning any potential attackers of their fate if they were captured.

It was then decided by the colonialists to leave this insane woman alone and they withdrew altogether with the notion of waiting until she was disposed of or her death before they would again try to colonized Madagascar.

After some calm had settled, Ranavalona decided to make Madagascar an independent country.  She wanted industry and a social infrastructure built up so that in effect they were self sufficient, producing nearly all the goods they needed to substantiate their economy.

As it was, the main produce was sugar, fruit, textiles and alcohol.  As providence would have it, her wishes would come true with the arrival of one Jean Laborde.


Perhaps the only time Ranavalona allowed a European free passage in Madagascar was when a young fortune hunting Frenchman named Jean Laborde swam ashore from a shipwreck in 1831.  Laborde was a man of the world, quite intelligent and well versed in metallurgy, munitions and engineering.

He formed a union with Ranavalona and it is even speculated that he became her lover and lived within her close inner circle.  The speculation went further, even to suggest that Laborde had fathered a child with Ranavalona, Rakoto, the future King Radama II.

Jean Laborde 1805 - 1878

Laborde actually directed the construction of a new industrial village named Mantasao a short distance from the capital of Antananarivo.  Laborde supervised the manufacture of guns and munitions for Ranavalona's army and even trained her soldiers how to use modern weapons.

Over a matter of six years Laborde had constructed blast furnaces and waterwheel powered machines. He also oversaw the manufacture of soap, textiles, cast and wrought iron, lathes, several watermills, cotton spinning machines and their associated power looms.


Ranavalona was particularly fond of soap and washed with it every day, she was fanatical about hygiene and insisted that everyone should be clean all the time.  Once a year she would even bathe in public to illustrate the importance of cleanliness.

She was also fascinated by anything French and she always dressed in grand French style clothing and learnt to speak the language.

Labordes skills didn't end with industrialisation as he even directed the construction of Ranavalona's new illustrious palace on the top of a hill overlooking Antananarivo.  He became her consul and much later the French government even used him to establish French influence on the island.

During much of the industrial complex's construction Ranavalona made heavy use of the old traditional practice of Fanompoana, a forced labor program whereas laborers worked in lieu of paying any tax.  At this time she also built up a strong army of around thirty thousand Merina soldiers.


Ranavalona's army was put to good use by being deployed to pacify outer areas of the island and to get them to follow her rule or face death.  Many chose to follow her rule and henceforth she expanded her rule and her realms.

However, with constant warfare, executions, sickness, disease, harsh justice and forced labor in poor working conditions, her country suffered a higher than normal fatality rate.

It has been estimated that out of a population of over five million she reduced it to just under three million during her 33 year reign.  This calculates to about 60,000 people dying for every year of her reign!

Even her son Rakato and Jean Laborde eventually turned against her and they conspired with French shipping merchant Joseph Lambert & Co to usurp her and imprison her.

In 1857 the plot galvanized into action but was thwarted as Ranavalona was tipped off by her spies.  Rakato and Laborde initially survived the resulting witch hunt but Ranavalona had them go on a forced march through mosquito ridden swamplands.

She thought of it that the jungles would decide who was guilty and who was not, Laborde and Rakato were was apparently innocent as they survived.  Laborde left Madagascar only to return a few years later after Ranavalona's death to be an advisor to King Radama II.  However, King Radama II did not survive long as he was assassinated two years later.


Ranavalona was generally condemned by her European contemporaries as they portrayed her as an insane warlord, the tyrannical despot who murdered her way onto the world stage.  All of these accusations did nothing for her public relations and right up until the mid 1970's she was only ever seen as an insane ruler.

Research has currently revealed that many of Ranavalona's actions were not those of a desperate tyrant but of a determined expansionist who was protecting Madagascan sovereignty and strengthening her countries boarders at the same time.

However, her legacy of just under 3 million dead still admonishes and mars her in all forums of historical remembrance.

Ranavalona persisted in fighting every form of European influence in her country.  she harshly opposed all colonials and their beliefs, she went all out purging her country of anyone who did not agree with her policies.

Even though she persecuted all Christians and attempted to completely eradicate Christianity from Madagascar, the Christians just went underground and continued to practice their faith in secrecy.

Ranavalona ruled her country from within the walls of her illustrious palace which was dominated by hundred foot tall towers.  During her reign she founded cities, built structures and successfully abated the threat of colonial rule.  This made her a hero amongst certain African traditionalists, even today.


Christianity was never finally eradicated and to this day there are still practising Christians within the communities of Madagascar.

Below are seen the ruins of Ranavalona's palace, it was ravaged by fire in 1995, whereas all the wooden infrastructure was destroyed just leaving a relatively intact outer shell.

She ruled with terror and murdered tens of thousands of foreigners along with millions of her own countrymen and women.  She was cruel, unforgiving, unnegotiable and totally fanatical about her doctrines.

She defeated her enemies and kept Madagascar free from all outside intervention, this was in reality quite an achievement and was the only African country to achieve this.

In August 1861, in her eighties, Ranavalona, who was responsible for the deaths of millions, died peacefully at home in bed.  Madagascar never had any strong leaders afterwards and the country was now prone for final European exploitation.

Ranavalona had only prolonged the inevitable and Madagascar finally fell to European influences when France finally colonized Madagascar in 1896.


Page created December 5th 2011