Ranavalona, the Mad Queen of Madagascar
Posted October 6, 2005on:
The good news first : A source signaled to me the publication of a new book about Madagascar in NOv 2005. Yahooooooooooooo! I am overjoyed. I am always happy to read and learn more about Madagascar.
And now the bad news : the new book is entitled :”Female Caligula: Ranavalona, the mad queen of Madagascar“. My joy deflated in exactly two seconds.
But when I read the abstract, I became incensed. Jugez plutot:
” The story of an African queen whose megalomania reached intergalactic proportions as she sought to protect her island against imperial designs.
By the reckoning of anthropologist and filmmaker Laidler (The Last Empress, not reviewed), Ranavalona killed at least one-third and perhaps one-half of Madagascar’s population during her reign (1833-61). She took them out with a Gorgon’s imagination: flaying, crucifying and the slow crushing of testicles were common methods, while other victims were “bound, then sewn into buffalo hides, with only their heads protruding, and hung on poles and left to die slowly from the sun, starvation and dehydration.” Her savage repression was partly an attempt to consolidate power. Madagascar’s population was an ethnic/cultural mosaic that ranged from Malay-Polynesian to European pirate, with each angling to gain supremacy. Ranavalona’s claim to the throne as the “Great Wife” of King Radama was countered by traditionalists, who believed the dead king’s nephew should succeed, as was customary. But the new queen had a second motive: to rid her island of colonial domination and the insidious threat of missionaries. The French and the British both sought to control the Indian Ocean trade, and Madagascar was a jewel in that crown. Credit Ranavalona with keeping European interests at bay as she terrorized her citizenry, seeing both as threats to her crown. In one brilliant move, as she endeavored to thwart French pretensions without incurring the wrath of their government, she worked a stratagem that drew the invaders into a notoriously pestilential swamp, where fevers withered their ranks. While Laidler’s biography gives much jaw-dropping space to the sadistic, Saturnalian side of Ranavalona’s rule, he never loses sight of the canny anti-colonial tactics she deployed to keep Madagascar independent; the island would remain so until years after her death. An impressive, politically shrewd portrait of 19th-century skullduggery.”
But even this seems a little mild compared to this other abstract on Amazon.com:
“Ounce for ounce as insane as her Roman counterpart, Queen Ranavalona of
Madagascar surpassed Caligula’s legendary cruelty a million timesover. Beginning in 1828, her 35-year reign was measured in bodies: a million of her own subjects were ritually executed; ten thousand slaves perished in a week. Female Caligula tells the true story of the bizarre court life (which involved guests picking lice from each other’s hair during dinner), as well as the outrageous costumes and extravagances (including living quarters decorated entirely with silver bells) behind Ranavalona’s
famously bloody reign. Female Caligula is a must-read for anyone interested in one of the few women who joined history’s rogues’gallery of insane despots.”
Now I am not about to dispute that Ranavalona’s reign was a bloody and cruel one. Everybody knows that. And I am even a bit thankful that the author at least recognizes that she had an uncanny ability to keep Madagascar independent and out of foreign hands. Madagascar would stay independent until almost forty years after her death. I think we should heartily thank her for this. Madagascar was indeed the last country that the French formally colonized. They would only place protectorates later on on countries they occupied (Morocco…). Had Ranavalona’s son, Radama II, stayed longer on the throne, enamored with Western civilizations as he was (Didn’t he complot against his own mother and ask for French help?), we would have had come under French boots, much sooner, certainly faster than you can say Trarantitra ianao ry Mpanjaka!
No, what I am unhappy about is all the disparaging tone regarding the “bizarre”, “outrageous”and “extravagant” Malagasy customs. Such condescending tones belong to 18th and 19th century travelogues written by “civilized” European travelers who could not fathom that other people under other skies could have different civilizations.
What seems bizarre to you is quite normal to them, and vice versa.
The “living quarters decorated entirely with silver bells” that you find extravagant is actually our beloved “Tranovola“. You find it bizarre that people picked lice during dinner, but you forget that in your European courts, lice also wore down your very own sophisticated ladies’ wigs, which were made of horse hair ! Now how bizarre is that !
The author, one Keith Laidler is actually an anthropologist and Ph.D. Other works by him include “Last Empress: The She-dragon of China”. The story of Chinese Empress, Yehonala who “rose to be one of the greatest female autocrats in history, the most powerful person in China, maintaining her power with a mixture of seduction, intrigue, manipulation and even murder.”
I guess he is well on his way to write more books about strong women in history. I just won’t buy/read this one.