Tuesday, October 5, 2010

But She DID Make The Trains Run On Time

Africa, as history will show, fared rather poorly in turning away European colonialism. Those who were not snookered or pressured into signing terribly lopsided land deals were simply shot to death until the survivors were no longer in any position to argue. However, one ruler among a rare few on the continent managed, very effectively, to scare Europe into backing off.

And all she had to do was be utterly bloodthirsty.

Her name- yes, her- was Rabodoandrianampoinimerina, but better known as Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar, or as a biography of her refers to her, "Female Caligula: Ranavalona, the Mad Queen of Madagascar". Which isn't entirely accurate- she was quite sane, and modern Madagascarians hate that phrasing- but 'Caligula' is a good descriptor of what she would do to anyone that got on her bad side.

And oh, was it easy to get on her bad side.

Ranavalona has a birthdate hovering somewhere around 1790, give or take a couple years. It's 18th-century sub-Saharan Africa; they've never exactly been stellar on documentation, and a lot of what we do know about her came from the victims that lived.

Let's stress that again, and again, and again: a lot of what we know about her came from the victims that lived. And people that hoped to see her deposed. Not exactly unbiased sources. So take everything you read with the appropriate amount of salt; I have little way of knowing what is truth and what is myth.

She came out of the lower classes, finding her way into royal court as a favor to her father, who warned then-future King Andrianampoinimerina of a plot against his life. When he became king, he adopted Ranavalona, and married her off to his son, Radama.

Radama would later become king himself, and this being a time and place where polygamy was fair game, he would take 12 wives, Ranavalona naturally being one of them. She, however, would bear him no children. On one hand, this was fine; it wasn't the end of the bloodline and the son of Radama's oldest sister, Prince Rakotobe, would claim the throne. On the other, even if Ranavalona were to bear a child after Radama's death, that child would have an immediate claim on the throne. Pragmatically, if Rakotobe wanted to keep his crown, the easiest way to do it was to just kill Ranavalona before she gave birth to any children.

Ranavalona knew that, and moved before he could. She rounded up some friends- friends in the military, of course- and had them make clear to anyone that objected that she was going to be queen and if they didn't like it, she'd just have them killed.

She became queen in 1828.

Then she started killing everyone anyway, starting with Rakotobe, who got speared, and his mother, who was starved in the interest of not shedding royal female blood. After that, she moved on to basically everyone else who might even concievably be any threat to her rule ever. This turned out to be a whole lot of people, including basically the entire royal family. If you were female, you got strangled or starved. If you were male, you weren't so lucky, She also instituted, among other things, 'trial by ordeal', in which you were made to eat three pieces of chicken skin, and then a poisonous nut that caused you to vomit. Your innocence or guilt was determined by whether you threw up all the chicken skin.

After that was done, she turned to Europe. Madagascar had some treaties at the time with England and France, and Ranavalona lost no time in canceling those. (Yes, I'm linking to Badass of the Week. There's not exactly a wealth of sources to go off of here.) This displeased France, which proceeded to invade, but they found themselves turned back partially though defending forces and partially through malaria, Madagascar's home-field advantage. They, and the British, kept trying, but fared worse and worse until Ranavalona opted to cut off the heads of the dead Europeans, stick them on pikes, and start ringing the beaches with them.

Cruel. Violent. Mad, even. But it worked. England and France backed off. They wanted no further part of Ranavalona.

She had one more major enemy: the missionaries. Ranavalona, while tolerating Christianity for a while as a fundraiser, saw it as simply one more source of European influence. She changed her mind after seeing what one of her advisors, Jean Laborde (French, ironically), was able to do with Madagascar's economy. A factory town sprung up, Mantasao. They started to be able to make things they previously had to trade for- arms, ammunition, soap, silk, ceramics. The economy flourished... which meant Christian economy was no longer needed. She banned Christianity and put the missionaries on the hit list.

By this point, she had gotten disturbingly creative in her methods of dispatch. Perhaps the most famous Ranavalona story (boy, that's a relative term) involves the time (year uncertain; one source says 1836, another says 1849) she threw 1600 Christians into her dungeons, and became annoyed that more kept rising up to take their place. So she had 15 of them tied up and dangled 150 feet above, literally, the jagged rocks below. She also had local idols in place to symbolically 'save' them should they agree to deny Christ. As each one refused- and they all refused; some sang hymns in defiance- their rope was cut. Well, 14 were killed; the last one, a young girl, couldn't have her blood shed. According to Life & Work by David Douglas, she was burnt instead.

Other reputed innovations of death from the house of Ranavalona:

*The 1845 buffalo hunt. All the nobles at court were required to attend, along with every hanger-on they had, which in total added up to about 50,000 people. Then she had them build her a road, so as to more easily reach the buffalo. The food they ate was simply whatever they could scrounge along the way; when someone died in the process, they were just chucked into a ditch and a new body recruited in their place. It killed about 10,000 people. Records do not show any actual buffalo being shot.
*"Progressive amputation", the Google results for which only involve very loud garage bands and horrifying information about the penis.
*Placing prisoners at the bottom of a pit at the bottom of a hill, then dumping boiling water off the top of the hill, into the pit. She reportedly loved this one.
*Tying someone up and throwing them down a hill repeatedly until death.
*Sewing someone up to their neck in a buffalo hide, dumping them in the jungle, and leaving both prisoner and hide to rot.

It must be stressed- the modern-day residents of Madagascar are adamant in emphasizing this- that all the cruelty worked; she had bought Madagascar almost 40 extra years of independence from France even beyond her death, and it had a dramatic effect on allowing Madagascar to retain much of its local culture as opposed to simply getting swallowed up by France like all the other colonies. They also emphasize that after Ranavalona's death (she reigned for 33 years and died in her sleep), her successors screwed it all up and, had they not gone back to pre-Ranavalona policies and procedures, France might never have come back at all. And remember, she- or at least her advisor, Jean Laborde- did shore up Madagascar's trade industry prior to her ban of Christianity. The Malagasy loved that aspect of her rule. The people she didn't kill, she made prosperous. To this day, Malagasy pay tribute to her for that at Andranoro, a place dedicated to ancestors. In the link on Mantasao- a travel link, but still- note how glowingly Laborde and Ranavalona are portrayed in the story behind the town.

In fact, her immediate successor, Radama II, appears to have a poorer reputation than Ranavalona; he brought back many personal freedoms, but he also reestablished contact with France.

In addition, the book I linked earlier on, Female Caligula, is rather poorly received there; it's seen as straying too far into forcing a particular narrative of Ranavalona, downplaying her good points and overplaying her bad, nearly to the point of myth. In addition, critics of the book charge that it strays too far into anthropological wide-eyed marveling at the wacky customs of those uncivilized savages, or something like that.

And again, a lot of the previous information- I state this again- came from the victims that lived, missionaries included. Unbiased accounts are few and far between in that place and time. If any Malagasy come across this at some point in time and find I've repeated anything that didn't happen, feel free to contact me; I'll be happy to issue corrections as need be.

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