Why you should care
Because a queen can be just as bloodthirsty as a king.
When Queen Ranavalona I suspected someone of disloyalty, she invited them to a “meal” consisting of three servings of chicken skin and a dose of poison from the tangena tree. If the guest regurgitated all of the chicken, he was absolved of the alleged crime. But if the accused failed to vomit up all three pieces of skin, or keeled over dead, guilt was established and the survivor was hauled off … for execution.
Ranavalona, who ruled swaths of Madagascar in the 19th century, appreciated French fashion and European technology. She wasn’t, however, a fan of Christianity or the colonizing tendencies of the British and French, who’d been vying for domination over the island for years. The so-called tangena trial, used widely throughout Madagascar before Ranavalona’s ascension to the Merina kingdom’s throne in 1828, became her favorite method of administering “justice” and killing off thousands each year.
Christian influence “had spread to areas beyond royal control and become a threat to the institution of the Merina state itself.”
Her other torturous favorites included progressive amputation, crucifixion, pouring boiling water over victims’ heads, sawing people in half and forced death marches. But to understand the brutal methods that Ranavalona employed during her reign, especially against Christians, we need to look at how the church threatened her power. The basis of Merina loyalty to the crown, says Gerald M. Berg, a history professor at Sweet Briar College, was the belief that the “beneficence of Merina ancestors flowed through the monarch to her followers.” That belief was being challenged by Christianity, which was seen as trying to redirect loyalty from Merina ancestors toward foreign ones like Jesus. When Ranavalona assumed the throne after her husband Radama I’s death, she proved innovative, boasting at her inauguration that she was not a woman but a man, and “so beware, for she could be just as brutal as former male rulers,” Berg explains.
Western narratives painted Ranavalona as a cold-blooded monarch who made it illegal for her native subjects to practice Christianity. She canceled treaties with Britain, kicked out foreigners and missionaries, expanded the scope of her kingdom through extensive military campaigns and tried to make Madagascar as non-European and self-sufficient as possible. One of her biggest problems in doing so, however, was the lost income from slave exports.
The Merina elite had met the British Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 with mercantile skepticism. Gwyn Campbell, director of the Indian Ocean World Centre at McGill University, argues in his paper “The Adoption of Autarky in Imperial Madagascar, 1820–1835” that the Merina economy was in “dire condition” because slave exports were at first restricted by the British, and later prohibited. He believes that even though Europeans tended to view Radama I “as an enlightened and progressive monarch” and Ranavalona as an “irrational” xenophobe, she was simply continuing the work of her late husband.
Radama broke with the British in the mid-1820s after realizing that, despite promises, they had failed to replace slave exports with “legitimate” ones, instead menacing his kingdom with “British free-trade imperialism,” Campbell writes. Radama effectively confined Western influence to activities that benefited his rule. But by the time he died, this Christian influence “had spread to areas beyond royal control and become a threat to the institution of the Merina state itself,” Berg says. This explains Ranavalona’s more ruthless suppression of Christianity: Belief in any foreign god with foreign ancestors diminished her legitimacy.
Ranavalona wasn’t entirely immune to Western progress. She enjoyed wearing French fashions and even directed the development of technologies like metallurgy. But this fiery monarch was never shy about shedding blood to stamp out anyone she believed threatened her crown. Although she didn’t target Europeans specifically while persecuting Christians, she wasn’t above taking heads of European soldiers killed while trying to oust her and mounting them on spikes as a warning to would-be invaders. The queen known as “the Cruel” died peacefully in her bed in 1861 at the age of 83, having kept her kingdom largely free from colonial rule throughout her long and bloody reign.