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Book Review: Female Caligula: Ranavalona – The Mad Queen of Madagascar by Keith Laidler

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Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi have pretty much laid to rest that old shibboleth that “women aren’t tough enough to become national leaders”, but they have a compatriot, far earlier in time, less known, but operating in what was undoubtedly an exponentially more difficult and dangerous environment. Her name was Ranavalona, and her title Queen of Madagascar. She reigned from 1828 to 1861, dying peacefully in her bed of old age, having kept her country independent despite the best efforts of the French and the English.

No, I hadn’t heard of her either, but the story of her rise to power, and her maintenance of it for 33 years, is quite a tale. For she was not some accidental queen, falling into power by birth or marriage. She was not even born royal, but was the adopted daughter of the dynasty-founding king Andrianampoinimerinandriantsimitoviaminandriampanjaka. (No, I didn’t have my elbow on the keyboard; that was his name, meaning “the beloved prince of Imerina who surpasses the reigning prince”.)

That adoption came in recognition of the services her father had rendered to the monarch, and she became the wife of his son, Radama. (For the Ancient Egyptian custom of brother-sister marriage was followed by the ruling Merina dynasty.) But they seem not to have got on — the fact that he executed several of her close relatives when he came to the throne might have had something to do with that — and she never bore him a child.

When King Radama died, her position was potentially deadly. The rightful heir to the throne, by long tradition, was the eldest son of his eldest sister, Prince Rakatobe, and he was no friend of Ranavalona. If she were to bear a male child, by any father, even after the death of the king, he would theoretically be a legitimate claimant to the throne. There was little doubt that Rakatobe, given the throne, would ensure, very finally, that could not happen.

But Ranavalona had already built up a network of supporters. The old king, her husband, had been a great fan of “modernity”, and had been content to allow in, with the Westerners’ technology, their religion, Christianity. Perhaps because of personal preference, perhaps because she was a natural opposition figure, the priests and supporters of the old religion, the ombiasy, had formed up around her. Rapidly, beginning with just two loyal officers, Ranavalona organised a palace coup and with the backing of the priests and judges in the capital — with a little bloodshed along the way — she was proclaimed Queen of Madagascar on August 1, 1828. She then killed all potential rival claimants, except a couple who were quick enough to flee into exile. (Normal procedure in Madagascar of the time.)

I read all of this in the first popular work on the queen, by Keith Laidler. It is a great tale, but a terribly disappointing book. The title gives it away really: Female Caligula: Ranavalona – The Mad Queen of Madagascar. But before I started reading, I maintained faint hopes that maybe this was chosen by a sales-chasing publisher, and behind the pulp fiction title I would find solid research and a fair telling of the tale. I didn’t.

Laidler swallows every fantastical tale recorded by scorned missionaries, fearful envoys, the queen’s political opponents and European observers horrified by “native barbarism”. First, he has her sleeping with every important male in her regime. One of the officers who started the coup, of course, then her two chief ministers, then a truly fascinating character, Jean Laborde, a Frenchman, son of a blacksmith, who made a small fortune by trade in Bombay, then lost it all in a mad bid for shipwrecked gold on the shores of Madagascar that left him washed up, again with nothing, in the queen’s realm. Laborde was to oversee in Madagascar (to his own great enrichment) a whole manufacturing and armaments industry that would make the country self-sufficient in weapons and other military essentials for decades. Of course, as male historians so often concluded, these men didn’t serve a female monarch from fear, or ambition, or greed – it must have been sex.

Later in the reign, Ranavalona probably did become more bloodthirsty, and more anti-Christian, first banning the missionaries, then starting to persecute their followers. But really, how could Laidler fall for that old “babies on bayonets” story about a pregnant woman being burnt alive, the stress bringing on labour, then the baby being thrown back into the flames? Surely he must know that Christian story has been around, and repeated endlessly about different victims, since the early Roman persecutions?

Ranavalona certainly was no saint; she lived in a violent, bloodthirsty culture, and I’m not making any grand claims on that score — she was part of her time. Perhaps, as Laidler reports, she did go a bit crackers in the end — the thickening arteries/too long-in-power “Mugabe effect” — but look at this overall. She got herself into power, she kept her nation militarily and culturally independent for three decades, against the powerful would-be Western colonisers. That’s success in anybody’s political terms, and that a woman of roughly age 40 when she came to the throne should have achieved all of that by sleeping with the right blokes – well it is laughable.

You might still want to read this book – it is the only way to get to know about a great woman of history. (And it also includes an introduction to a wonderful 19th-century Austrian woman traveller, Ida Pfeiffer.) Just do so with a highlighter read to identify the particularly hilariously bad bits of research and interpretation.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • http://gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Andrianampoinimerinandriantsimitoviaminandriampanjaka — ah yes, the traditional spelling.

    Enjoyed the review — Gordon

  • http://gasycool.com/wordpress sipakv

    I am Malagasy and I cannot tell you how glad I am to read your very balanced and informed review on our strong and demonized queen. Unfortunately Laidler’s views are widespread even in Madagascar. So thank you for seeing through the propaganda.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Natalie,

    I left my elbow on the keyboard to see what I would get and the qwerty board rendered nothing anywhere near as sensible as this man’s name.

    Whew!!

    Seriously, this was a very good read – perhaps also an illustration of what it really takes to keep a fish alive in a sea full of sharks…

  • http://philobiblion.blogspot.com Natalie Bennett

    Thanks all, and particularly sipakv: nice to know that she is remembered well by at least some of her countrypeople. Someone really should write a proper biography of her … maybe you?

  • http://desicritics.org Aaman

    Wow! This is awesome – thanks for the reading, and providing a future trail to follow:)

  • Liberation

    Ranavalona was a genocidal monster along the lines of Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Hitler etc. Reliable historical sources prove this, so why do you attack the credibility of laidler?

    Is your bias towards “Ma Dieu” born of your gender, Bennett?

  • http://philobiblion.blogspot.com Natalie Bennett

    Which reliable historical sources are you referring to Liberation? I freely admit I’m not an expert on the subject, knowing only what I read in this book, but the evidence it presented utterly failed to convince me. It may be there are other sources, so I’d be delighted if you could point me to them.

    As for the standards that should be applied, I don’t think you can use today’s. She can only be judged by the standards of her own time, and I judged from this book that say the rate of execution of her subjects was probably around typical for that time.

  • Liberation

    Ranavalona’s private secretary was one of several boys who received an English education on the express orders of King Radama. He kept a number of records written in english describing in rich detail the atrocities perpertrated by Ranavalona.

    What more evidence is required to support Laidler’s account of Ranavalona’s reign?

  • http://philobiblion.blogspot.com Natalie Bennett

    But Liberation, that is from “the other side”. Ranavalona was broadly anti-European and anti-Christian, on the side of the traditional religion, while her son was firmly in the grip of her opponents. (Indeed he at least half-heartedly supported a coup attempt against her.)

    As we all know, slandering one’s political/military opposition is a standard tactic and has been through the ages. Evidence means details of names, events cases, and evidence that these were innocent victims, not people plotting against her (as the European powers certainly were), in which case by the standards of the time she was perfectly entitled to execute them.

    Historical judgement requires critical examination of the sources and their motivations, not just swallowing them wholesale.

  • Dun

    What about the historical record left by Ida Pfeiffer for one?

  • Venky

    Natalie Bennett said

    “As we all know, slandering one’s political/military opposition is a standard tactic and has been through the ages.”

    So do you believe that the holocaust did take place or is it a vast Zionist conspiracy to demonize the Nazis?

    Your defence of Ranavalona seems to be solely based on the fact that Ranavalona belongs to the same gender as you. You provide no documentary evidence to support your viewpoint against Mr Laidler’s. Instead you try to fit the evidence to your worldview and discard it if it does not fit your preconceived notions.

    As for swallowing history wholesale, Mr. Laidler has atleast provided a number of sources and you instead of providing other sources have just decided to ignore them as the ravings of colonialists.

    As for Ranavalona butchering her victims you airily excuse them by saying “standards of the time”. So do you condone slavery by the same standard? Laws which restricted voting rights only to men?

    You seem to forget that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” whether the one wielding the power is male or female.

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    The Nazi comparison is of course ridiculous, and betrays the weakness of your argument – there are multiple sources of information about the Nazi regime.

    By contrast Pfeiffer is one source, clearly racist (as was of course also normal for the time), and other sources come from the people who were backing the alternative faction in Madagascar. Critical examination and judgement of such sources is obviously essential.

  • Dun

    I agree with Venky, you seem to ignore the historical record and form your opinions based on gender.

  • http://mrbounce.blogspot.com/ Mistress La Spliffe

    The reviewer isn’t ignoring the historical record, she’s evaluating it. She is considering the sources by asking if they are racist or politically biased. She’s also lamenting the fact an author who chose to write a book on Ranavalona didn’t.

    That’s not because she’s a woman, it’s because she’s educated. Anybody who can’t perceive that should ask themselves some hard questions about their own gender biases, or their own level of education.

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    Thanks Mistress La Spliffe. Couldn’t have put it better myself!

  • ravinala

    I just ordered the book and look forward to reading it. I have read all the atrocities committed by the first female queen of Madagascar though, as reported by the Malagasy authors, in my history books (I am malagasy:)), and as relayed from generation to generation, by my ancestors. Yes, queen Ranavalona killed, that’s a fact that noone can deny. To try to understand her rationale and her actions though, one has to assess the environment she was in: she was facing danger and pressures from every angle. She was the first female to reign the kingdom and that in itself was a burden. In a male-dominated environment, she had to prove that she had the guts to take hard stand when necessary. In addition, the western world started to set their eye on the island. In fact, the French attacked the island’s coasts in 1829, and yes, she wanted for her people to remain free. How else would a sovereign act, in those circumstances?

  • ravinala

    And Liberation…I think the “genocidal monster” qualification is, to say the least, unfair. After all, to send a message to anyone resisting Rome’s power, the Roman general Cassus crucified and left the bodies of more than 6000 slaves to rot along the road to Rome, yet, noone has called him “a genocidal monster”…

  • Phar

    surely someone who is widely reported as killing a full third of their nations population during their reign could be described as at least a ‘homicidal monster’ if not strictly ‘genocidal’ by the definition of the Genocide Convention.

    you yourself say in your article that this is the only book you have read on the subject. i suggest reading more widely on subjects in the future before lambasting someones work as ridiculous and inaccurate.