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Ranavalona reigned from 1828 to 1861, dying peacefully in her bed of old age, having kept her country independent.

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

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.

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.

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