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Queen Ranavalona I: The (So-Called) Mad Monarch

Updated: Mar 8

Experiences as an Insider/Outsider & Other Stories (About Cultural Relativity) By Mihoby R.

Ranavalona I Malagasy Queen

Queen Ranavalona I.  The Mad Queen.  The Evil Queen, as history would now deem.

Of course she would be called mad.  Because that's what women who go against the grain get called.  Mad.  Evil.  Witch.

Here’s what she did.  And you decide for yourself which adjectives befit.

Queen Ranavalona I took her seat of power when the world gurgled in a greedy land grab that eventually culminated with the infamous Berlin Conference.  Sensing it was coming, she sought to maintain Malagasy sovereignty.

She began distancing Madagascar from the purview of colonization by ending a treaty with the British and imposing limitations on the missionaries.  In addition to offering vocational training and elementary education, missionaries also insisted that the students learn and practice Christianity.

As we all know - and as evidenced by history - the Bible was used to colonize and enslave populations.  Clearly Queen Ranavalona was aware and in 1835, she forbade the practice of Christianity amongst the Malagasy.  Within a year, almost all foreigners left her territory.

This amazes me.  That in the throes of waging colonialism Queen Ranavalona I was able to locate and address a seed of violence that society still grapples with today.  Back then - as it was happening in real time - she understood that if Madagascar relinquished its belief in its gods, (by default) it would also relinquish its customs, ceremonies, music, dance and protocols used to uphold society.

Famadihana Malagasy Merina Funeral
Photo by Nic Burns

“How so?” you may wonder.  Take a funeral for example.  The Merina (I’m Merina-Sihanaka), wrap our dead in silk cloths and “bury” them in mausoleums.  Every few years, we bring out certain deceased and rewrap them, “dance” with them, “eat” with them.  It’s a whole to do: the cloth for the dead must be lambamena which is spun by some-such endemic worm, the length is specific, you need three layers of said cloth (a panel of white, then red, then multi-color), the men of the family must tie the knot of the cloth, but a specialists are the one to place the rewrapped body in the new cloths - it’s a WHOLE TO DO.

And as an insider/outsider looking in, I ask myself questions like: How come the body doesn’t rot?  Or how do you know when to rewrap?  To which my uncle informed me, “ cause someone will hear it in a dream.  The ancestor that calls for rewrapping might come to someone and say, ‘Mihoby - I’m cold.’  That’s a sign.”

Famadihana Merina Malagasy Funeral
Photo by Nic Burns

And it’s a sign that further edifies the unbreakable bond between the living and the dead.  Across our island, we believe that the dead are more important than the living.  Amongst many things, we understand that it is the duty of the living to do right by those that came before us.

And so trading something as rudimentary yet fundamental as our funeral processes for another’s, creates a huge cultural shift.  When we no longer practice the customs laid down by our ancestors and gods, we transfer the power of our belief in our own culture to another’s.  And that’s a problem.

So back to Queen Ranavalona I.  As the stories would tell it - yes - she was ruthless.  She beheaded foreigners to set an example and thwart future attempts at domination.  She was staunch. Merciless.  Brutal.  But crazy?  I don’t know.

Listen, every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  What she did was a defense response to what was already being done.  And I feel like the only reason she was labeled crazy was because she - an African woman - operated outside the locus of their (the ones writing history) control.

So me, I respect her.  Because, above all, she strove to maintain the sanctity of what it means to be Malagasy.

Come Experience Madagascar with Us

These trips are open to the public, so you can join!

  • April 13 - 25 CATAMARAN [click link]

  • August 7 - 21 STARS IN THE BAOBABS: MAPPING THE CELESTIAL BODY Master astrologer Martell Akade will teach us how to read the stars and give us insight on our natal, astrocartography and compatibility charts. This information will be super valuable in helping us navigate our lives.

  • Nov. 23 - Dec. 3 ROOTS [click link] Join divine feminine spiritual teacher Sanaa Nia Joy from in the Center of Her Power as she explores her Malagasy DNA origins and blesses us with a Songs for Earth Ceremony at the Vista of No Return.

  • 2025 June FATHER'S & FAMILIES We're partnering with Real Dads to celebrate Father's & their families and we're folding in something extra special the with local dads & their families!

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