It’s a long entry, but you don’t want to miss anything. Well, maybe one or two things.
First: this is another one of those “history is written by the victors” deals where most of what’s known about her comes courtesy of pissed-off foreign missionaries — basically, don’t take any of the following stories at face value. More on that later (under the “There isn’t Enough Salt in the World” header).
Second: want to play a game? Here’s some bingo sheets, which should give you an idea of how dark this entry is going to get. Pick one and follow along! When you win, I suggest drinking to forget.
Her Story (According to Racist White People)
So, Ranavalona! She came to power when her husband died at 36 (from either alcoholism, syphilis, murder, or some delicious cocktail of all three). His sudden death left the kingdom in a weird state: he’d spent years cozying up to the British in exchange for some of their weaponry (he’d just started the nation’s first standing army!), and was starting to turn on the British when he died. The main claimant to the throne (as Ranavalona had no kids with him), however, was looking to maintain cozy ties with the British.
Well, Ranavalona was having precisely none of that shit, so she assembled a”screw foreigners” posse, and staged a coup. She took control so fast that some of the king’s elite bodyguards only found out he was dead when they saw her on the throne. When a handful of them politely raised an objection, she gently replied by having them stabbed in the gut with thirty spears. She went on to execute most of the royal family — in one case summoning a man to the capital, then killing him for abandoning his post.
She made it illegal to dance, bathe, play music, sleep on a mattress, look in a mirror, or clap your hands.
The first days of her reign brought bizarre proclamations to accompany the brutal violence. To express mourning for her departed husband, she declared that every single person must, for ten months, keep their heads shaved. Practically the only exceptions were the nation’s professional mourners (yes, it’s a thing), who were only spared so they would have hair to tear out amidst their hysterical sobbing. She kept his body on display for weeks, with round-the-clock legions of slaves tasked with keeping the flies off. During the mourning period, she made it illegal to dance, bathe, play music, sleep on a mattress, look in a mirror, or clap your hands. The punishment was she’d sell you into slavery.
This was not an idle threat: under Ranavalona, slavery, recently abolished to appease the British, returned to one of the cornerstones of the economy. Her favorite slave was undoubtedly Jean Laborde, a shipwrecked young Frenchman whose presence drastically transformed the country. Once Ranavalona found out he was an accomplished tradesman, she set him to work with making a massive industrial complex. Within a couple years of his arrival, Madagascar was self-reliant for weaponry, ammunition, and gunpowder — one of the first industrial revolutions (if not THE first) to occur outside of Europe.
This enabled her to keep out the combined forces of the French and the British, which was no small feat. They repeatedly attempted invasions, which usually went something like this: “we’re gonna bombard the shit out of you from our boats! Okay, you’re retreating, great, we’re…