Queen Ranavalona I: Defending Madagascar against European Invasion

Queen Ranavalona I
Queen Ranavalona I

Today I will be talking about a great queen of Madagascar, Queen Ranavalona I who fought against French and British expansionism in Madagascar, and strongly believed in autarky (self-sufficiency).

Born by the name of Mavo (or Ramavo) around 1788, Ranavalona I will later be named Rabodonandrianampoinimerina (which means the smart grand-daughter of Andrianampoinimerina) in reverence to her uncle, the King Andrianampoinimerina.  She became Queen of Madagascar after the death of her husband Radama I and was coronated on 12 August 1829.  She was also designated by the title Ranavalo-Manjaka I (« Reigning Ranavalona »).  She reigned over the Kingdom of Madagascar from 1828 to 1861.

Ranavalona I followed in the footsteps of her predecessors, with the territorial expansion of her kingdom, and led several expeditions to pacify conquered territories such as the meridional Menabe, the Boina, and the north-east regions of the island (Madagascar).  Fervent nationalist, she fought against foreign influence, including that of Christian missionaries.  During her reign, the power of some castes increased, like that of the andriana or the royal family, or that of the military chiefs, the hova.


Ranavalona’s 33-year reign was distinguished by an ongoing struggle to preserve the political and cultural sovereignty of Madagascar in the face of increasing European influence and competing French and English bids for domination over the island.  In the beginning of her reign, Ranavalona I tried to continue the work of modernization started by her predecessor.  Very soon, she faced the hostility of the French, who in 1829, attacked different points on the oriental coast of the island.  This unexpected aggression sharpened the queen’s distrust of European ambitions; especially since the British missionaries installed at the heart of the island since 1820 were converting many.  Fearing the loss of the independence of her country, she denounced the anglo-malagasy treaty of 1820, and asked the British to give up on the religious extension in her country, and to focus only on the educational works she wanted for her people.  However, the British refused, and in 1835, she had them expelled from the island.  To counter-balance the European influence on the island, the monarchy created contacts between the ports of Majunga, and Zanzibar.

Manjakamiadana, the Royal compound built for Queen Ranavalona I
Manjakamiadana, the Royal compound built for Queen Ranavalona I
Manjakamiadana,encased in stone under the orders of Ranavalona II
Manjakamiadana,encased in stone under the orders of Ranavalona II

Ranavalona I then hired the services of Jean Laborde who accomplished quite a lot of modern upgrades, the most important of these will be providing Madagascar with a metallurgic and chemical industry.  He also built the queen a new residence known as the Manjakamiadana, which became the largest structure on the Rova grounds, the royal compound in Antananarivo.  The residence was made entirely from wood and bore features of a traditional andriana home, including a central pillar (andry) to support the roof.  The palace would eventually be encased in stone in 1867 by James Cameron of the London Missionary Society during the reign of Ranavalona II. The original wooden palace of Ranavalona I and virtually all other structures of the historic Rova compound were destroyed in a 1995 fire, leaving only the stone shell to mark where her palace had once stood.  Renovation is on the way.

Royal Crown of Madagascar as worn by King Radama II, Ranavalona I's successor (ca 1862)
Royal Crown of Madagascar as worn by King Radama II, Ranavalona I’s successor (ca 1862)

Ranavalona pursued a policy of autarky (self-sufficiency) and isolationism, diminishing economic and political ties with European powers, repelling a French attack on the coastal town of Foulpointe, and taking vigorous measures to eradicate the small but growing Malagasy Christian movement initiated under Radama I by members of the London Missionary Society.  She made heavy use of the traditional practice of fanompoana (forced labor in lieu of tax payments in money or goods) to complete public works projects and build a standing army of between 20,000 and 30,000 Merina soldiers, whom she deployed to pacify outlying regions of the island and further expand her realm.

Subsequently, to try to eradicate Christianity among her subjects, as she believed (and rightfully so) that this was a means of infiltration of the colonial ambitions of Europeans on the island, she had converts (considered as traitors) run off.  As she declared in 1849: « Miala amiko ka mba ialako, mahafoy ahy ka mba foiko ! » (« they [christians] have denied me [ as a living symbol of their homeland], therefore I deny them as well; they have rejected me, I reject them! »).

Ranavalona I on the throne
Ranavalona I on the throne

She said in a letter addressed to the Europeans: “To all Europeans, British and French, in recognition for the good you have done to my country by teaching European wisdom and knowledge, I would like to express my thanks.  … You can keep following your customs. Have no fear for I have no intention of modifying your habits.  But if I see some of my subjects trying to change the rules established by the twelve great kings, my ancestors, I will not possibly consent: because I will not allow men to come and change anything to all the ideas I have received from my ancestors, which I had accepted without shame or fear.  You are free to teach my people science and wisdom, but when it comes to touching our ancestors’ customs, it is a vain work, which I will fully oppose….”

Ranavalona I continued the works of Andrianampoinimerina and Radama I.  In her country, she is seen as a great sovereign, true symbol of patriotic and national pride.  However for Europeans, she has been described as a tyrant… but like her so many great African kings and queens defending their country against foreign invasion/colonization have been portrayed as cruel, and ignorant.  Faced with the contempt of Christian converts, she proudly stated: ”ny fomban-drazako tsy mba mahamenatra ahy na mampatahotra ahy!” (“I do not feel any shame or fear about my ancestors’ customs”).  Enjoy this great video, and honor one of Africa’s earlier nationalist and independentist: Queen Ranavalona I.

11 thoughts on “Queen Ranavalona I: Defending Madagascar against European Invasion

  1. Wilford B. Goodman

    The resistance led the government of France to replace the island’s civil governor, Hippolyte Laroche, with a military governor, Joseph Gallieni . The day before Gallieni arrived in Antananarivo, he had a message sent to the queen requiring her to present herself and her entourage at the military headquarters, preceded by a standard bearer carrying a French flag. The queen was obliged to sign documents handing over all royal property to France before being placed under arrest and imprisoned in her own palace. She was only allowed to receive visitors who had obtained prior authorization from Gallieni himself. While imprisoned, Ranavalona offered to convert to Roman Catholicism in an attempt to curry French favor but was informed that such a gesture was no longer necessary.


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  6. Wow, that’s a powerful piece of history. I’ve been learning a bit about Madagascar recently as a random thing since I didn’t know as much about it compared to other African nations. One thing I found out about that country is that it has one of the highest percentages in terms of those who practice traditional faiths and even those who practice Christianity incorporate some of those beliefs simultaneously there.


    1. Thanks Ospreyshire… I did not know about Madagascar having the highest percentage of those practicing traditional faiths… that is good… because we, Africans, have our own traditions which need to be cherished. We have been so brainwashed with that of the others, that we have forgotten our ways. We need to re-conquer them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, I found it out after watching a Geography Now video talking about the country. Some people even fuse the traditional beliefs with other established religions like Christianity and Islam, but they aren’t the only ones who do so. I’ve been learning about some traditional aspects like when I first heard about the Congolese Cosmogram. I didn’t realize I first saw that icon in Petite Noir’s La Maison Noir long-form music video, but I saw a different video that explained it and everything made perfect sense in the context of that music video. Good call about reclaiming the traditions.


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