Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in Her Own Words

Winnie Mandela_11
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (Source: Reuters)

“They think because they have put my husband on an island that he will be forgotten. They are wrong. The harder they try to silence him, the louder I will become!” – 1962

I will not allow the selfless efforts of my husband and his friends to be abandoned. I will continue the struggle for a free and equal South Africa.” – 1962

“To those who oppose us, we say, ‘Strike the woman, and you strike the rock‘.” – 1966

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Winnie Madikizela-Mandela during her exile in Brandfort, 1977 (Source:

A flavor of the harassment and trauma of a typical raid [under the apartheid regime]: “…that midnight knock when all about you is quiet. It means those blinding torches shone simultaneously through every window of your house before the door is kicked open. It means the exclusive right the security branch have to read each and every letter in the house. It means paging through each and every book on your shelves, lifting carpets, looking under beds, lifting sleeping children from mattresses and looking under the sheets. It means tasting your sugar, your mealie meal and every spice on your kitchen shelf. Unpacking all your clothing and going through each pocket. Ultimately it means your seizure at dawn, dragged away from little children screaming and clinging to your skirt, imploring the white man dragging Mummy away to leave her alone.” – 1960s

Up until the 1970s, the years of constant police harassment, jail time and intimidation had done absolutely nothing to quash Winnie’s revolutionary spirit; indeed, her conviction had only become stronger.  Her message to the authorities was clear: “you cannot intimidate people like me anymore.” – 1970s

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‘491 Days Prisoner number 1323/69’ by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

It is only when all black groups, join hands and speak with one voice that we shall be a bargaining force which will decide its own destiny.” – 1976

If you are to free yourselves you must break the chains of oppression yourselves. Only then can we express our dignity, only when we have liberated ourselves can we co-operate with other groups. Any acceptance of humiliation, indignity or insult is acceptance of inferiority.” – 1976 (similar to President Thomas Sankara’s words, 8 years before he uttered them).

We have no guns – we have only stones, boxes of matches and petrol. Together, hand in hand, with our matches and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country.” – 1986

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Winnie Mandela during a rally (Source: Business Insider South Africa)

There is no longer anything I can fear. There is nothing the government has not done to me. There isn’t any pain I haven’t known.” – 1987

“I am the product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy.” – 1996

I was not made by a racist media and I will not be unmade by a racist media. What matters is what I mean to my people…without economic power, freedom is worthless.

Winnie Mandela_16
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

I’m not sorry. I will never be sorry. I would do everything I did again if I had to. Everything.”

“All what we fought for is not what is going on right now. It is a tragedy that he lived and saw what was happening, we cannot pretend like South Africa is not in crisis, our country is in crisis and anyone who cannot see that is just bluffing themselves.”– 2017

Yaa Asantewaa or the Ashanti Cry for Freedom

Queen Yaa Asantewaa in Batakarikese (Ceremonial war dress)

On 17 October 1921, the great Ashanti warrior queen Yaa Asantewaa passed away. Her story is that of a queen who rallied masses to fight for their independence; hers is a story of courage, determination, and stamina. Yaa Asantewaa led a rebellion against the British at a time when the men surrounding her were low in spirit, afraid, and discouraged. She arose them to fight for their independence, and for their nation.  Her fight against British colonialists is a story woven throughout the history of Ghana.

Ashanti Kingdom ca 1800s

Yaa Asantewaa was born in 1840 in the Gold Coast in the Kingdom of Ashanti. She was a successful farmer, mother, intellectual, politician, human right activist, Queen and leader. Yaa Asantewaa became famous for leading the Ashanti rebellion against British colonialism to defend the Golden Stool, symbol and soul of the Ashanti nation (19001901). She promoted women emancipation as well as gender equality. She was the sister of the Ruler of Ejisu (Ejisuhene) Nana Akwasi Afrane Okpase, an ethnic group in present-day Ghana.

January 1896: British formally annexing the Ashanti Kingdom – depiction of governor’s discussions with Prempeh I

During her brother’s reign, Yaa Asantewaa saw the Asante Confederacy go through a series of events that threatened its future, including civil war from 1883 to 1888. When her brother died in 1894, Yaa Asantewaa used her right as Queen Mother to nominate her own grandson as Ejisuhene. When the British exiled him in the Seychelles in 1896, along with the King of Asante Prempeh I and other members of the Asante government, Yaa Asantewaa became regent of the Ejisu-Juaben District. As seen earlier, this was the European’s way of dealing with African kings, as in Benin Kingdom. Sending a king to exile was usually followed by the looting of their land. This has led to the discovery of lots of Africa’s valued arts and crafts in Europe, which to this date have not been returned to their rightful owners.

Ashanti captain 1819

After the deportation of Prempeh I, the British governor-general of the Gold Coast, Frederick Hodgson, demanded the Golden Stool. This request led to a secret meeting of the remaining members of the Asante government at Kumasi, to discuss how to secure the return of their king. There was a disagreement among those present on how to go about this. Yaa Asantewaa the Queen Mother of Ejisu, was at the meeting. The chiefs were discussing how they should make war on the white men and force them to bring back the Asantehene. She saw that some of the chiefs were afraid. Some said that there should be no war. They should rather go to beg the Governor to bring back the Asantehene King(Nana) Prempeh.

Disgusted by the men’s behavior, Yaa Asantewaa stood up and addressed the members of the council with these now-famous words:

Now, I see that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our king. If it was in the brave days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye, and Opoku Ware I, chiefs would not sit down to see their king to be taken away without firing a shot. No European could have dared speak to chiefs of Asante in the way the governor spoke to you this morning. Is it true that the bravery of Asante is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this: if you, the men of Asante, will not go forward, then we will. We, the women, will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight! We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefields.

The Golden Stool in 1935

With this, she took on leadership of the Asante Uprising of 1900, gaining the support of some of the other Asante nobility. She led the famous war knows as the War of the Golden Stool against the British. After several months, the British Gold Coast governor eventually sent a force of 1,400 to quell the rebellion. During the course of this, Queen Yaa Asantewaa and 15 of her closest advisers were captured, and they too were sent into exile to the Seychelles. She died there on 17th of October 1921. Three years later, on 27 December 1924, Prempeh I and the other remaining members of the exiled Asante court were allowed to return to Asante Kingdom. Prempeh I made sure that the remains of Yaa Asantewaa and the other exiled Asantes were returned home for a proper royal burial. She was buried with all the honors due a queen like her.

Yaa Asantewa’s War was the last major war led by an African woman. She embodied courage and strength when faced with the injustice of the European invader. She is honored with a school named after her, ‘Yaa Asantewaa Girl’s Secondary School’ In Kumasi in 1960. Many young girls in Ghana are proudly named after her.

Ashanti King Palace being ransacked and burnt by the British in 1874 after the 3rd Anglo-Ashanti war

She is immortalized in the song:

Koo koo hin koo

Yaa Asantewaa ee!

Obaa basia

Ogyina apremo ano ee!

Waye be egyae

Na Wabo mmode

(“Yaa Asantewaa

The woman who fights before cannons

You have accomplished great things

You have done well”)

Queen Ndate Yalla Mbodj: Senegalese Queen leading the Resistance against French Colonization

Queen Ndate Yalla Mbodj
Queen Ndate Yalla Mbodj (from the cover of Kings and Queens of West Africa, by S. Diouf)

In 1855, when the French arrived to colonize Senegal, the first power of resistance they encountered was a woman. Her name was: Ndate Yalla Mbodj. While in France, women were not recognized as citizens until 90 years later, the French were stunned by this woman of beautiful stature, face, and strong body, and who headed an immense army. She was a beautiful and proud warrior, who inherited a rich tradition of bravery and gallantry.

The Lingeer or Queen Ndate Yalla Mbodj (1810 – 1860) was the last great queen of the Waalo, a kingdom in the northwest of modern-day Senegal.  She was a heroine of the resistance against French colonization and Moors invasion. She was also the mother of Sidya Leon Diop or Sidya Ndate Yalla Diop, who went on to become one the greatest resistants to the colonization of Senegal.

Map of Senegal
Map of modern-day Senegal

Queen Ndate succeeded to her sister Ndjeumbeut Mbodj. She was officially crowned Queen of the Waalo on October 1st 1846 in Ndar (now called Saint-Louis), the capital of the Waalo.  Her reign was marked by an ongoing defiance of the French against which she fought a fierce battle. By 1847, she opposed the free passage of Sarakolé people by sending a letter to the governor expressing her willingness to defend the respect of her sovereignty over the valley in these terms: “We guarantee and control the passage of cattle in our country and we will not accept it the other way. Each leader governs his country as he pleases.

Warrior from the Waalo Kingdom, 1846
Warrior from the Waalo Kingdom, 1846

She fought both the Moors who happen to encroach on her territory, and the colonialist army led by Louis Faidherbe, the butcher, and bandit, who later became governor of Saint-Louis and colonial head of administration and army. Almost 10 years into her reign in 1855, she encountered the greatest colonialist pirate Faidherbe, with an army of 15,000 strong, fully armed and ready to fight her, dethrone her, and colonize Waalo and Senegal. Faidherbe defeated her army in bloody battles, before capturing Saint-Louis. In February 1855, while the Faidherbe’s troops were entering the Waalo, the Lingeer spoke to the principal dignitaries of her country as such: “Today, we are invaded by the conquerors.  Our army is in disarray.  The tiedos of the Waalo, as brave warriors as they are, have almost all fallen under the enemy’s bullets.  The invader is stronger than us, I know, but should we abandon the Waalo to foreign hands?” (Aujourd’hui nous sommes envahis par les conquérants. Notre armée est en déroute. Les tiédos du Walo, si vaillants guerriers soient-ils, sont presque tous tombés sous les balles de l’ennemi. L’envahisseur est plus fort que nous, je le sais, mais devrions-nous abandonner le Walo aux mains des étrangers?) … “This country is mine alone!”

She eventually lost the battle, but not the war; which continued to be a war of resistance until the early part of the twentieth century by Lat Dior Diop, and many other ‘Gelewars’. This conquest would forever change the trajectory of her reign and the geopolitical, military, and geographical road map of Senegambia, “Ganaar” (now called Mauritania), Mali (formerly called French Sudan), and Fouta.

Senegambia in 1707, with the Kingdom of Waalo written as 'R. d'Oualle ou de Brak'
Senegambia in 1707, with the Kingdom of Waalo written as ‘R. d’Oualle ou de Brak’

Her father was Brak (King) Amar Fatim Borso Mbodj, and mother was Lingeer (Queen) Awo Fatim Yamar Khuri Yaye Mboge. Her son, Sidya Leon Diop, who would later too become an anti colonialist, and fight the French until his capture, and exile to die in Gabon in 1878. Her son Sidya was captured as a hostage in Saint-Louis by General Faidherbe during their bloody war with Ndate, and was baptized ‘Leone’ and sent to Algiers for schooling in 1861. When he returned to Senegal two years later in 1863, he was enlisted in the French colonial army; the first African or Senegalese to hold such a post. But as the saying goes —like mother, like son, he refused to do their dirty job of joining forces with the European colonial foreigners and mercenary apparatus, against his mother’s kingdom and people. He then changed strategy and rallied with Lat Dior Diop and others, which resulted in his betrayal, and capture by the colonial forces; and exile to Gabon (just like Samori Toure).

Ndate Yalla Mbodj
Ndate Yalla Mbodj

Queen Ndate Yalla Mbodj, as a true ‘lingeer’, developed the women’s army as one of the most formidable forces to recon with in her reign. The story of this Senegambia Queen is best amplified in oral tradition by the local griots. Her women army was similar to the “Amazon” women army of Benin, Behanzin’s fearless protective women’s army. She later went into exile in Ndimb in the northern part of the Waalo and died in Dagana, where today a statue has been erected in her honor (the only one erected in honor of a queen nationwide). To learn more, check out:,,; the book Kings and Queens of West Africa by Sylviane Diouf has an entire chapter dedicated to this great queen.


Taytu Betul: the Great Ethiopian Empress who Said ‘NO’ to Colonization

Empress Taytu Betul of Ethiopia
Empress Taytu Betul of Ethiopia

After learning about the origin of the name Addis Ababa, from Empress Taytu Betul‘s visit to its location, I could not help but talk about the Empress herself.  Who was Taytu Betul?

Well, Taytu Betul was Emperor Menelik II‘s third wife and was thereby Empress of Ethiopia.  She was his confidante, a loyal wife, a commander, and a brilliant military strategist.

Taytu Betul (also Taitu Betul), whose name Taytu means Sunshine, was a sunshine for her nation when it was about to fall into the hands of the Italian colonizer.  Perhaps, there would not have been the famous Battle of Adwa on March 1, 1896, which marked the Ethiopian victory against colonialism, without Empress Taytu, for she inspired it.

Emperor Menelik II, of Ethiopia
Emperor Menelik II, of Ethiopia

Empress Taytu Betul was born in Wollo from a Christian and Muslim family.  She had a comprehensive education and was fluent in Ge’ez, the classical Ethiopian language; which was a rare achievement for a woman at the time, as education was mostly reserved for boys.  Taytu was the third of four children in an aristocratic family related to the Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia.  Her uncle, Dejazmach Wube Haile Maryam, was the ruler of Tigray and much of Northern Ethiopia in the 1840s, and a rival of Emperor Tewodros II.  Her father’s family were the ruling family of Semien province, claiming descent from Emperor Susenyos I.  Her grandfather was Ras Gugsa, a member of the powerful ruling family of Yejju, of Oromo origin, which had ruled as Regents in Gondar during the Zemene Mesafint (“Era of the Princes”).  After four failed marriages, Taytu Betul was married to Emperor Menelik II (he was still King of Shewa at the time) in 1883 in a full communion church service and thus fully canonical and insoluble, which Menelik had not had with either of his previous wives (whom he had divorced).  Their marriage was not just about romance but was also a political marriage sealing alliances with the northern regions of Begemder, Lasta, Semien, and Yeju.  She remained his wife until his death in 1913.

The Battle of Adwa, 1896
The Battle of Adwa, 1896

Empress Taytu was a loyal and respectful wife to her husband Emperor Menelik II.  According to royal historians, she was co-equal with Menelik, who always consulted her prior to making important decisions.  She was the one who pushed him to declare war against Italy at the Battle of Adwa—tearing up the 1889 Treaty of Wuchale between the Ethiopian Empire and Italy, a treaty whose article 17 had two different meanings in Amharic and Italian versions: The Amharic version recognized the sovereignty of Ethiopia and its relationship with Italy as just a diplomatic partnership, while the Italian version made Ethiopia Italy’s protectorate.  The moment that discrepancy was uncovered, Empress Taytu was the first to agitate the hesitant Emperor and other men to stand up for liberty, dignity and against Italian aggression. 

Edition of the Petit Journal of August 1896 titled: "Negus Menelik II at the Battle of Adwa"
Edition of the Petit Journal of August 1896 titled: “Negus Menelik II at the Battle of Adwa”

Empress Taytu, as a military strategist, facilitated the downfall of Italy at the Battle of AdwaShe had her own battalion, which she bravely commanded in the battlefield, fighting in the frontline and motivating men against retreat.  She also mobilized women, both as fighters and nurses of wounded soldiers.   At the Battle of Mekelle, she advised Ras Mekonen to cut off the water supply to the Italians in order to disgorge them from their entrenched and heavily fortified positions at Endeyesus Hill on the eastern part of Mekelle City.  Taytu was also the receiver and analyzer of intelligence information collected by spies, which historians have characterized as of crucial importance to the Ethiopian victory at the battleThis information enabled Menelik to attack the Italians, at a site of his choosing, at Adwa instead of Adigrat, near the Eritrean border where the Italians expected to have a relative logistical advantage.  The Italians were hoping that Menelik would meet them in Adigrat, close to where they had a well-protected military base.

Empress Taytu Betul in Le Petit Journal of March 1896
Empress Taytu Betul in Le Petit Journal of March 1896

Independence and cooperation defined Taytu’s relationship with Emperor Menelik II.  Their marriage was that of equals characterized by trust, respect and reciprocity.  After Menelik was incapacitated due to strokes in 1906, she essentially governed the country, angering all the rivals to the throne.  She was ousted from power in 1910.  After Menelik II’s death in 1913, she was banished to the old palace at Entoto.

Taytu Betul was an authentic Ethiopian leader.  Her deeds at a critical moment in Ethiopian history not only saved Ethiopia from European colonization, but it also paved the way for the decolonization of Africa.  Her advice and action resulted in the defeat of the Italian army at the 1896 Battle of Adwa, a mighty European army defeat at the hands of Africans.  Taytu strongly defended national interests by overcoming challenges both from within and from without.  Just as there was no Menelik II without Taytu Betul, there would have been no Ethiopia without Taytu’s great strength, courage, devotion, and determination. Taytu Betul was truly Ethiopia’s sunshine, and should forever be remembered as one of the greatest empresses of Ethiopia and of Africa as a whole.  Please check out which has outstanding information on this great empress.  Enjoy this video about the Battle of Adwa.



‘African Queen’ by 2Face Idibia

African Woman
African Woman
Queen Nzingha of Angola
Queen Nzingha of Angola

To all my precious queens out there, I had to share this dear song.  The lyrics are simply out of this world, and the ladies in the video just too beautiful.  I raise my hat to 2Face Idibia for capturing the African beauty so well.  I have included parts of the lyrics below; for the full version, go here: Enjoy!


‘African Queen’ by 2Face Idibia

Just like the sun, lights up the earth, you light up my life
The only one, I’ve ever seen with a smile so bright
And just yesterday, you came around my way

And changed my whole scenery with your astonishing beauty

Ah, you gonna make a brother sing,
You ordinary thing, a supernatural being,

I know you are just brighter than the moon
Brighter than the star, I love you just the way you are.

And you are my African Queen, the girl of my dreams.
You take me where I’ve never been
You make my heart go ting-a-ling-a-ling, oh ahh
You are my African Queen, the girl of my dreams
And you remind me of a thing
And that is the African beauty yahhh

Out of a million you stand as one
The outstanding one
I look into your eyes, girl what I see is paradise, 

So black so beautiful

… I love you, ooohhh yeah, my African Queen, I
Love you, I love you

Queen Nzingha: Great Queen of Angola

Queen Nzingha of Angola
Queen Nzingha of Angola

Today, I will be talking about another great queen of Africa: the Queen Nzingha of Angola, who defended her kingdom against the Portuguese for 40 years and defeated them.  Yes! DEFEATED THE PORTUGUESE IN THE 1600s!  See… another gap in our textbooks: anybody heard of this great queen and of her military and diplomatic genius?

Well, the great Queen Nzingha was born in Angola at the end of the 1500s, just over 100 years after the Portuguese started slavery ports across Africa.  She was born to Ndambi Kiluanji, Ngola (king) of the Mbundu and Ndongo people and his second wife Kangela, in 1582.  At her birth, a wise woman predicted that she will one day become queen, which was unheard of since there were no women rulers in those days.

In her youth, Nzingha was strongly favored by her father, who allowed her to witness as he governed his kingdom, and who carried her with him to war.  She participated in all the intense training for warriors. Nzingha grew up in a world normally suited for males.  She was educated in the fields of hunting and archery, and in diplomay and trade.  Nzingha was a true politician, and showed true military and intellectual genius.  She also had two sisters Kifunji and Mukambu, and a brother Mbandi.

Queen Nzingha sitting on the back of her servant
Queen Nzingha sitting on the back of her servant, during her audience with the Portuguese governor

Nzingha was special in the sense that she was well-educated and spoke and wrote fluent Portuguese.  As the Portuguese were setting a slave port in Luanda (present-day capital of Angola), and capturing the people for slavery, Ngola Kiluanji tried to work diplomatically with the Portuguese to keep the Mbundu people safe, but many were captured and taken into slavery.  At the death of her father in 1617, Nzingha’s brother, Mbandi, took over the throne as required by tradition.  In 1622, Nzingha went to Luanda working for Mbandi as a special emissary to negociate peace treaties with the Portuguese.  When she met with the Portuguese governor of Luanda, João Correia de Sousa, she was refused a seat.  As a mark of power, she sat on the back of one of her male servants and made him a human bench, to show the governor that she would not negociate with him from an inferior footing.  This was a woman ahead of her time, and who would not be made inferior!  There she succeeded in negociating a peace treatment.

After her return to Kabasa (the capital of the Mbundu kingdom), Mbandi committed suicide.  The Portuguese profited from this moment of weakness to attack Kabasa and burnt it to the ground.  Nzingha fleed with her people, and moved her people to the mountains where she formed an army to fight against the Portuguese.  She was named Ngola of the Mbundu people in 1624, with two of her war leaders and closest advisors being her sisters Kifunji and Mukambu.  In 1626, after the Portuguese betrayed yet another treaty, she was led to move her people further west and establish a kingdom in Matamba.  There, she organized several alliances with neighboring people such as the Imbangala people, and developed a new form of military organization known as kilombo, in which youths moved away from their families, and were raised communally in militias.  Nzingha also made alliances with the Dutch to fight the Portuguese, but to realize later that they were all the same as the Portuguese: treacherous, and only there to enslave the Mbundu people.  From 1630 to her death in 1663, Nzingha, Queen General of Matamba, launched a formidable opposition to the Portuguese regime from the rocky slopes of Matamba.  The Portuguese came to respect her for her strength, dignity, pride, shrewdness, and her intransigence.  She was their strongest enemy in Angola.  Nzingha ruled for almost 40 years in both Ndongo and Matamba.

Nzingha's Kingdom
Nzingha’s Kingdom

Nzingha died in 1663, at the age of 82. She was succeeded on the throne by her sister Mukambu (also known as Barbara).  Mukambu gave Nzingha a burial befitting of the greatest Ngolas: Nzingha was laid to rest in her leopard skins and with her bow over her shoulder and arrows in her hand.  This was the first time in history that the Mbundu people had been led by a woman, and everyone remembered Nzingha as an outstanding, impressive, female warrior, ruler and field commander.  For the Mbundu people, she is remembered for her love of her people, her strength, charisma, and her fight for their sovereignty and freedom.  No wonder, her influence was felt centuries later, when African slaves in Brazil organized themselves in Quilombo to fight their white masters and retain their freedom.

Pedras Negras mountains of Pungo Andongo
Pedras Negras mountains of Pungo Andongo (once the capital of Ndongo kingdom)

It took me 3 christmas and new year holidays to finally realize this video of Queen Nzingha de Mbande of Angola.  It took me this long not only because I only worked on it a few days of the year, but also because the time and references had to be right.  I am so glad to be able to present to you this great video which talks about another great queen of Africa, one who defended, and defeated the Portuguese for over 40 years.  See… another thing that is not written in African history books; we tend to think that our leaders were all weaklings, but we had real kings and real leaders like Samori Toure, Behanzin, Ranavalona I, Amanishakheto, Beatrice of Congo, and Nzingha who fought the foreign invaders for the freedom of their people.  Enjoy learning about Queen Nzingha of Angola. You can also read Nzingha: Warrior Queen of Matamba, Angola by Patricia McKissack, as well as Black Women of Antiquity by Ivan van Sertima; don’t forget to check out this piece on Metropolitan Museum‘s website.

Did you know about Nzingha? How do you feel, now that you know that there was a great queen like her?

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.