Description of Rainilaiarivony, Prime Minister of Madagascar in 1868

Below is a description of Rainilaiarivony, the Prime minister of the Kingdom of Madagascar, in 1868, by a Frenchman. As you remember, this was a man who was married to 3 queens: Rasoherina, Ranavalona II, and Ranavalona III. He was in reality the one holding the true power. He held that position for 31 years from 1864 to 1895, when the Kingdom of Madagascar became a French protectorate, and he was destituted, and sent to exile in Algeria.


Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony of Madagascar, ca 1880

Rainilaiarivony is of small height ; his hair is a bit kinky, the complexion is brown, mulatto, the mouth is thick, pronounced. He does not have the Malaysian [Austronesian] phenotype. He looks shy, embarrassed, and yet he is considered to have great willpower and remarkable eloquence.  Moreover, this figure, of gentle appearance, is as if closed, the furtive glances convey a distrust which always dominates in men who think themselves constantly threatened, from inside as well as from outside,

Docteur Lacaze, from a note from G. Grandidier, Les Africains, Editions J.A., Vol 5, p. 310 (1977). Translated to English by Dr. Y.,

Queen Ranavalona III, the Last Monarch of the Kingdom of Madagascar

Queen Ranavalona III of Madagascar

Today we will talk about the last queen of the Kingdom of Madagascar, Queen Ranavalona III. She reigned from July 30, 1883 to February 28, 1897. Like many African kings and queens of the late 1800s and early 1900, she was deposed by the European colonizer, in this case the French, and sent into exile first on the island of Reunion, and then later in Algeria (just like the King of Dahomey, Béhanzin) where she died, never to see her native Madagascar again.

Map of modern-day Madagascar

Who was Ranavalona III? Well, as her name goes, she was the third Malagasy queen with the name Ranavalona. She became queen after the death of her grand-aunt, queen Ranavalona II. Ranavalona III was born Princess Razafindrahety in 1861. She was raised as a protestant, and taught by instructors from the London Missionary Society. Upon completion of her education, she married nobleman Ratrimo, but he died under suspicious circumstances in May 1883, just 2 months after Queen Ranavalona II’s passing. Rumor had it that the prime minister Rainilaiarivony had poisoned her husband, Ratrimo so as not to relinquish power. The young princess then ascended the throne of Madagascar at the tender age of 22, on July 13, 1883. It is said that she was chosen over her older sister, Rasendranoro, because of her conciliatory nature which the prime minister and other members of the Andriana looked for.

Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony of Madagascar

At the time of Ranavalona III’s ascension, Madagascar was navigating a shift from absolute rule (power in the hands of the king/queen) to constitutional monarchy. Under the new system, true authority was vested in the prime minister: in this case, Rainilaiarivony, who secured his grasp on power by marrying the newly crowned—and recently widowed—queen. In accordance with tradition, Rainilaiarivony had previously wed both of Ranavalona III’s predecessors, Ranavalona II and Rasoherina. Lucky man, wouldn’t you think? One man married to 3 successive queens! Probably the only one in history (this will be the story for another day)! Rainilaiarivony largely oversaw the day-to-day governance of the kingdom and managed its foreign affairs.

Illustration of France implanting its protectorate on Madagascar

As a queen, Ranavalona III inherited a kingdom which was assaulted by the French who wanted her country to be part of their protectorate. Throughout her reign, she tried to strengthen trade and diplomatic relations with the United States and Great Britain, in an effort to keep the French at bay. In 1886, the queen solicited U.S. intervention to help protect Madagascar from the French but was ignored. She, like many kings and queens of Africa back then, was probably not aware of the scramble for Africa, and the Berlin Conference (Selection from the 1885 Berlin Conference Final Act, The Berlin Conference 1884 – 1885 – Final Act (Continuation)), where Europeans allocated areas of the continent to themselves. She was forced to sign a treaty that gave France a certain control of Madagascar in order to prevent war, but the French wanted full control over Madagascar and did not back down. Ranavalona III successfully kept the French at bay until 1896 when the French declared Madagascar as their colony. Repeat French attacks on coastal port towns and an assault on the capital city of Antananarivo ultimately led to the capture of the royal palace in 1895, ending the sovereignty and political autonomy of the century-old kingdom (French Colonial Treaty in Madagascar : 18 January 1896).

Queen Ranavalona III

The newly installed French colonial government promptly exiled prime minister Rainilaiarivony to Algiers, Algeria. Ranavalona and her court were initially permitted to remain in Madagascar as symbolic figureheads, but the outbreak of a popular resistance movement – the menalamba rebellion – and discovery of anti-French political intrigues at court led the French to exile the queen to the island of Réunion on February 27, 1897.

Queen Ranavalona III with her grandniece Marie-Louise ca 1905 in exile in Algiers, Algeria

Rainilaiarivony died that same year in Algiers, and shortly thereafter Ranavalona was relocated to a villa in Algiers, along with several members of her family. Despite Ranavalona’s repeated requests, she was never permitted to return home to Madagascar. Like many African kings and queens, she was deported (Deportation of African Heads of States). She died of an embolism at her villa in Algiers on May 3, 1917 at the age of 55. Her remains were buried in Algiers but were disinterred 21 years later and shipped to Madagascar, where they were placed within the tomb of Queen Rasoherina on the grounds of the Rova of Antananarivo (Rova de Manjakamiadana). you remember Queen Ranavalona III, remember that she was a queen who fought against the foreign invasion to the best of her ability, but above all remember that all she wanted was the independence of her people and culture.

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.