Servants of the rice
Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar came to power in 1828 after the death of her husband, King Radama I, and reigned for 33 years until she died in 1861. During that time, she managed to hold at bay the two most powerful countries in the world (Britain and France), hungry for Madagascar’s resources and at the height of their imperial powers. It was an extraordinary achievement that could only have been effected by an extraordinary woman, and after her death the island started its inevitable slide into the pit of colonialism. How did Ranavalona manage to maintain the sovereignty of her kingdom, safeguard the integrity of her culture, and protect the resources of her land? She was brutal—and therein lies the essential enigma of Ranavalona for both the Malagasy and our Western sensibilities.
During her reign Ranavalona’s persecution of the Christians and forced labor programs depopulated the island by half, and reduced the population of Imerina from 750,000 to 130,000 between 1829 and 1842. Her human rights record is on par with some of history’s most infamous tyrants. And so from our (and the Malagasy’s) post-colonial perspective, what do we think of Ranavalona? Do we cheer her anti-colonialism? Or do we condemn her abuses? How are we to make sense of this woman who is so distant from us in place, time, and culture, but whose legacy still touches us today as we struggle with issues of race, culture, globalization, and neocolonialism? What does it mean to be civilized?