The story of an African queen whose megalomania reached intergalactic proportions as she sought to protect her island against imperial designs.
By the reckoning of anthropologist and filmmaker Laidler (The Last Empress, not reviewed), Ranavalona killed at least one-third and perhaps one-half of Madagascar’s population during her reign (1833–61). She took them out with a Gorgon’s imagination: flaying, crucifying and the slow crushing of testicles were common methods, while other victims were “bound, then sewn into buffalo hides, with only their heads protruding, and hung on poles and left to die slowly from the sun, starvation and dehydration.” Her savage repression was partly an attempt to consolidate power. Madagascar’s population was an ethnic/cultural mosaic that ranged from Malay-Polynesian to European pirate, with each angling to gain supremacy. Ranavalona’s claim to the throne as the “Great Wife” of King Radama was countered by traditionalists, who believed the dead king’s nephew should succeed, as was customary. But the new queen had a second motive: to rid her island of colonial domination and the insidious threat of missionaries. The French and the British both sought to control the Indian Ocean trade, and Madagascar was a jewel in that crown. Credit Ranavalona with keeping European interests at bay as she terrorized her citizenry, seeing both as threats to her crown. In one brilliant move, as she endeavored to thwart French pretensions without incurring the wrath of their government, she worked a stratagem that drew the invaders into a notoriously pestilential swamp, where fevers withered their ranks. While Laidler’s biography gives much jaw-dropping space to the sadistic, Saturnalian side of Ranavalona’s rule, he never loses sight of the canny anti-colonial tactics she deployed to keep Madagascar independent; the island would remain so until years after her death.
An impressive, politically shrewd portrait of 19th-century skullduggery.