Friday, November 15, 2013

The Queen Ranavalonas of Madagascar

Fig.1: More like Catherine 
the Great Cross-dresser!
Even though those of us with testosterone and Adam's apples don't like to admit it, many kingdoms' best rulers have been of the female variety. Elizabeth I (England), Catherine (Russia), Maria Theresa (Austria), and Zelda (Hyrule) are all great examples of queens that have led their nations to military success, established economic stability, and some have even dressed as a man in order to teach the only decent swordsman in the kingdom various tunes for his ocarina in order to help him on his quest to defeat this really evil ginger guy (that would be Catherine the Great, of course, fig.1). In the case of the African island kingdom of Madagascar, you can argue that their three most notable monarchs have been ladies, and coincidentally, they all had the same name! Well maybe not coincidentally, cause all three took that name while becoming queen, but don't mess up my groove! Ranavalona I (r. 1828-1861), Ranavalona II (r. 1868-1883), and Ranavalona III (1883-1897) were all significant in shaping their country's future in the wake of increasing European jerkiness influence in the region. Their legacy is so great that approximately 10% of Malagasy girls today are named "Ranavalona," with the rest being "Emily" since there has to be at least a billion of them on Earth at one time.

But let's start a little farther back in Madagascar's history. In the breakup of Gondwana 135 million years ago, Madagascar split from the supercontinent along with the landmass today known as India. Tectonic shifts allowed Madagascar to then form its own island over the next 50 million years, creating a diverse ecosystem that...

Okay, I'm even boring myself right now with this crap. Let's go a bit further ahead.

As his robotic army closed in on the Malagasy capital of Antananarivo, the very last stronghold of the Resistance, Emperor Donald Trump VII laughed maniacally and unfurled his blueprints for the largest casino/victory monument the world!

Whoa, okay! Too far ahead! Let's scale this back a century or five.

In the late 18th century Anno Doughnutty, the Merina Kingdom began their conquest over the entirely of the island. The ruler of the time was King Andrianampoinimerina, who already succeeded in uniting the majority of the alphabet under his name, and was looking to do the same for all the peoples of Madagascar. His son and successor, Radama I, continued this policy, and was having a good ol' time until some unexpected guests showed up. Both the British and the French were looking to establish a base on Madagascar so they could easily keep on eye on their colonies (or as I like to call them, "Exploitation Stations") in Africa and India. Radama found the British demeanor pleasantly upbeat and sophisticated, while he detested the French's inherent snootiness and brie-flavored breath; as such, he signed a treaty with the Brits in 1817 allowing their admittance to the island, in return for military protection. Naturally, missionaries poured in and just couldn't help teaching the population about Jesus Christ and his ability to turn food into other food. By the time of Radama's death in 1828, several Christian schools were established on the island, and even the humblest of Madagascar's citizens came to enjoy their tea with crumpets.

Fig.2: Queen Ranavalona I,
notable for her staunch face,
broad shoulders, and what
Jerry Seinfeld would call
"man hands."
Which was unacceptable to Radama's wife, Ramavo (fig.2). Through political intrigue and arm wrestling, Ramavo managed to have herself crowned queen, taking the name Ranavalona (meaning "kept aside," though I doubt anyone could successfully keep aside that beast of a lady!). She immediately tore up the treaty that Radama signed with the British, then tore up the British diplomat with whom he signed it. The French attempted to take advantage of this by invading a port on the eastern coast, but Ranavalona merely exhaled deeply and created a major storm that sent the French ships capsizing in a matter of minutes. Ranavalona's main goal was to preserve the natural Malagasy culture, and wasn't too privy of her people practicing Christianity or putting the letter "u" in words where they weren't necessary or "favourable." She demanded that her people revert back to their traditional ways or else "I will rip out your spines and jam it into your eye socket!" (Don't ask me what primary source I obtained that quote from, just take my word for it.) While Ranavalona I is considered a cruel tyrant in most circles, her efforts during her 33-year reign prevented a European takeover of Madagascar, and she continues to serve as an inspiration to women with chest hair all over the world.

In order to retain her hold on power, Ranavalona had to marry a bunch of Malagasy military generals and political strongheads over the course of her reign. She figured that if cooking a few meals and doing some laundry for a bunch of oldies would allow her to keep the throne, then "get me a spatula and washing board!" Of course upon Ranavalona's death in 1861, those ambitious men would get tired of waiting around for their beef ravioli, and take power for themselves. While Ranavalona's son, Radama II, was king after his mother's passing, power really lay in the hands of two aristocratic brothers: Rainivoninahitriniony and Rainilaiarivony (unfortunately for my typing fingers, their other brother, simply named Ron, didn't have the same political inclinations). Rainivoninahitriniony had Radama II strangled when he wasn't being compliant enough, and Rainilaiarivony married Radama's wife and successor, Rasoherina, in order to keep her under his thumb. Seriously Madagascar, enough with the R-names!

Fig.3: While Ranavalona II had 
a similar face to your Uncle 
Lou, she was actually very 
Rasoherina would die in 1868, bringing Radama II's second wife (fig.3) to the throne. While she became Ranavalona II, the new queen would take a much gentler and less "use-my-unnaturally-bulging-biceps-to-scare-and-confuse-people" approach to the troubles in her land. She is revered today for her conversion to Christianity, permitting her subjects to openly practice the religion without fear of vertebral extirpation. She was also one of the first environmentally-conscious leaders in the world; she noticed the increasing amount of deforestation on the island, and sought ways to protect the natural landscape before it was too late. As such, she encouraged the use of bricks instead of wood for buildings, which any expert will tell you is a more durable and sturdy construction material. Her efforts were instrumental in keeping the unique wildlife of Madagascar alive and thriving today, and having your face scratched off by a ring-tailed lemur, native only to the island, is a must-do for all tourists.

Ranavalona II's death in 1883 left a void in the kingdom when it was most vulnerable. The British and the French were circling the island like vultures, small rebellions sprang up against Merina rule, and Madagascar needed to submit a representative to defend their title in the Women's International Beer Can Crushing Competition. Rainilaiarivony went door to door with a glass slipper to see who was the perfect fit to run the kingdom, disqualifying those who resorted to sawing off their toes (which was unfortunately cut from the Disney version of Ranavalona). A young widower named Razafindrahety was chosen (you guys just can't give the letter "R" a break, can you?), and she was renamed Ranavalona III.

Fig.4: One of Ranavalona III's 
weaknesses was lack of taste-
buds, which explains why 
she would endorse the 
chalky shortbread monstrosities 
that are Petit Beurre cookies.
Ranavalona III was pretty much destined to be a great queen: she was loved by her people, made astute political decisions and observations, and could croquet like nobody's business. Unfortunately, the French were done playing Monsieur Gentil Homme, and invaded the island in earnest during the 1880s. Ranavalona attempted to restart their friendship with the British as well as those upstart Americans, but sadly for her the US of A were not yet the nosy and intrusive meddlers that they would eventually become. France officially annexed Madagascar in 1896, and exiled its former queen to another French colony in Algeria. She eventually visited mainland France, and became something of a celebrity in the early 20th century: she would be a highly sought-after guest for parties and balls, politicians visited her to learn more about her homeland, and she would even be featured on a box blindly promoting some dry, tasteless cookies (fig.4). Nonetheless, her biggest wish was to return to Madagascar and free her people from the bondage of colonialism, despite their odd choices in delicacies. Alas, she would not; her premature death in 1917 due to an embolism (I blame the crappy cookies) ensured that the monarchy was forever gone from the Malagasy shores.

Madagascar just hasn't been the same since the lack of Ranavalonas to lead them. They were consistently taken advantage of by French during the colonial period, who stole all of their resources, and made them fight on their side in two world wars while sporting those god-awful berets and disgusting thin moustaches. Even though they achieved independence in 1960, we have seen more coups, uprisings, and constitutional changes come out of Madagascar than an average Guns N' Roses concert. What the country needs now are the touches of the three queens: Ranavalona I to threaten the crap out of them and set them straight, Ranavalona II to provide a gentle hand and look out for their wellbeing, and Ranavalona III to become a strong role model and successfully promote Madagascar's main exports, like coffee, vanilla, and shellfish. ("I promise, our oysters won't make you mad, give you gas, or scar you for life!") For the sake of the island, let's hope a Ranavalona IV appears before Madagascar 4 hits theaters, because that will be a event of unspeakable horror.

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