This article was written in collaboration with writer H. Andria
Historically, having women in leadership positions was rare but not a new occurrence in Madagascar. For instance, in the 16th Century Imerina Kingdom, the Vazimba Queens Rafohy and Rangita stand out among a long list of Kings. While little is known about the history of their reigns or even how they are related (some say they are mother and daughter, others say they are sisters), they are usually credited as the early founder of the Merina dynasty that will some centuries later go on to unify the island of Madagascar.
The rules of succession to the throne back then were not quite clear, and successors were often appointed by the sovereign among their children based on some criteria of merit, wisdom or strength. In the context of the 16th Century Madagascar, territorial war between the multitude of small kingdoms was frequent, and it is not hard to imagine the Kings and Queens of those days being fine strategists and army leaders. The name “Rafohy” (literally “The small one”) may allude to her as physically short stature, she surely had to be perceived as a great leader of her time, to have been chosen as Queen on her own rights.
It was not until the 19th century that Queens on their own rights were to be mentioned again in the written history of Madagascar. One can argue that there haven’t then been any women in leadership positions between the 16th century and the 19th century, but that may not be quite accurate. It is interesting to note that the History of Madagascar has been passed by oral tradition from generation to generation, and little has been formally written before the 19th century. Thus, history has mostly retained only the names of the monarchs, but there must have been other people around them, in their courts and family, among them being women.
Every Malagasy knows about the great King Andrianampoinimerina (1780-1810) from the Imerina Kingdom of Ambohimanga, considered as the epitome of wisdom, the visionary unifier who, from his small kingdom had started a project to unify the island of Madagascar. However, not many know that the great King had trusted counselors throughout his reign, and that some of them were women: Ralesoka the King’s own sister, and Ratsiamboho. Again, little is known about them, but one thing is sure: they had the trust of the king. For the case of Ratsiamboho, in recognition of her service, she gained for her and her descendants the status of “Tsy maty manota”(translates: literally cannot be killed if found guilty), and even though her husband Rabefanonta was himself a prominent military chief, their descendants were named after Ratsiamboho as “Tera-dRatsiamboho”, which is highly unusual in Madagascar where the name of the father has always the precedence, attesting the high esteem she was held into by the King. Ralesoka and Ratsimboho are the ones retained by memory, but it is hard to believe that they were the only ones that played some political leadership role in the King's court.
The most prominent women leaders pre-colonization time were unequivocally the 19th century Malagasy Queens. In a rapidly changing world (even then), each one of them have in their own way played a major role in bringing Madagascar into the 20th Century. Ranavalona I (Rabodonandrianampoinimerina), accessed the throne in 1829 following the untimely death of her husband King Radama I. Historically she will be remembered as a controversial character. Her reign would be remembered for the expelling of Europeans and the martyrdom of Christians who followed the teaching of the missionaries. For some, she is a nationalist who only sought to protect her country against Europeans, for others, she is a tyrant who oppressed and killed her own people. Following her passing in 1861, her son Radama II succeeded her but will reign only for two years as he will be assassinated in 1863.
Radama II’s wife and first cousin Rabodozanakandriana succeeded him to the throne under the name of Rasoherina. From the reign of Rasoherina, the political power of the sovereign has decreased, most of it being transferred to the Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony who married each one of the last three Queens. While political power may have largely been transferred to the Prime Minister, the Queen remained the only holder of the “Hasina'' or the sanctity of the throne passed down from the ancestors. The reign of Rasoherina, though short (1861-1868), was marked by important changes. During her reign, Madagascar opened to international relations, sending its first Malagasy ambassadors to Europe, while other countries appointed diplomats to the Kingdom of Madagascar. The first American embassy to Antananarivo was opened during her reign. Her reign was also marked by important architectural changes in Antananarivo. The Malagasy architectural style (“Trano Gasy”), a mix of English Victorian style and Malagasy traditional style started to thrive during Rasoherina’s reign with the return of English missionaries and architects. She led the country through the conflict with French Government on the contestation of the “Lambert Chart”. The “Charte Lambert” was signed by Rasoherina’s husband, Radama II, and gave important land concessions to a French adventurer (Lambert) effectively giving the French full use of important parts of the country’s land. After accessing the throne, Rasoherina contested the Chart, and negotiated with the French for its annulment. To cancel the Chart, and peacefully regain possession of the ceded land, Madagascar had to pay important compensation to the government of then emperor Napoleon.
Following Rasoherina’s passing in 1868, her cousin Ramoma succeeded her under the name Ranavalona II. Her reign was marked by her conversion to Christianism and the building of the Memorial churches to the memory of the Christian martyrs (those killed during the reign of Ranavalona I) that we still can see in Antananarivo: Ambohipotsy (1868), Faravohitra (1870), Amboninampamarinana (1874)- (Ambatonankanga was inaugurated during the reign of the previous Queen, Rasoherina). During her reign, stone and bricks were allowed for use for construction within the perimeter of the city of Antananarivo, which brought important changes for the city’s architecture. Finally, her reign saw the adoption of the “code des 305 articles”, the first attempt to formalize the Malagasy legislation and also implementing the first organized civil registration services.
The last Queen Ranavalona III was probably the most famous Queen of Madagascar having lived (so to speak) under the scrutiny of the international media of her time. She led the country through the first war with the French in 1885 and ultimately avoided the invasion of Madagascar. In 1895 Madagascar eventually lost the second war with the French, became a colony and Ranavalona III was sent to exile to La Reunion and to Algier. She was quite a figure of her time, as each one of her outings throughout her exile drew the interest of the public, curious to see the Queen of Madagascar, as attested by the media of the early 1900s. For Malagasies, she remained a symbol of national pride and resistance to the colonizers, though it is not quite clear if she played an active role in leading such resistance.
History has often occulted their role, but recognized or unrecognized, Queens or wise advisors to the monarchs, women leaders have played an important role in the history of Madagascar for the longest of times pre-colonization and were instrumental to the building of our Nation.
~ By H. Andria