Queendom of the Merina

25 06 2017

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Above, a sculpture from an exhibition of Malagasy art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum titled “Kingdom of the Merina” and below, Madagascar’s “mad queen” Ranavalona I. 

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I was recently reading about the interesting historical figure of Queen Ranavalona, who ruled Madagascar with an iron fist from the 1830s to the 1860s. Traditionally described as a cruel tyrant, and sometimes said to have been insane, she has recently been subject to some historical revisionism. Her rule, which relied on forced labour and featured the violent persecution of Christians, was undoubtedly brutal. But postcolonial historians have wondered if her determination to stop European colonialism in its tracks and preserve Madagscar’s traditions and sovereignty (unsuccessful in the end) deserve attention as mitigating factors.

Among the hallmarks of Ranavalona’s rule was the widespread use of the tangena justice system, a kind of trial-by-torture reminiscent of that used in the witch trials of medieval Europe. An accused person would swallow the poison of the tangena tree. One source quoted by wikipedia says: “The accused would be fed the poison along with three pieces of chicken skin: if all three pieces of skin were vomited up then innocence was declared, but death or a failure to regurgitate all three pieces of skin indicated guilt.[4] Those who died were declared sorcerers. According to custom, the families of the dead were not permitted to bury them within the family tomb, but rather had to inter them in the ground at a remote, inhospitable location, with the head of the corpse turned to the south.”

In 1838 some 20% of the population may have died this way, in an anti-Christian purge.

800px-Tangena_trial_by_ordeal_Madagascar

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