The "Mad Queen of Madagascar" Killed Thousands Of Her Own People Indiscriminately

Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar was the dictatorial sovereign of an island caught up in the 19th century European exploration and colonization. Known in history as both the "Mad Queen of Madagascar" and "Ranavalona the Cruel," the sovereign queen rivals some of the most hardcore female leaders to have ever lived with her ruthlessness and shrewd behavior.

Much like China's Wu Zetian, Ranavalona didn't shy away from taking down anyone who got in her way during her long tenure as queen. She had the poisonous tangena tree at her disposal too, and used it to determine the guilt or innocence of her perceived foes. Her reign may be long over, but it is hardly forgotten.


  • She Had Subjects Eat Chicken Skins And Regurgitate Them To Prove Loyalty

    She Had Subjects Eat Chicken Skins And Regurgitate Them To Prove Loyalty
    Photo: James Sibree / Wikimedia Commons

    One way to determine innocence in Madagascar, before and during Ranavalona's reign, was "trial by tangena." The trial involved eating the skin of three chickens followed by a poisonous tangena nut or kernel. Then, vomiting was induced. If all three skins came up, the person was innocent. If not, the person was guilty. 

    Ranavalona used this method to test the loyalty of her subjects. She also used it on thousands of Christian martyrs. The queen became increasingly paranoid and used it for even minor offenses as her reign progressed. 


  • She Ordered 50,000 Subjects To Go On A Hunt That Left A Fifth Of Them Terminated

    She Ordered 50,000 Subjects To Go On A Hunt That Left A Fifth Of Them Terminated
    Photo: William Ellis / Wikimedia Commons

    In 1845, Ranavalona ordered her court and thousands of her subjects to go on a buffalo hunt. The group, some 50,000 large, took a small amount of supplies and had to build a road as they went.

    The hunt lasted four months, during which time 10,000 people passed from exhaustion and starvation. No buffalo was ever felled on the hunt.  

  • Some People Passed At Her Funeral

    Some People Passed At Her Funeral
    Photo: Williiam Ellis / Wikimedia Commons

    Ranavalona eventually had a child after the king's passing, a son named Rakoto. Rakoto was opposed to his mother's isolationist policies and attempted to overthrow her several times. Nevertheless, when his mother passed in 1861, Rakoto became King Radama II of Madagascar. She was remembered as a queen that fought to maintain the traditional culture of Madagascar, policies from which her son quickly retreated.

    In an ironic twist for the anti-imperialist queen, there was an explosion at her funeral, taking out several people and destroying nearby buildings. Even after her passing, Ranavalona is associated with loss of life.  

  • Anyone Who Crossed The Queen Met A Gruesome End

    Anyone Who Crossed The Queen Met A Gruesome End
    Photo: Joseph John and David Freeman / Wikimedia Commons

    Ranavalona wasn't opposed to using physical punishment against criminals and enemies and was known to engage in heinous acts to prove a point. In fact, one of her lovers, Andrianamihaja, actually refused to take the tangena test. 

    Andrianamihaja had been linked to another woman and when Ranavalona found out, she ordered him to prove his innocence. Instead, he instructed his executioner to take him out to avoid suffering. 

  • She Took Down Her Rivals After She Became Queen

    One of Ranavalona's first acts as queen was to take out her enemies. She took Rakotobe into custody and had him speared. As a female ruler, Ranavalona knew she would have difficulty ruling over her people.

    Women were not considered qualified to be sovereigns, so in her coronation speech, she cautioned:

    "Never say, ‘She is only a feeble and ignorant woman, how can she rule such a vast empire?’ I will rule here, to the good fortune of my people and the glory of my name! I will worship no gods but those of my ancestors. The ocean shall be the boundary of my realm, and I will not cede the thickness of one hair of my realm!"

  • After King Radama Passed, Ranavalona Fought Her Way To Power

    According to custom, because Radama had no heir, the throne was supposed to go to the eldest son of his sister. Rakotobe, Radama's nephew, was the rightful heir but any child Ranavalona produced in the future would have a claim to the throne. This caused a lot of tension between Rakotobe and Ranavalona. Each looked to eliminate the other. 

    To garner support, Ranavalona curried favor with Madagascar traditionalists, many of whom were opposed to her husband's policy that let European influences onto the island. She played up the possibility Rakotobe would do the same and managed to get the support of enough warriors to occupy the palace and stage a coup. Anyone that wasn't in favor of Ranavalona's leadership suffered the consequences. She became Queen of Madagascar in 1829.