The first two years of her reign were clouded by a war with France, which caused much bloodshed and misery in the coast towns of Madagascar. During that terrible war period the young Queen rose bravely above her private sorrows, and devoted herself to the care of the sick and wounded, visiting the hospitals and promoting schemes for the comfort of the soldiers.
The war was concluded by the Treaty of 1885, by which it was agreed that the foreign relations of Madagascar were to be controlled by France, while her domestic affairs were to be left in the hands of the Queen and her Government.
Ranavalona, ex Queen of Madagascar, who, as long as she retained her kingdom, was a wise and enlightened Christian ruler. The annexation of Madagascar as a French colony caused the deposition of Queen Ranavalona Photo, J. Geiser
Loyally accepting the French protectorate, the young Queen now strove to administer the country for the welfare of her people. Following the good example of the late Queen, she became the patron of schools, hospitals, and orphanages, and encouraged the spread of Christian work, the promotion of education, and the circulation of literature. The native churches continued to spread in number and influence.
Under her rule great advances were made in Madagascar. Banks were established, the telegraph introduced, and many of the rude huts in and around the capital were replaced by modern brick houses. The administration of justice and the punishment of crime were put on a basis more in keeping with European ideas, and the army was reorganised. The Queen, so far as her light went, had good and noble ideals for the advancement of her people. She was greatly aided in her efforts by Miss Herbert, a lady connected with the Friends' Mission in Madagascar, whose school the Queen attended as a girl. Miss Herbert conducted a Bible-class at the palace for the Queen and her ladies, and came to occupy the position of her Majesty's most trusted friend and adviser.
The Queen lived a secluded life, and her little Court was by no means bereft of the native element. Curious old customs survived somewhat incongruously along with the new elements of foreign introduction so rapidly gaining ground.
One of the missionaries of the London Missionary Society, then labouring in Antananarivo, was occasionally invited to preach before the Queen in the Chapel Royal. The experience was unique. According to Malagasy etiquette, no one must occupy a higher seat than the Sovereign, so the Court chaplain for the time being found himself in the curious position of preaching up to the Queen and Court in their elevated seats.
When the Queen set the fashion of wearing European dress on public and ceremonious occasions, the native women thought it only friendly to ask for any pretty thing worn by their English lady friends. The wife of one missionary had much trouble on one occasion to protect a lace collar from the insistent fingers of a Malagasy lady. Still more embarrassing was the experience of another English lady, who was startled during a prayer meeting by a native woman stealthily endeavouring to examine her under petticoats.
One of the most imposing of the old Court ceremonies, the Feast of the Bath, was observed by the Queen to the last. It took place on New Year's Day, when the chiefs of the various Malagasy tribes came to the palace to pay their homage. Miss Herbert and the missionaries and their wives were also invited to be present.
The Queen sat in state upon her throne, the Prime Minister by her side. The company squatted upon the floor. A temporary hearth composed of earth in a square frame of wood was placed in the centre of the floor, the fire lighted, and rice cooked in a bag.
Meantime the Queen retired to a corner of the room, and, shielded by her ladies, was supposed to take her bath. This usually occupied an hour. When her Majesty came out, a horn was filled with the water from her bath, and she walked up and down the apartment sprinkling the water over her guests. This was supposed to bring them good luck for the coming year. Cannon were fired as a signal to people all over the capital to follow the Queen's example and have a bath.
The Feast of Friendship followed, at which rice and meat (zaka) preserved from the previous year were served with honey on banana leaves and eaten with leaf scoops for spoons. After the repast, the Prime Minister made a speech to the Queen, expressive of loyalty, when the missionaries offered their congratulations. The auspicious day closed with a great parade of lighted torches in the capital and the surrounding villages, a relic, doubtless, of the ancient fire worship.
The following day all the families who could afford it slaughtered a bullock, and sent presents of beef to their friends. The Queen had a number of bullocks killed for distribution. Her Majesty must have felt some kind of kinship when she heard of our own King and Queen distributing the Christmas beef amongst their retainers at Sandringham. The festive season, with its mingling of heathen and Christian rites and ceremonies, does indeed make the whole world kin.
The reign of Ranavalona came to an abrupt conclusion by circumstances beyond her control. Some of her people were unfavourable to the foreign element so rapidly gaining ground, and rose in rebellion against the French protectorate. Loyalty to the Queen was held to be at the root of the disturbance, and although she took no part whatever in inciting the rebellion, the French Government believed it to be necessary to dethrone and remove the Queen in order to restore peace. When the Queen's flag was lowered at the palace the situation was quickly surmised. The people were told that the Queen had gone away from the capital for a little to Reunion, but they surmised that she would never be allowed to return. In 1897 Madagascar was declared to be a French colony, and no longer a protectorate.
The Queen was a sad and passive figure in the midst of this bloodless rebellion, by which her hopes and ideals were shattered. The French Government treated her with kindness and consideration. She was provided with a suitable allowance and a villa in Algeria. Her aunt and sister accompanied her into exile, and her old friend and adviser, Miss Herbert, in whom the French Government has great confidence, spends much time with the ex-queen in Algeria and also in Paris, where she sojourns for part of the year and mixes in society. She remains a Protestant, and is much attached to the mission in Paris.
The ex-queen has a very affectionate nature, and never forgets her old friends. When she made her sorrowful departure from her beloved home she desired to give some little memento to some of her English friends, but, alas ! her departure from the palace had been so unexpected and hurried that she took few personal belongings with her to Reunion. To one lady to whom she desired to give a keepsake she sent a lamba, the graceful garment worn by the Malagasy ladies, and in sending it expressed regret that it was only a linen one, adding, "but I have nothing better left." Some of the lambas are of the richest materials and most beautifully embroidered with figures and flowers in silk, and the ex-queen would have liked to send one of those handsome garments to her old friend.
Ranavalona has long settled down to her life in exile. Like most of the women of her race, she has a gentle, placid nature, and bows her head serenely to altered circumstances. After the first shock was over, she made no repinings for herself. Her one anxiety was on account of her people.
The results of the French annexation are observable on all sides. Carriage roads have been made all over the island, connecting the chief ports with the principal inland towns; the rivers have been bridged, and the forests pierced, embankments raised, and cuttings excavated. A railway has been constructed from the coast to the capital. The Christian churches in Madagascar, although they have had some opposition to meet, still retain a hold upon a number of the people. There are, in fact, more church members and adherents in Madagascar than in all the London Missionary Society stations in India and China put together. All this is of the greatest satisfaction to the ex-queen. Still, three-fourths of Madagascar is still in heathen darkness.
Ranavalona leads a happy, peaceful life at her pretty villa in Algeria, busy with her private interests and charities, and is greatly beloved by her circle of friends.