"She has fulfilled all our hopes; her life has been blameless; and she has taken a deep interest in all religious and philanthropic work." Such was our missionaries' estimate of the Queen of Madagascar before she went into exile, and that estimate is retained to-day.
Those who have been intimately acquainted with the ex-queen from her earliest years speak of her with deepest affection and high regard, and regret the complication of circumstances which have severed her from her people.
Madagascar is of special interest to English readers as being situated near our own colony of Mauritius, and from the fact that during the past hundred years it owes not only Christianising influences, but also much of its modern civilisation and industrial education to the efforts of the London Missionary Society and the devoted workers connected with it.
Queen Ranavalona is at the present day (1911) a woman in her prime, of sweet and amiable nature, fair education, and considerable refinement. She enjoys the esteem of all who come in contact with her either in Paris or in Algeria, where she alternately makes her home. While perfectly loyal to the arrangements made by the French Government for the administration of her country, she retains the deepest affection for her former subjects, and follows the history of her beloved land with unabated interest.
The life story of the exiled Queen teems with romantic and stirring incident. She was the Princess Rayafindrahety, and was born on November 22, 1861, at a village a few miles from Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. She belonged to the Royal tribe of the Hova, the most intelligent, civilised, and advanced of the Malagasy tribes, and the lightest in colour. The Hovas are believed to be of Arab descent, and have displayed great energy of character and capacity for ruling. The queens of the house have been remarkable in their way. Ranavalona I. was a cruel and despotic ruler, and the second of the name was distinguished as a wise and enlightened Christian monarch.
Her native village was one of those groups of reddish-brown houses thatched with grass which dot the high, inland country of Imerina, standing out like "red islands " amidst a "green sea" of rice-fields, as the Rev. James Sibree picturesquely describes the landscape. Her childhood was passed much like that of other native children. She knew nothing of palaces or castles or the etiquette of Court life, and enjoyed the free open-air life amongst the hills and the rice plains, wearing the minimum of clothing about her strong young limbs in play hours, and on State occasions the graceful lamba of white cotton, probably from Manchester, draped around her body and the end thrown over one shoulder.
She was born at a critical transition period in the history of her country. Missionary enterprise had done wonders for Madagascar in formulating its language, introducing printing, and instructing the people in arts and crafts, even in soap-making.
After the accession of Queen Ranavalona I., in 1828, came a rebound. She became jealous of the influence of the missionaries over her people, forbade the practice of Christianity, and a period of terrible persecution followed for our missionaries and their native converts.
The Queen of cruel memory died in 1861, the same year in which the subject of this sketch was born, and a better era opened for the country. The London Missionary Society re-established its beneficent work amongst the people, and was left unmolested by the new monarch, Radama II., and his wife, Rasoherina, who in two years succeeded him.
Owing to this change in events the mission schools were reopened in the villages, and at one of these the future Queen, Ranavalona III., received her early education. She was not, however, wholly freed from the heathen influences of her native village until her aunt, Ranavalona II., the first Christian Queen of Madagascar, succeeded to the throne in 1868. At her coronation no idols were allowed to be brought out, and the Bible was placed at the Queen's right hand. She and her husband, the Prime Minister, instituted Christian worship in the Royal houses, and received religious instruction from native pastors. Then came, in September, 1869, the wonderful episode known as the "burning of the idols " by the people of the Imerina province. One can imagine the impression made upon the future Queen by this event, which occurred when she was a girl of eight.
A new era now opened up before her. She was regarded as the heir to the throne, and left her primitive village life to live with her aunt, the Queen, at the Royal house in the capital, where her education was continued under Christian influences. She learned to speak French and English, to play the piano, and to do the beautiful needlework for which the women of her country are famed.
When she was fifteen a romance came into the young girl's life, and she made a love match with Ratremo, a young man of the Royal tribe, who was reputed to be good and intelligent, and well fitted to be a worthy consort for the future Queen. Unfortunately, he died four years later, leaving his young wife childless and disconsolate. Many years of unhappiness would doubtless have been spared her had he lived.
As a young widow of twenty-two, she succeeded to the throne of Madagascar on the death of her aunt, in 1883, and assumed the name of Ranavalona III. Shortly afterwards she was persuaded to marry the Prime Minister, the husband of the late Queen, an all-powerful person in the country. The union proved unsuitable, and the young Queen suffered much unhappiness within the privacy of the Royal house.