Ranavalona I (also called Ramavo), was the queen of Madagascar from 1828 to 1861 following the death of her young husband Radama. She pursued a policy of isolationism and self-sufficiency thus reducing the amount of European influence on the island.
Ranavalona’s European contemporaries generally viewed her as an insane tyrant. These negative characteristics persisted in western literature, though later academic research recast her actions as that of a leader trying to expand her empire while protecting Malagasy sovereignty against European influence.
Princess Ramavo was born in the royal palace. When she was still young, her father alerted King Andrianamponimerina of an assassination plot led by his uncle. In return for saving his life, the King betrothed Ramavo to his son Radama.
When Radama died in 1828, Ranavalona became the first female ruler in the kingdom of Imerina. Her 33-year reign was characterized by her effort to strengthen the domestic authority of the Imerina and preserve the sovereignty of Madagascar. In 1835 she forbade the practice of Christianity among the Malagasy and within a year, nearly all foreigners have left her territory.
Ranavalona continued the wars of conquest conducted by her predecessors and imposed strict punishments on those who acted in opposition to her will and harsh traditions under her rule which made the population of Madagascar decline from around 5 million in 1833 to about 2.5 million in 1839.
On August 16, 1861, Ranavalona died in her sleep. After her death, Ranavalona’s traditionalist policies were reversed by her son and successor Radama II.
Although Ranavalona has traditionally been depicted as a cruel and xenophobic tyrant, most Malagasy admire her effort to preserve their traditions and independence. The majority, despite their feelings towards her domestic policies, consider her a remarkable figure in Malagasy history and commend her strength as a ruler in a period of tension with European powers.