The Little-Known Story of Madagascar’s Last Queen, Ranavalona III

Artifacts linked to the royal are headed home following their purchase at auction by the African island’s government

Ranavalona III
Ranavalona III succeeded her great-aunt, Ranavalona II, in 1883. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Editor's Note, December 10, 2020: Earlier this week, Madagascar’s government purchased a trove of artifacts linked to the island’s last queen, Ranavalona III, for £43,000 (around $57,000 USD)—significantly higher than Kerry Taylor Auction’s estimate of £1,000 to £1,500, or $1,300 to $2,000 USD. The documents, photographs and other assorted mementos will now return to Madagascar, where they will go on view alongside Ranavalona's recently repatriated royal dias, reports Mark Brown for the Guardian.

“Madagascar attaches great importance to the acquisition of these royal items as part of the reappropriation of Malagasy national history and cultural heritage,” says the African country's president, Andry Rajoelina. “They will be installed in the newly reopened, restored Queen’s palace, where they will be displayed to the general public.” Read more about Ranavalona’s life below.

A cabernet dress adorned with pearls, a collection of family photographs and an assortment of precious mementos associated with Madagascar’s last queen, Ranavalona III, are among the artifacts set to go under the hammer today in Kerry Taylor Auctions’ latest fashion-forward sale.

As Taylor tells the Guardian’s Mark Brown, the lot—expected to sell for between $1,300 and $2,000—sheds light on the little-known ruler’s tumultuous reign, which ended in 1897 with France’s annexation of Madagascar and exile of the African country’s royal family.

“It has been the most fascinating detective work,” Taylor says. “The queen I think was a very brave woman. She was very strong in adversity … she had to make the best of what life dealt her.”

The objects featured in the sale previously belonged to Clara Herbert, a paid companion who worked for the Madagascan royal family between the 1890s and the 1920s. One of Herbert’s descendants discovered the trove while clearing out an attic in Guildford, England, according to the Guardian.

Auction highlights include the lavish satin gown, which was once worn by Princess Ramisindrazana, Ranavalona’s aunt and political advisor; photographs showing the royal family visiting France and Algeria; and a number of transportation and household receipts.

A favorite grandniece of then-queen Ranavalona II, the younger Ranavalona was born Princess Razafindrahety in 1861. As Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson wrote for Face 2 Face Africa in 2018, she was raised as a Protestant and taught by instructors from the London Missionary Society. Upon completing her education, she wed a nobleman named Ratrimo, but he died under suspicious circumstances in May 1883, just two months before the queen herself passed away. Following her great-aunt’s death, the 22-year-old princess took the throne as Ranavalona III.

A dress worn by Princess Ramisindrazana, Ranavalona III's aunt and political advisor Courtesy of Kerry Taylor Auctions
A picture of the royal family in exile Courtesy of Kerry Taylor Auctions
The collection contains a number of family receipts and other personal trinkets. Courtesy of Kerry Taylor Auctions

At the time of Ranavalona’s ascension, Madagascar was navigating a shift from absolute rule to constitutional monarchy. Under the new system, true authority was vested in the prime minister: in this case, a man named Rainilaiarivony, who secured his grasp on power by marrying the newly crowned—and recently widowed—queen. (In accordance with tradition, Rainilaiarivony had previously wed Ranavalona’s predecessors, Ranavalona II and Rasoherina.)

The elderly prime minister had no intention of relinquishing his authority to the young queen, and as Kerry Taylor Auction notes in a blog post, rumors circulated that he’d poisoned Ratrimo when it became apparent that Ranavalona would probably succeed her great-aunt.

“This poor girl had to marry this horrible old man,” Taylor tells the Guardian. “She was told she just needed to do needlework and look nice.”

An 1895 Scientific American article described the queen as “timid,” “taller than the ordinary height” and “darker than most of her subjects.” Face2Face notes that Ranavalona took a more active role in governing than previous queens and was particularly passionate about preventing her country from falling victim to France’s colonial aspirations.

Though the royal couple attempted to ward off French incursion, their efforts proved futile. In September 1895, Ranavalona was forced to surrender Madagascar’s capital, Tananarive, to the French, who removed Rainilaiarivony from power and exiled him to Algiers, according to Initially kept on as a figurehead, Ranavalona was exiled in 1897 to prevent rebels from rallying to her cause.

The deposed queen and her family spent two years on the island of Réunion before being relocated to Algiers. Upon learning of her new destination, Ranavalona reportedly lamented, “Who is certain of tomorrow? Only yesterday I was a queen. Today I am simply an unhappy, broken-hearted woman.”

Ranavalona III
A portrait of Ranavalona III in exile Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Contrary to her fears, the queen actually enjoyed a comfortable life in Algiers, where she “became something of a cause célèbre,” per the blog post. In 1901, she traveled to France for the first time, taking full advantage of the cultural attractions and French finery. Barred from returning to Madagascar despite making repeated requests to the colonial government, Ranavalona died of an embolism in 1917 at age 55.

Compared with her former subjects, who found themselves “reduced to a work force” and deprived of their freedoms, according to Unesco, the queen was relatively lucky. As Aurore Bonny notes for the Anadolu Agency, France’s colonial administration maintained slavery, closed schools, forced locals to speak French and required Indigenous people to pay additional taxes. When the Democratic Movement for Malagasy Renewal, a prominent Indigenous political party, launched an independence movement in 1946, the French government brutally retaliated by massacring thousands of Malagasy people. Madgascar only gained its independence in 1960.

In recent years, the French government has attempted to atone for its colonial wrongdoings by repatriating artifacts looted from Africa. Officials returned one such object—a crown worn by Ranavalona—just last month, authorizing its transport from the Army Museum at Les Invalides to the queen’s former palace in Antananarivo, reports Colette Dehalle for the Podcast Journal.

The collection of royal treasures featured in today’s sale speaks to more than simply Ranavalona’s overlooked legacy.

“It is incredibly rare to find high fashion of the late 19th century worn by black women,” the auction house’s blog post states, “and even more rare to find such a wealth of documents, photographs and ephemera to augment our understanding of them.”

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