The Strange Case of King Radama II

The Strange Case of King Radama II

Madagascar had a king.  And then they didn’t.  But maybe they still did.  To this day no one is entirely sure.

It begins with Madagascar’s Queen Ranavalona, who through bloody conquest managed to unite most of the island under her rule while also successfully keeping Europe at bay.  The only problem was that to accomplish her rule and independence, she had to use very harsh and violent tactics.

Ranavalona I and her son

Ranavalona had a son.  Technically he was the son of her deceased husband Radama I, but in truth Radama had died more than nine months before the baby’s birth and it was far more likely that his father was the Queen’s progressive young lover Andriamihaja.  It was an affair doomed to fail, however, as the Queen’s more conservative advisors convinced her to execute her the father of her son and institute a more regressive regime. 

The Queen’s son was troubled by the harsh reign of his mother and held a more favorable impression of Europeans.  In 1855 he was convinced by the French adventurer Joseph-Francois Lambert to secretly sign a treaty giving France nearly free rein to the land and resources of Madagascar.*  When Lambert decided he had waited long enough, he attempted a coup to replace Ranavalona with her son in 1857.  The coup failed, and her son claimed that he had been tricked into signing.  As his French was poor at the time, trickery is entirely possible: it was trickery that would have given France all tenders for public works projects, exclusive right to mint coins, and the mining rights of the island.  To say the Lambert Charter was one-sided is merely the kindest description it can be given.

Ranavalona did not long survive the post-coup purge she ordered, and upon her death in 1861 her son assumed the throne as King Radama II.

Radama immediately began to institute reforms.  He re-introduced freedom of religion.  He removed the sampy (royal holy talismans) from Antananarivo and allowed pigs to be raised within the city.  He allowed the missionaries to return and re-establish their schools, freed political prisoners and offered to repatriate property that had been confiscated under Ranavalona.   Not only did this earn him the goodwill of the tribes on the island that his mother had conquered, but it earned high praise from the Europeans as well.

Not everyone was pleased, however.  Radama II’s conservative political advisors were apoplectic.  Feelings reached the breaking point when he re-instituted the Lambert Charter, seen by the Hova (common people) as a repudiation of the holiness of Madagascar’s land according to their ancestors.  Never before had foreigners been able to hold land on the island in perpetuity. *

When Radama II announced his intention to legalize dueling as a method to settle disputes, the Malagasy army acted.  On 8 May 1863 they marched on the royal compound at Rova Palace and demanded the King’s advisors.  The menamaso (advisors) were eventually handed over on the promise that they would be spared death.  That promise was not kept; the menamaso were speared to death on 10 May.   On 12 May the King himself was strangled to death, to avoid shedding royal blood.  He was replaced in rule by his wife, who became Queen Rasoherina.

King Radama II and his wife, pre-strangulation

 The citizens of Madagascar were told that their king had committed suicide in despair over the deaths of his advisors and it was declared illegal for any to mourn him.

The story of Radama II should end there, but it does not.  

Within a few months of his strangulation, rumors began to surface that the king had survived and was attempting to gather support to return to the capital and seize the throne.  The new government responded by executing possible supporters of a Radama II return and fining hundreds of others. 

But why would the government react so decisively to the threat of a dead king?  Could it be because they didn’t believe he was really dead?

According to research done by French historians, it is very possible that Radama II did survive his assassination and live his life out until old age as a private citizen.  Reports were submitted that the “dead” king began to stir as he was being carried to the royal tomb, terrifying those carrying him and causing them to flee and lie about accomplishing their assigned task. Christian missionaries attempted to reach the king, but were unable to do so. Other evidence of his survival surfaced as well.

And that is where the history of King Radama II stands today – with an asterisk next to  his date of death and a notation of “contested”.

*A similar incident, but this time involving the car company Daewoo, occurred in 2009 and resulted in a coup against the government

To read more about Madagascar, please click here.


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