Thursday, March 30, 2023

Guest Post: The marriage of Ranavalona I to Said bin Sultan

This post courtesy of Sea Lion Press.

December 1833

The Mad Queen of Madagascar Ranavalona accepted the marriage offer of the Lion of Oman, Said bin Sultan, crowning an alliance between their two realms.

Ranavalona had inherited control over the rapidly expanding Merina Kingdom in  Madagascar from her cousin and husband Radama I. Radama had conquered large areas of the lowlands with an army of serfs and had banned the slave trade in order to win an alliance with the British Empire. However, by the time of Radama's death in 1828, losses due to malaria and enemy action were severely costing his armies, and the riches that could be obtained by looting were far less than had been counted on. Ranavalona's rule was a slowdown in expansion, stopping short of unifying the entire island while building up her standing army to the huge size of 30,000 men, all armed with homemade firearms. Ranavalona oversaw the pacification of these newly conquered lands, which led to huge loss of life. The Merina occupation forces would accuse prominent and suspected rebels of casting harmful spells on the occupiers and then force them into taking the trial by poison. Literal witch hunts became prominent as a way of removing powerful men without the need for evidence.

Ranavalona was also far less powerful than Radama, with a circle of noble advisers having increasing influence, and she came to regret her partnership with the UK, which had failed to benefit her economically as the British emphasis on free trade meant that their traders weren’t willing to pay export taxes. It had also opened the door for British missionaries, who were openly preaching Christianity and teaching literacy rather than useful engineering skills. Further, her nobles made private deals with British traders to gain their own influence. The British presence ultimately discouraged other Europeans, such as a German attempt to bring in electricity, which London prevented.

Ranavalona wanted to escape this alliance and push towards autarchy rather than free trade, but she needed some protection. She found that in the Sultan of Oman, one of Madagascar's major trade partners, who had moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar in Tanzania the previous year to centre his empire on his African holdings, where he was fighting a war in Kenya. He proposed an alliance between his state and Ranavalona, which would allow his riches and her army to combine and dominate East Africa. Tthis alliance would be marked by Ranavalona becoming one of his many wives. After some discussion, the Merina Queen accepted, changing the fate of East Africa forever.

Note: The proposal was a real one, but in reality was politely rebuffed.

Provine's Addendum

The marriage and resulting unification drawing Madagascar into the Omani Empire established a far-flung series of land-holdings across the western Indian Ocean from India, Arabia, the African continent, and Madagascar. It also brought to the forefront the complexities of empire with a populace that largely followed Ibadi Islam but also had pockets of Christianity and Hinduism as well as numerous indigenous religions, especially in Madagascar. In the years leading up to his death in 1856, Said bin Sultan worked to determine a coherent path, which proved to be economically-driven religious tolerance as he abided the different practices of Ranavalona. Rather than breaking his empire among his sons as he began to think, Said bin Sultan decided to maintain a political unity to promote wealth through trade.

The empire focused on building its navy to support trade, which simultaneously boosted the capabilities for industrialization. Iron ore was mined in Zanzibar while coal was brought from Madagascar, turning the new city built by Majid bin Said, Dar es Salaam, into one of the largest centers of industry in the world. The "floating empire" of shipping ports gained expansive inland gains as railroads were added, largely with assistance by German engineering and banks. French and British colonialists attempted to gain influence as well, but the diligence of the sultan prevented the empire from being carved up. It profited greatly as a neutral supplier in World War I, sending material to both sides until the Allied blockade forced Omani interests toward Britain and France. Following the war, the empire saw its own wave of nationalism break it into its regional pieces though attempting to maintain the strong economic bloc of the West Indian Ocean.

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