In a sea of mid-century Balenciaga couture, early-19th century ballet costumes from Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and other objects, lot 51 stood out at the Passion for Fashion sale at Kerry Taylor Auctions on December 8th, 2020. Lot 51 consists of a rare and special collection originally belonging to Queen Ranavalona III, the last queen of the Kingdom of Madagascar, and her aunt and political advisor the Princess Ramasindrazana. The second-largest sale of the day, lot 51 included a vibrant and richly-worked 1897 court gown of “cyclamen pink” satin and burgundy velvet, which belonged to Princess Ramasindrazana, and various ephemera, including photographs and other objets.
The story of Ranavalona III (1861-1917), the last of the Malagasy queens, and the last monarch of the island nation of Madagascar, is punctuated by complex negotiations of power and colonial hegemony. Born the niece of Queen Ranavalona II and the great-granddaughter of King Andrianampoinimerina, Ranavalona took the throne on her twenty-second birthday (November 22, 1883) after the death of her aunt the same year. She took the royal name Ranavalona and was styled, “Her Majesty Ranavalona III by the grace of God and the will of the people, Queen of Madagascar, and Protectoress of the laws of the Nation.” As was then the custom, she married her prime minister—and her aunt’s widower—Rainilaiarivony, who was thirty-three years her senior.
Ranavalona’s role as queen was largely symbolic, as political power belonged to Rainilaiarivony who governed the country. Despite her youth and the subjugating patriarchal organization of power within the institution to which she belonged, her coronation address was markedly audacious. The new queen fiercely vowed to protect her kingdom against intruders, boldly stating, “‘[s]hould anyone dare to claim even a hair’s breadth, I will show myself to be a man, and go along with you to protect your fatherland.’ ‘Is it not so, O people?’, she asked, raising her sceptre, as her subjects brandished guns, spears and shields.”
In spite of Ranavalona’s highly-gendered role, small stature, and petite physique, which French newspapers and commentators would later infantilizingly describe as “almost doll-like,” the sacrosanctity of her address challenged the stereotypes of her subjectivity. The Malagasy queen was resolute in her convictions to protect her kingdom, her subjects, and her fellow countrymen. However, over the next fourteen years, the queen’s boadicean spirit and authority would be persistently challenged by French encroachment, until her eventual deposition and permanent exile in 1897.
In 1885, the French, citing violence against its settlers on the island, forced Ranavalona to sign a treaty “that in all but name made Madagascar a French protectorate under the authority of a Resident-General.” This further diminished the queen’s already-compromised authority and gave way for increased French colonial control over the next decade. By 1895, the French had occupied the capital by force after the Malagasy government refused to sign another even more erosive treaty the year prior. A rebellion—named Menalamba after the red shawls of the rebels—broke out, and the movement, which invoked the name of the queen in its fight against European invaders, compelled the French to slowly decenter Ranavalona and eventually dethrone and exile her.
Due to the alleged complicity of the Malagasy royal family in the rebellions, several of Ranavalona’s male relatives were executed. Her husband, the prime minister was deposed and exiled to Algeria, where he died shortly after. Due to her gender, the Princess Ramasindrazana, the queen’s aunt and political advisor, was not executed but instead exiled to Sainte-Marie in an act of “paternalistic noblesse oblige.” On February 28, 1897, Ranavalona, like her aunt before her, was exiled to Sainte-Marie and then to the island of Réunion, where she lived as a ward of the French colonial government with her aunt and her infant great-niece (the daughter of an unnamed French soldier and her recently-deceased niece, who died in exile with her very shortly after giving birth) whom she adopted. After close to two years, the exiled former queen and her small entourage of family and servants was sent to Algeria, where she maintained a humble residence in the Mustapha district until her death in 1917.
Over the course of her entire life, Ranavalona was celebrated for her taste and personal style. She was the only Malagasy royal, for example, to import the majority of her wardrobe from Paris rather than London, which was formerly the custom of the royals who were largely influenced by English culture through Protestant missionaries. An American journalist covering the queen in 1896 wrote in The Scientific American that “[i]n the grand state ceremonies the queen appears with a rich diadem on her forehead and is dressed in rich Parisian gowns. The dress which she ordered last from Paris is of silk embroidered with gold and trimmed with ermine, and bears the initials “R.M.” Ranavalona’s well-documented penchant for and proximity to French finery, both before and after her deposition and exile, make her a complex figure in fin de siecle French and Parisian popular culture.
Popular newspapers such as Fémina, L’Illustration, and Le Petit Journal, which boasted “the highest print-run of any newspaper in the world,” and even more socially-conservative newspapers such as the mondaine favorite Le Figaro, reported on the ex-queen “in almost obsessive detail.” When Ranavalona was granted permission to take trips to Paris and provincial France, reporters followed her, invariably taking down what she ate, whom she was with, and, what she wore. She drew small crowds wherever she went and was received by the president, local mayors, and dignitaries just like any visiting head-of-state. The French public were, in some ways, sympathetic to the queen and even petitioned the colonial government for a raise in her pension—a request that was refused for several years before being taken seriously. Despite her grand receptions, her celebrity and the curiosity of the French public, however, Ranavalona was still a ward of the French government, and as such, possessed very little power.
As the ex-queen of a French protectorate, Ranavalona occupied an extremely liminal place in French society. She was a woman of color in a majority-white country and a deposed African queen in the center of an empire who conscripted her political downfall, took possession of her ancestral homeland, and effectively kidnapped her and her family. As much as Ranavalona was praised for her style, her sartorial choices were inherently judged on how closely she resembled the Parisienne, an idealized version of French womanhood largely defined by restrictive qualities such as nationalism, whiteness, and constructs of gentility. Robert Aldrich, author of “Banished Potentates: Dethroning and Exiling Indigenous Monarchs under British and French Colonial Rule, 1815-1955,” argues that the queen was, in the minds and eyes of the French people, a propagandizing colonial success story. “France’s mission civilisatrice, newspapers implied, had worked well on native royals who appreciated haute cuisine and haute couture…Crowds, though small, gathered enthusiastically to see the ex-queen become French subject ‘with the most respectful and benevolent curiosity’.”
In this way, Ranavalona’s status as a celebrated figure of interest was compromised by a self-other dichotomy that placed her in the latter category. Despite her relative acceptance, she was still not a Gauloise, but instead “‘an exotic Tanagra’” according to Le Figaro. In 1901, during Ranavalona’s first visit to Paris, a journalist who covered her trip wrote “that the queen wore a dress of black silk decorated with violet flowers, her aunt a yellow outfit and the little girl [her adopted niece] a white dress. The writer mused that such vivid colours might be normal in Tananarive, but were not ‘très parisienne’ in the eyes of those gathered to see the ‘exotic queen and her relatives.’” During a 1907 trip to the sea-side resort commune of Cabourg, a gala performance of Léo Délibe’s orientalist extravaganza Lakmé was held in honor of Ranavalona’s visit. Le Figaro reported that the “opera, set in India, [was] ‘appropriate’ as entertainment” for the Malagasy ex-queen.
Ranavalona III died on the 23rd of January, 1917, of an aneurism, in her home in Algeria. She had no children, never remarried, and never returned to Madagascar in her lifetime. She was survived by her adopted great-niece Marie-Louise, who had no children and remained in France until her death in 1948. Marie-Louise received the Légion d’honneur for her service as a nurse during the Second World War. She was also survived by her American-born great-nephew, Harlem-Renaissance era composer and lyricist Andy Razaf, who helped create such classic Jazz and Blues standards as “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” and “Honeysuckle Rose.”
After Ranavalona’s death in 1917, her aunt Princess Ramasindrazana moved to Nice, where she eventually died in 1924. Curiously, despite having some living relatives when she died, she designated a Miss Clara Herbert, her “friend of more than thirty years” as the primary inheritor of her estate. Miss Herbert, a British Missionary, appears in some of the photographs in the collection belonging to lot 51. She was a paid companion of the royal family throughout their travels and after the queen’s death, she replaced Princess Ramasindrazana’s head of staff, much to the chagrin of the ousted dame de compagnie. Mrs. Howey, the woman in question, was so disgruntled that she complained to the French colonial government who was still overseeing the care of Princess Ramasindrazana, saying, “‘The poor old princess was completely hypnotised by this woman.’” Her testimony continued:
In order to console her in her grief [over the death of Ranavalona], and so that she might speak her own language, I suggested bringing Miss Herbert to spend some time with us…However, the very day of her arrival, this English woman ensconced herself in the same bed as the princess, leaving her neither by day nor by night!
The nature of Miss Herbert’s intimate relationship with the Princess remains somewhat unclear, but after her death in 1924, Miss Herbert kept the belongings of the Princess and the royal family in near-perfect condition until her own death. Her collection, including the 1897 court gown, belonging to Princess Ramasindrazana, was recently discovered in an attic in Surrey, England by a descendant of Miss Herbert. This remarkable collection was sold for £43,000 on December 8, 2020, by Kerry Taylor Auctions.
The collection will return to the island of Madagascar, where it will stay. “The president of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, said: ‘Madagascar attaches great importance to the acquisition of these royal items as part of the reappropriation of Malagasy national history and cultural heritage. They will be installed in the newly reopened, restored Queen’s palace, where they will be displayed to the general public.’”
 Stratton, The Great Red Island, 142.
 Aldrich, Banished Potentates, 217.
 Ibid, 229.
 Ibid, 219.
 Ibid, 228-229.
 Scientific American, “The Queen of Madagascar,” 16568.
 Aldrich, Banished Potentates, 234.
 Ibid, 237.
 Ibid, 238.
 Ibid, 236.
 Ibid, 234.
 Ibid, 237.
 Ibid, 240.
 Brown, “Relics of Madagascar’s last queen.”
Aldrich, Robert. Banished Potentates: Dethroning and Exiling Indigenous Monarchs under British and French Colonial Rule, 1815-1955. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017.
Brown, Mark. Lost relics telling story of Madagascar’s last queen will return home. The Guradian, December 9, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/dec/09/madagascar-relics-queen-ranavalona-iii
“The Queen of Madagascar.” Scientific American: Supplement, no. 1037. Munn and Company, 1895.
“The Last Queen of Madagascar.” Kerry Taylor Auctions, 2020. https://www.kerrytaylorauctions.com/story/the-last-queen-of-madagascar/?pc=25.
Stratton, Arthur. The Great Red Island. Berlin: Scribner, 1964.