Ever heard of Queen Ranavalona? Ever heard of the tangena ordeal? No, didn’t think so. One of my colleagues Cut Thumb put me on to the story; as he’s very much prone to flights of fancy I thought I’d better check for myself. It turns out he wasn’t making it up. It sort of sounds like a really terrible Harry Potter prequel doesn’t it?
Queen Ranavalona was daughter of Prince Andriantsalamanjaka and Princess Rabodonandriantompo (I swear I’m not making this up) and was ruler of the Kingdom of Madagascar from 1828 to 1861. She was a right handful by all accounts.
Her main policies centered around getting rid of those pesky French and British colonial types and ridding her island of Christianity. She wanted the island to be able to look after itself and be left alone to do so. To help complete her mission she ruled with an unrelenting iron fist. She cracked down on foreign trade and increased forced labour. She extended her realm and executed anyone who was giving her jip.
The combination of regular warfare, disease, difficult forced labor and harsh measures of justice resulted in a high mortality rate among soldiers and civilians alike during her 33-year reign. It’s thought that the population of the island halved from 5 to 2.5 million from 1833 and 1839.
OK, so now you’ve got an idea of the gnarly backdrop I’ll explain what the strange-sounding tangena ordeal is.
The tangena ordeal was not an invention of Queen Ranavalona, its first use was documented in the 1600’s. But Ranavalona was a massive fan and probably the most prolific user of all time. Basically they would extract a poison from the nut of the tangena shrub and give it to people. Simple as that. Tangena blocks certain ion channels in the heart causing it to go all spazzy and is generally fatal.
Their reasoning was that if the person died, they were guilty, if they survived they were telling the truth. Historians that study the era say that the divinity of the tangena was so entrenched in popular thought that even people who knew they were innocent would actually ask to go through the tangena ordeal to prove it. Basically the people of Madagascar treated the poison as an oracle that never ever lied.
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