Thursday, 04 February 2016
Amazon receives and probably deserves much of the flak it gets, but it does provide a good service to avid readers that I appreciate. My browsing history alerted it to my interest in Madagascar and I learned that there was a novel about Madagascar written by R M Ballantyne, of “Coral Island” fame. Not only that but it was available free for kindles. I’ve just finished reading it.
The Fugitives or the Tyrant Queen of Madagascar was first published in 1887 but even knowing it would be dated, there is a great deal to pull you up short on reading this work. It is – unsurprisingly – very colonial in its tone and the language is peppered with much that is no longer politically correct. Of the Tyrant Queen’s ladies in waiting for example: ‘some wore head-dresses of gorgeous colouring, composed of ribbons, flowers and feathers in great profusion, but as no head-dress, however strongly marked by barbaric splendour, can excel the amazing feminine crests in present use among the civilised, we refrain from attempting description!’
What is exceedingly powerful about this book is the account of the enslavement, torture and martyrdom of thousands of local Christians during the reign of the Tyrant Queen Ranavalona I who ruled from 1828 to 1861. She was barbaric and the lucky ones were simply thrown to their deaths from a huge rock (“the Place of Hurling”) close to the royal palace. The portrayal of the Malagasy Christians who refused to deny their faith on pain of death is moving.
Ballantyne clearly did his research well regarding the historical setting of this adventure story, whose central characters are three Englishmen – a medical student, a sailor and the ships cook, nicknamed Ebony because he is black. The men land on Madagascar but are marooned on the island when their ship is attacked. The unlikely threesome decide to head for the Malagasy capital to appeal for aid. As they travel though the dense forests of Madagascar, Ballantyne does attempt to describe the beauty of the wild country but here he fails and it is clear he has neither visited the island nor researched its incredible plants and animals. In chapters 9 – 11 Ballantyne describes hunting herds of wild cattle. Yes cattle rustling was practised but these were not wild animals. Grasshoppers and a kind of wolf are mentioned and in chapter 25 there is reference to “an abundance of game such as pheasant, partridge, peacocks, turkeys and snipe.” None of these are found on Madagascar. And there is but passing mention of lemurs and nothing of the amazing baobabs that dominated the dry forests. So don’t read this novel for the natural history, read it for an astonishing account of the queen some believe was half mad, others describe as the ultimate anti-colonial nationalist.
Posted: 04/02/2016 11:23:10
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