Queen Ranavalona III
Queen's Room Gallery
Historical Comtemporary Funerary Activity


Objects as envoys

Queen Adelaide receiving the Malagasy ambassadors at Windsor Castle in March 1837During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Merina kingdom of the central highlands came to control much of Madagascar's internal and external affairs. When Merina rulers entered into diplomatic relations with foreign nations after 1817, they presented gifts of fine silk cloth and other objects to establish diplomatic ties.

The objects and images on exhibit are part of the fascinating story of the diplomatic relations that existed between Madagascar and the United States in the late 1800s. Objects--stunning silk textiles, a decorative bone pin and a basket from Madagascar; a sewing machine, a photograph album and a pair of revolvers from the United States--served as "envoys" to convey mutual respect and political support between the two nations.

Diplomatic relations between the United States and Madagascar centered on strengthening economic and political ties at a time when Britain and France were seeking to exercise control over Madagascar. The main personalities in this story are the Malagasy queen Ranavalona III, the United States president Grover Cleveland and John Lewis Waller--the first African-American consul to Madagascar.

A queen's gifts

In 1886, Queen Ranavalona III of Madagascar sent two stunning silk textiles to United States president Grover Cleveland as a gift of friendship. Since the 1830s, the United States had been a strategic ally and one of Madagascar's most important trading partners. By presenting high-prestige silk textiles to President Cleveland, Queen Ranavalona III hoped to secure support from the United States in countering French and British colonial designs on the island. When President Cleveland left office in 1889, he donated the cloths and other objects he received from the queen to the Smithsonian National Museum.

Royal akotofahana cloths Cloth (lamba akotofahana) presented in 1886 by Queen Ranavalona III to President Grover ClevelandThe textiles that Merina monarchs gave to foreign dignitaries were spectacular creations called akotofahana. Associated with the court and nobility, akotofahana cloth was the highest form of dress reserved for special occasions. Early European observers were unanimous in their opinion that the silk akotofahana made by Merina weavers were the finest textiles woven on the island. One 19th-century author likened the textile to "a setting of sparkling precious stones."

These singular works of textile art were made from mulberry silk (introduced to Madagascar's highlands in the 1830s) and woven into geometric "weft float" designs. Weavers formed these motifs by hand, laboriously lifting warp threads (those running lengthwise in the fabric) to insert separate colored weft yarns that "float" over the ground weave. Little is known about the origins or meanings of the motifs--many of which recur frequently in the historic akotofahana cloths--but they appear to be primarily aesthetic rather than symbolic.

With the decline of the Merina monarchy in 1896, weavers lost their primary patron for the luxurious and extremely expensive akotofahana textiles. They continued to make smaller, more simplified versions of them, however, for a local, mostly rural clientele.

Royal Gifts

Along with the two luxurious silk akotofahana, Madagascar's Queen Ranavalona III sent President Grover Cleveland a delicately carved bone pin and a lidded basket as gifts designed to forge strong ties of friendship and support between the two nations. The choice of these gifts stemmed both from their symbolic importance and the desire of the Malagasy government to show Western nations the delicacy and sophistication of its artistic traditions. In Madagascar, baskets were--and remain--appropriate containers for gifts.

Bird-shaped pin presented in 1886 by Queen Ranavalona III to President Grover Cleveland
Bird-shaped pin presented in 1886 by Queen Ranavalona III to President Grover Cleveland
Merina peoples, Madagascar
Late 19th century
Bone

National Museum of Natural History,
Smithsonian Institution, 165,584
Lidded basket presented in 1886 by Queen Ranavalona III to President Grover Cleveland
Lidded basket presented in 1886 by Queen Ranavalona III to President Grover Cleveland
Merina peoples, Madagascar
Late 19th century
Fiber, dye

National Museum of Natural History,
Smithsonian Institution, 165,582
Queen Ranavalona III

Ranavalona III, Queen of MadagascarThe Merina queen Ranavalona III (reigned 1883--96) came to the throne in 1883 at age 18. This was a turbulent time, when Madagascar was at war with France. The war ended in the peace treaty of 1885 that ceded to France control over Madagascar's foreign affairs.

During her reign, Queen Ranavalona III tried to thwart both French and British designs to control Madagascar by turning to the nation's strategic trading partner--the United States--for support. Despite the queen's efforts, her fate was sealed when the French finally invaded and colonized Madagascar in 1896. They abolished the Merina monarchy and exiled Queen Ranavalona III to Algeria, where she died in 1917.


President Grover Cleveland

President Grover AlexanderGrover Cleveland (1837-1908) was the 22nd and 24th president of the United States, the only president to have served two nonconsecutive terms (1885-89, 1893-97). He was the first Democrat elected after the Civil War, but he appealed to both parties with his pledge to fight political corruption and big money interests.

Cleveland was born in New Jersey and raised in upstate New York. As a young lawyer, he became active in politics, serving as mayor of Buffalo and later as governor of New York before being elected president. He died in 1908.


Presidential Gifts

Malagasy woman using a sewing machineAfter the signing of the first American-Malagasy treaty of 1867, Queen Rasoherina and Prime Minister Rainilaiarivoy sent gifts of silk cloth to President Andrew Johnson. In return, the United States government sent gifts demonstrating the latest technologies and views of American life. These included a Singer sewing machine with the most up-to-date improvements, a gold pen and pencil set and a photograph album of American views. The prime minister received an ornately designed pair of Smith and Wesson revolvers. Both exchanges demonstrated each nation's conventions of gift giving and diplomacy.

Pictured above (from top to bottom)
Queen Adelaide receiving the Malagasy ambassadors at Windsor Castle in March 1837
Color photograph of an oil-on-canvas painting by the British painter Henry Room (1802-1850)
Crown © U.K. Government Art Collection
Courtesy Government of the Republic of Madagascar

Cloth (lamba akotofahana) presented in 1886 by Queen Ranavalona III to President Grover Cleveland
Merina peoples, Madagascar
Late 19th century
Silk, dye
National Museum of Natural History,
Smithsonian Institution, 165,580

As early as 1837, the Merina sent delegations to the powerful nations of Europe to press for guarantees that the island would not be invaded and that Madagascar's independence would be recognized.

Ranavalona III, queen of Madagascar
Photograph by J. Geyser, c. 1900
Collotype

Postcard Collection, MG-15-8
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

President Grover Cleveland
Photograph probably by B. F. Powelson, c. 188182
Albumen print

Graphics File, Department of Prints and Photographs
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Malagasy woman using a sewing machine
Photographer unknown, c. 1900
Collotype

Postcard Collection, MG-4-9
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

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