Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar wasn't known by the warm-and-cuddly nickname "Ranavalona the Cruel" for nothing. In fact, according to most of the (admittedly somewhat-unreliable) sources we have on this powerful African ruler, she generally tends to fall somewhere in the "Vlad the Impaler" quadrant of the spectrum between "benevolent dictator" and "bloodthirsty oppressive tyrant who would be more likely to jam a sharpened toothpick in your eye than grant you one sentence's worth of freedom of speech". Ruling a country that's nowadays more known for delicious vanilla beans and delightfully-wacky dancing CGI Disney characters than it is for vicious public executions and coastlines adorned with severed heads mounted on spiked poles, this exceedingly-violent Queen carved out a gruesome, badass reputation that would have many people today referring to her as the "Female Caligula".
Ranavalona's birth name was Rabodoandrianampoinimerina, which is a ludicrously-long name that literally translates into roughly a paragraph of English text. She was daughter of a poor peasant, and illiterate for her entire life, but that last part is understandable considering that Madagascar didn't actually have a written language until a few years before she ascended to the throne so let's cut the lady a break. With little more than a life of poverty and hard, back-breaking labor ahead of her, Ranavalona caught kind of a sweet break when her father somehow managed to uncover a murder conspiracy aimed at assassinating King Andrianampoinimerinandriantsimitoviaminandriampanjaka (!!) and managed to warn the regent before his impending doom. The King was so happy that he wasn't going to die a bloody, premature death that he adopted Ranvalona into the royal family, marrying her off to the incredibly-boringly-named Prince Radama (only three syllables -- what a loser!). She was to be the first of his twelve wives, which I guess is the sort of honor that made a girl feel really good about herself back then.
Radama took over as King after his dad retired, but he didn't last too long. Theories on Radama's untimely death range from syphilis to cirrhosis, but the safe money here is on Queen Ranavalona slipping him a few too many cyanide-laced sugar cubes in his morning tea. After Radama's sudden, untimely, and excruciatingly-painful demise in 1828 (he is said to have been in such head-searingly devastating agony that he cut his own throat to end his suffering), the power-hungry Queen sprung into action like a rocket-powered pogo stick of totalitarian authority. The rightful heir to the throne – Radama's brother – got all pissed and decided to take the crown and have Ranavalona executed, but she had spent her entire career in the royal palace making friends with powerful ministers, self-proclaimed sorcerers, and super-fundamental traditionalists, and the 46-year old tyrant was so firmly entrenched in her position that you couldn't dig her out with the Bagger 288. She seized the palace, garrisoned it with a powerful contingent of loyal warriors from her village, and had them kill the shit out of anyone who tried to enter the gates.
Ranavalona already kind of hated her in-laws, but after she was in control she decided to go out of her way to make sure that no one - especially them - messed with her. First, she killed every member of the royal family that she could get her hands on, starting with the rightful heir to the throne and ending with some guy who knew a guy that used to be Facebook friends with the King's second cousin. It bears mentioning that it was considered bad form to spill royal blood, so these poor saps were usually either strangled to death or locked into a prison cell until they died of starvation. Both of these are equally shitty ways to go, but Ranavalona couldn't have given two craps about it as long as she eliminated any threat to her rule. In 1828, the 46-year old peasant girl was anointed with the blood of a freshly-slaughtered bull and coronated Queen and Supreme Ruler of Madagascar.
Now during this time in history, European Colonialism was in the early stages of getting its 4X on with Madagascar. Ranavalona's power base was with traditionalists who hated this foreign expansion, and as soon as she took over she told every country in Europe that they could get fucked with a tetanus-encrusted pipe wrench. She expelled or destroyed all foreigners in her country, stripped all colonials of their titles, nullified all of Madagascar's treaties with Britain and France, and banned Christianity in favor of the traditional tribal religion. She also did away with the bullshit legal system, and brought back "Trial by Ordeal", where a person's guilt was judged not by logic and reason, but rather whether or not they threw up after drinking the super-poisonous juice of a particular indigenous plant. I think everyone will agree that this is crazy and/or awesome.
The French of course got all pissed off about this, and launched an amphibious attack on the port city of Tamataye within a few months of Ranavalona seizing power. They made marginal gains against the Madagascarian defenders, and actually took control of the city at one point, but they were eventually turned back when most of their assault team was killed by a combination of gunshot wounds and malaria-infected mosquitoes. Both the French and the British would devote quite a bit of effort to ripping Ranavalona's face off, but nothing really proved successful. In 1835 a combined army landed at Tamataye once again, but they fared even worse against the entrenched defenders than the initial invaders. Ranavalona, being the good propaganda mistress that she was, cut off the heads of the slain Europeans, impaled them on pikes, and lined them up along the beach facing the ocean as a warning to anybody dumbshit enough to screw with her. After this little display of generosity, the Europeans decided they'd just leave well enough alone and worry about conquest and colonial exploitation of resources until such time as there wasn't an insane, dominant shit-wrecker presiding over the armies of Madagascar.
Having effectively (and gruesomely), elected for sovereignty and self-rule over European power, wealth, and territorial dominance, Ranavalona's next task was to make her people self-reliant. She brought in a handful of prominent foreign mercenaries to set up an infrastructure and train people in industrial development (making sure to keep them close enough that they wouldn't get into any trouble), and before long Madagascar had built factories for producing all of the most important shit they needed to sustain themselves – namely guns, bullets, sugar, clothing, and booze. For severing ties and dependence on foreign aid, Ranavalona was something of a hero to those people who opposed colonialism and foreign control. It was really only after she got older and crazier that Ranavalona started to put the "mad" in "Madagascar" (and perhaps both "mad"s in the phrase, "The Mad Queen of Madagascar") with the ridiculous tortures and killings for which she is now famous.
In addition to suppressing a couple revolts (her preferred method for dealing with dissent in her ranks way by sending her enemies on endless force-marches through malaria-infested swamps) on her own turf, Ranavalona made every effort to crush European influence in her country. She was so opposed to these colonials and their beliefs that she then made it her personal mission to wipe out Christianity on the island – first by banning it, and then by executing Christians and missionaries by throwing them off of high places, setting them on fire, and/or torturing them to death with something called "progressive amputation", which doesn't sound like much of a picnic. Through this sort-of inverse Spanish Inquisition, she attempted to torture people to renounce their faith, and then popped their heads off when they didn't. She was never really able to wipe the Christians off of Madagascar (they are a tenacious bunch, from what I understand), but she did force it underground during her reign, effectively eliminating Christianity as a threat to her pro-traditionalist rule. Slaughtering tens of thousands of your own citizens has that effect on people from time to time. I suppose it's important to point out that I'm certainly not saying it's "awesome" or "totally awesome" to go around tossing people head-first off of cliffs just because they don't share your particular religious convictions, but you kind of have to appreciate the fact that she was really willing to go that extra mile for the sake of being a brutal despot.
From her palace, which was dominated by a Sauron-esque 100-foot tower, Ranavalona the Cruel reined for 33 years of semi-oppressive, Vlad the Impaler-style tyranny. She founded cities, built structures, and was one of the few African rulers to successfully hold off colonial rule (a fact that makes her something of a hero among African traditionalists), and even though she was somewhat of a bastard, she overcame her enemies and died peacefully in her bed of old age at the age of 80. Two other queens of Madagascar would go on to take her name, and her island wouldn't fall under colonial control for another 30 years after her death.
Queen's Palace, Madagascar