Treasure trove of memories of the last Queen of Madagascar sells for £43,000 at auction

Queen Ranavalona III's personal effects will finally return to Madagascar to go on public display

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A recently discovered treasure trove of fashion, photographs and letters of the last Queen of Madagascar has sold at auction in London for £43,000 ($57,399).

Queen Ranavalona III's personal effects were bought by the Madagascan government and will be put on public display at the newly renovated Queen's Palace in the capital, Antananarivo.

The collection's centrepiece is a stunning satin dress belonging to her aunt, Princess Ramisindrazana.

The Anglo-Malagasy Society, which helped source funds for the purchase, said they were happy with the outcome.

‘’We are delighted that the items belonging to Madagascar's last Queen, Ranavalona III and Princess Ramisindrazana, have been returned to the people of Madagascar. It is also wonderful to be able to bring to life the story of Miss Clara Herbert and highlight the long history of friendship between British and Malagasy people."

Queen Ranavalona III ruled the African kingdom for more than 15 years until she was deposed by a French invasion in 1895 and banished with her family to the nearby island of Reunion in 1897.

Her British-born paid companion for more than two decades, Clara Herbert, accompanied her to the remote island and stayed by the monarch's side during her years in exile.

The mementos were kept safe by Ms Herbert's descendants and were eventually rediscovered in a family attic in the town of Guildford, near London. 
Auctioneer Kerry Taylor, who sold the collection, said she was glad it was finally returning to Madagascar to go on display.
"This has been one of the most fascinating research projects of my career - sorting through the numerous documents and photographs, handling the Princess's opulent embroidered Malagasy court gown and following these brave women through the trials and tribulations of their lives."

The fascinating archive gives a rare glimpse into the queen’s final years in Madagascar, followed by her tribulations in Reunion and, later, Algiers.

The varied collection includes more than 50 images of the queen, as well as other mementos including her blue knitted silk stockings, a needle case and more than 40 postcards.

The time on Reunion was an unhappy one for the family, a fact underlined by the family’s pensive expressions in the photographs.

Two years later they were moved on because of fears of an Malagasy uprising, but French authorities refused to send her to live in Paris, a betrayal that brought Ranavalona III to tears.

She wrote: “Who is certain of tomorrow? Only yesterday I was a queen. Today I am simply an unhappy, broken-hearted woman.”

In 1899, the family were sent to live in Algiers where they enjoyed a lively social scene and near-celebrity status.

Queen Ranavalona III. Courtesy Kerry Taylor Auctions

Queen Ranavalona III in later life

The queen and her entourage were eventually allowed to visit France for the first time in 1901 for holidays and shopping trips where they were followed and photographed by the press.

She clearly developed a taste for French culture and clothing, often making expensive purchases from Paris's top clothing houses.

She later became a cause celebre with the French public who complained of her harsh treatment and campaigned to increase her living allowance.

Later photographs show them looking relaxed, happy and almost unrecognisable while wearing their finery.

Ms Taylor said the photographs were rare examples of black African women wearing haute couture clothing during the period.

“It is incredibly rare to find high fashion of the late 19th century worn by black women, and even more rare to find such a wealth of documents, photographs and ephemera to augment our understanding of them.”

Queen Ranavalona III died in 1917 and was re-interred in the tomb of Queen Rasoherina at the Rova of Antananarivo in Madagascar.

Although she was never permitted to revisit her country during her lifetime, it ultimately became her final resting place.

Her grandmother, Ranavalona I, was portrayed in the novel Flashman's Lady and enslaves the novel's protagonist Harry Flashman on Madagascar before allowing him to become her military adviser.