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Voyage to Madagascar: Thomas Locke Lewis and the Anglo-Merina Treaty of 1817

The King's reign

The structure of Radama’s reign can also be gleaned from Lewis’s account. It was an hereditary lineage, ‘but amongst his allies or subordinate chiefs, the divisionary or secondary power is often elective’. Lewis appears to have believed there was a meritocratic ethos to this structure; though he did not regard the people to be, for the most part, ‘of an aspiring disposition’. Nevertheless, Lewis compares Radama’s desire to gather people of ability around him to the similar way in which he was ‘anxious to attract foreigners on any terms as settlers’.

Lewis’s assessment, however, of the supposed meritocracy under Radama’s rule, and the way in which individuals acquired favour appears to have been coloured by his Anglocentric lens. For instance, Lewis clearly did not understand hasina, which Gerald M Berg has characterised as a set of beliefs which ‘saw historical reality as the product not of human agency, but of ancestral beneficence’, beneficence which ran down through a ‘sacred stream that connected all living Merina’ (the ethnic group to whom Radama was the native king) and allowed them ‘to reap the material benefits of that cherished association’ (pp 45, 51).

The nature of hasina was not the only factor affecting the nature of Radama’s power. Radama did not institute ‘Constitutional Laws respecting the succession to the crown or on criminal and civil justice’, at least not ‘by written document’, rather, according to Lewis, Radama ruled with ‘Despotic disposition’. Indeed, he supposedly did ‘not afford any hopes that such [laws] will be issued by him; as he prides himself on his Word being the Law, and is perfectly Arbitrary’ (p 46).

What emerges from Lewis’s commentary on Radama and his ambitions is the image of a ruler invested in the material trappings of European power and the benefits to his own reign that that power could afford, and yet unbounded by the legal and structural limitations of European courts, legislatures and executives. Equally, we see through Lewis an attempt to rationalise and anglicise the culture and society in which Radama operated, as in Lewis’s rendering of the deeply complex nature of hasina as simple meritocracy.

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