With the UK press hotly debating the significance of the British Royal Family it’s fascinating to think that Victorian Manchester was a veritable monarch magnet. Queen Victoria had an intimate relationship with the city in the late 19th century but so too did a lesser known contemporary, namely Queen Ranavalona III of Madagascar.
In an attempt to deter the French from colonising Madagascar Ranavalona strengthened diplomatic and economic ties with the UK and USA. Manchester had been exporting cotton cloth to Madagascar throughout the 19th century so Ranavalona would have been acutely aware of the citys economic importance.
In recognition of this Ranavlona sought the favour of Sir Kenneth Lee of Tootal-Broadhurst and Lee Co, eminent Manchester cotton manufactorers. She did this by corresponding with Lee via her ambassadors and by means of a royal gift in the form of an exquisite piece of Malagasy lamba cloth. The cloth was eventually donated to the Manchester Museum by Lee’s sister-in-law Mrs. Crawley in 1936.
Unfortunately, Ranavalona’s attempts to stave off colonisation failed, by 1886 she was in exile and the French had seized control of the island nation. Lamba cloth sent by Ranavalona to important individuals can now be found in entnographic collections in both the UK and USA. These royal gifts are testiment to one woman’s struggle to desperately defend her kingdom.
Stephen Terence Welsh
Curator of Living Cultures