QUEEN NZINGA OF NDONGO (ANGOLA) – REMARKABLY AFRICA’S STRONGEST WOMAN


Queen Nzinga Mbande Of Ndongo (1583-1663)

Nzinga of Matamba, the seventeenth-century African monarch known primarily for her enmity to the Portuguese in Angola, faced hostility from her own Mbundu people and the opposition of neighbouring tribal rulers throughout her long career. Her sex disqualified her from many Mbundu political offices reserved for males, and her origins in the lineageless community at the Mbundu king’s royal court made her an outsider in terms of the lineage politics of most Mbundu states. But she overcame these disadvantages by skillful manipulation of the aliens present on the Mbundu borders, Imbangala warrior bands, the Portuguese, and the Dutch, and dominated Mbundu politics and diplomacy until her death in 1663. The domestic forces arrayed against Nzinga triumphed after her death, expelling her chosen successors from the Matamba royal title and omitting her name from the oral traditions of the state. These hypotheses, while not susceptible to direct proof, seem probable on the basis of a re-reading of documentary sources in the light of ethnographic and oral historical evidence collected in 1969–1970.  – Joseph C. Miller (1975). Nzinga of Matamba in a new perspective. The Journal of African History, 16, pp 201-216.

Her Story

Born as Princess Nzinga among the Mbundu (Ambundu) group of the Ndongo Kingdom in the central West Africa region now known as Angola. According to tradition, she was named Nzinga because her umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck (Kujinga from kimbundu language means to twist or turn). Her father was Ngola Kia Samba and Queen Kangela Cakombe around 1583, the word ‘Ngola’ referring to the title of the ruling chief, which later developed into the national name for the region. Her mother reportedly had no blood ties to the royal family within the landed chieftain system. Princess Nzinga had one brother, Mbande, and two sisters, Kifunji and Mukambu. When her father was dethroned sometime around the 1610s, Mbande her father´s son took over power (though some historians implied that Mbande was an illegitimate son) and so she had to leave as she was his challenger to the throne. She came to power in 1622 as an ambassador, a sister to the king – the woman power behind a weak king and she demonstrated a proclivity to tactfully diffuse foreign crisis, as she regained control of the Portuguese fortress of Ambaca. Though she resisted Portuguese colonial occupation of central west Africa for over four decades, she officially ruled Ndongo from 1624-1626 and 1657-1663.

According to the legends, the earliest European record of Princess Nzinga was a report of her inclusion in her brother’s envoy to a peace conference before the Portuguese’s Luanda governor João Correia de Sousa in 1622. (Luanda is an Atlantic coastal city and the largest city in Angola, Now the country’s capital). An historical account of the conference includes the famous tale of governor Correia de Sousa’s not offering Princess Nzinga a chair, with the idea of forcing the princess to stand before his noble presence. But instead, princess Nzinga’s attendants with a contemptuous smile quickly rolled out a beautifully designed royal carpet they had brought before her (as if they had anticipated the governor’s foolishness). Whereby Nzinga asserts her status by sitting on the back of a servant within her royal envoy who willingly went down on all four and formed himself expertly into a “royal throne” upon which the princess sat easily without being a strain on her devoted follower during the course of the negotiations.

Queen Njinga
Nzinga meeting with portuguese Governor Joao Corria De Sousa in 1622

Though at this peace conference, a treaty was signed with the Portuguese but it was never honored by them. The portuguese hired the Imbangala (aka Mbangala) people to fight against the Ndongo Kingdom as they pushed to capture slaves to further their nation’s slave trading export interests to the so-called New World. Meanwhile Prior to Princess Nzinga’s birth, the Portuguese had settled along the southern part of the Kongo River and began moving up the Kwango River Valley in search of slaves and gold. According to historical reports, the Imbangala in the 17th century mostly comprised bands of pillaging warriors native to these regions, founders of the kingdom of Kasanje. They aided the Portuguese colonial campaigns as early as those of Luis Mendes de Vasconcelos in 1618. The Imbangala‘s historical marauding customs were reportedly abandoned by the late 17th century.

It would be noted that around the turn of the 17th century, the independent kingdoms and states of the Central African coast were threatened by Portuguese attempts to colonize Luanda (Luanda, today the capital of Angola, was founded in 1576.). Portugal sought to colonize the region in order to control the trade in African slaves, and attacked many of their old trading partners to further this goal. In 1617 the new governor of Luanda began an aggressive campaign against the kingdom of Ndongo. His troops invaded the capital and forced King Ngola Mbandi (Nzinga’s brother) to flee from the area while thousands of Ndongo people were taken prisoner. The king sent his sister Princess Nzinga to negotiate a peace treaty in 1622, which she did successfully (Note: by this time Nzinga had already gained the support of her people because she opposed king Ngola’s involvement in slave trade). But Portugal in their quest for total control did not honor the terms of the treaty (maybe because it was led by a woman).  The treaty was supposed to end all fighting in the whole central region but the governor marched off, almost immediately to invade Kongo again – as though to make up for his defeat in the peace negotiations with the princess. The treaty becomes dead in so far as the execution was concerned. King Ngola Mbandi realized the portuguese refusal to honor the terms of the treaty but hired the Mbangala people to fight against his kingdom, believed he had failed his people and so he committed suicide, leaving the kingdom to his sister Nzinga.

Queen Nzinga

The Mbundu tradition prohibited women rulers and so by tradition princess Nzinga is “unfit” to rule but prior to this situation, princess Nzinga not only opposed King Ngola not only because he was a slave trader but also because he had her only son named Kiza being King Ngola’s nephew and so by right the heir to the throne. Having realized the dilemma upon her brother’s death, Nzinga had no choice but to assume rulership of Ndongo, since she was the next in line.  And the only way to achieve this and to keep the kingdom in peace was for her to convert to Catholicism in other for the Portuguese to support her bid to the throne. And so, she was baptized and took the Christian name “Ann”, the surname of the Luanda governor “de Sousa” and the Portuguese title “Dona”. Hence Princess Nzinga became known as Dona Ana de Sousa; a political move to help secure her succession to the Ndongo Kingdom throne. But that move came with a string attached as the portuguese expected that she will be submissive to them because they helped her defeat her oppositions within the Mbundu kinship. (Though later on in order to discredit her, the portuguese put out a story that claimed “Princess Nzinga poisoned her brother, because he had murdered her only son the heir after Ngola committed suicide, in order to seize power” but this claim was never proven.)

In 1623, as the new sovereign ruler of Ndongo, Queen Nzinga went into action immediately she took over the throne. Her first major move was to send an ultimatum to the portuguese authorities demanding the immediate execution of the terms of the treaty. At the time, Kongo was under attack from both the Portuguese, Imbangalas and neighboring tribal aggressors.  While the portuguese were preparing to meet the queen’s armies, the dutch fleet appeared as a “new threat”. The dutch also a great slavers did not come as “liberators” of the hard pressed black people, their aim was to break the monopoly of the portuguese and secure their share of the slave trade and the mineral wealth of the West and Central Africa. And to do this, they used the black people as the other whites did. No time was lost in forming alliance with the King of Kongo in his war against the portuguese and all this gave Queen Nzinga more time to leverage upon and to prepare for the inevitable. The arrival of Fernão de Sousa in 1624 started with discussions with her, She went ahead to withdraw her demands from the portuguese in order to see where the portuguese war against the Jaga will lead (The Jaga being one of the neighboring tribes) and even went further to form a military alliance with the Jaga with the promise of Marriage to the Jaga Chief Kasanje in order to make the alliance binding.

That same year, Queen Nzinga, in order to build up her kingdom’s martial power, offered sanctuary to runaway slaves and Portuguese-trained African soldiers by declaring all territory in Angola over which she had control as “free country”. She went further, since she realized that the white power in her kingdom and other neighboring kingdoms rested squarely on the use of black troops against black people. She understood this and carefully stirred up rebellion among the people Kongo and neighboring tribes against the Portuguese in order to undermine and destroy the effective employment and use of black soldiers by whites (This decision was Queen Nzinga’s greatest act, however, probably the one that makes her one of the greatest women in history.- Chancellor Williams). She also had carefully selected a group of her own soldiers to infiltrate the portuguese black armies by first separating and spreading out individually into the portuguese held territory and allowing themselves to be “captured” by the portuguese recruiting agents to join their forces. This quiet but effective work of queen Nzinga’s agents among the portuguese troops was one of the most glorious, yet unsung pages in African history. Because the whole companies rebelled and deserted to the side of the Queen, taking with them the much needed guns and ammunition which she had been unable to secure except through surprised attacks on enemy camps. Queen Nzinga’s army were further strengthened by continues inflow of runaway slaves who streamed into the only certain haven for the free in the whole region and the continent at large. To the portuguese, Queen Nzinga had passed the last word in unheard -of audacity when she was able to influence scores of vassal chiefs to rebel against them and join the cause of their own race. This was too much and so “this woman” had to be destroyed. It had come to that.

Queen Njinga 1
Queen Nzinga Statue in Angola

And so, the Portuguese sent their ultimatum to the Queen from their Luanda stronghold (the “Lisbon in Africa”). It demanded the immediate return of all chiefs, soldiers and slaves to Portuguese territory; that is, all who had fled from there and her refusal would mean war, the ultimatum concluded. Meanwhile there was in fact a state of war that already existed since the Queen’s own ultimatum of the previous year. An ultimatum which made the Portuguese afraid to move against her then and still they were even more afraid to move against her stronger forces at this point even though they continued to give the “Dutch threat” as the reason for delaying the required all-out attack. (Meanwhile, the usual strategy of first instigating factional strife among the Blacks was by no means forgotten. It was just that there was so much unity and patriotism in this dominant Angola state, so much fanatical devotion to this “terrible Black Queen,” and so, internal subversion is almost impossible). The possible option left for the portuguese to overcome this situation was to formally declare that “Nzinga was not legally Queen of Ndongo, the throne vacant, and one of their own vassal chiefs, Aidi Kiluanji, was declared king“. This infuriated the Queen and so she opened the offensive herself, striking first at the Portuguese puppet king and his forces. While the Portuguese marshalled all of their forces on land and sea, their special river fleets in particular, to crush Nzinga before the Dutch struck again.

Queen Nzinga of Angola (circa b- 1581 - d. Dec. 17- 1663)

In July 1626, The Portuguese captured her principal island stronghold in the Cuanza river, thus dividing her forces and, by a swift encircling movement designed to capture the Queen, cut off her main supporting regiments and forced her not only to retreat but to withdraw from her country. Joy reigned at Luanda and Sao Tome. With Nzinga’s flight from “Angola” it appeared that the black menace was over and victory complete. Aidi Kiluanji was crowned King Philip I of Ndongo. After the Portuguese ouster, Nzinga took over a nearby kingdom of Matamba, capturing Queen Mwongo of Matamba and routing her army. Nzinga then made Matamba her capital, joining it to the Kingdom of Ndongo (as she still has the loyalty of her people). Nzinga continued fighting against the Portuguese while in exile, using the Matamba army she had new acquired.  In November 1627, she crossed the borders back into her homeland as the head of a strong army, made stronger and stronger as her loyal chiefs and wildly cheering people, including her fanatically devoted freed men, flocked to her standard as she swept forward to recapture the Cuanza stronghold held by Philip I and put him to flight. This display of “black unity” – and under a woman’s leadership at that, continue to amaze the Portuguese. Black unity was now seen clearly as Black Power, and that meant an unconquerable people.

Queen Nzinga) 2

1629 the Portuguese were shocked when Queen Nzinga “burst upon them from the grave,” after a rumor of her death had gone round the kingdoms. She brought in her fierce Jaga allies, apparently willing to pull through with her promise in order to defeat the whites. The Portuguese were completely defeated. She had not only retaken her own country but had, meanwhile, literally become the Queen of Matamba also, having replaced the weak Queen there. Nzinga was now an empress of two kingdoms. She now redoubled her efforts on the campaign against slavery and the slave trade by making both Ndongo and Matamba havens for all who could escape from the slaver by rebelling or otherwise .’ Chiefs engaged in the traffic in nearby states now stood in fear of her wrath. The Portuguese saw “the handwriting on the wall .” In order not to lose every foothold in the area, Lisbon suddenly remembered that it had never carried out the treaty signed with Nzinga in 1622, and declared that Portugal’s wars against her had been unjust! High level envoy were sent to the Queen in 1639 in efforts to effect a settlement . Nzinga received them, listened to their protestations of eternal friendship, and went ahead with determination in reorganizing both of the kingdoms and undermining colonial rule in areas held by the enemy. (NOTE: Queen Nzinga’s anti-slavery crusade did not mean that she did not hold her own captives to bondage especially black chiefs who were allies of the whites and the portuguese too. While the Portuguese had changed the nature of slavery into a racial pattern,and Nzinga was particularly ruthless with her black captives and she did not hesitate to sell such chiefs and their followers into slavery.) – (1987) Chancellor Williams; The Destruction of Black Civilization. Great Issues of a Race (4500BC to 2000AD). P 268.

By 1641, Nzinga had entered among the earliest African-European alliance against a European nation when she entered into negotiations with the Dutch. She reached out to the Dutch and invited them to join troops with her. She told the Dutch she would be happy to ally with them because of their justice and politeness, whereas the Portuguese were proud and haughty.  In 1646 her army defeated the Portuguese at Davanga, but her sisters was captured. By 1647 her alliance with the Dutch was fruitful in the seizure of Masangano from the Portuguese but then Even their combined forces were not enough to drive the Portuguese out of their land completely as The Dutch, having previously captured Luanda, now found themselves threatened by the steady reinforcements that continued to pour in from Portuguese Brazil. The Dutch withdrew, leaving the Blacks in the area, who had helped them to capture and defend this city to fend for themselves alone . While the chiefs and their forces did indeed put up a gallant fight, they were massacred in one of the most savage onslaughts on record. In 1648 she again and her army retreated to Matamba but only this time around Queen Nzinga started to focus on developing Matamba as a trading power and the gateway to the Central African interior (that development is what turned a pre-colonial African Kingdom into what is now the Baixa de Cassange region of Malanje Province of modern day Angola) and during this period, Nzinga and the people of Mbangala had put their differences aside and formed an alliance in a fight against the portuguese.

In a speech in 1656 , Queen Nzinga reportedly stated to her army that an alliance with the Imbangala was then a necessary evil in the military war against the Portuguese. In 1657, tired and weary from four decades of relentless struggles, she signed a treaty that was revised and made acceptable to her . Her greatest concession allowed the Portuguese puppet king, Aidi, to head the territory conceded to them. By this time the kingdom of Matamba was on equal footing with the Portuguese colony. The Portuguese came to respect Queen Nzinga for her shrewdness and intransigence. She had fought against their colonial and slave raiding attacks for decades.  With Nzinga’s rule, Matamba became a powerful kingdom that long resisted Portuguese colonisation attempts and was only integrated into Angola in the late nineteenth century.

Queen Nzinga died on December 17, 1663 at the age of 80. Unfortunately, her death accelerated Portuguese colonial occupation, as well as their Atlanta slave trade activities in central west Africa. For over twenty-eight years. They had met one of the giants of the human race whom they had found impossible to recognize as such because she appeared on the planet not only as a woman but one with black skin. Queen Nzinga is the greatest abolitionist of slave trade that she herself had no slaves, and indeed had not the slightest need for any.

Queen Njinga 2

An Angolan film, Nzinga, Queen of Angola (Portuguese: Njinga, Rainha de Angola), was released in 2013.

Thank you for reading… We will like to read your comments

Much credit to  –

(1987) Chancellor Williams; The Destruction of Black Civilization. Great Issues of a Race (4500BC to 2000AD).

And also @curate_Angola; 3riple7en.wordpress.com

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