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The Rise of Queen Nzinga

The Rise of Queen Nzinga

Illustration of Queen Nzinga and tribal warriors preparing for battle against Portuguese soldiers along the coast.
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In The Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare described greatness: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”  Clearly, Shakespeare could have been discussing Queen Nzinga because her path to greatness was paved from birth. This child, who would grow up to be the remarkable queen of the Ndongo and Matamba people in Central West Africa, had her royal fate spelled out by a trusted seer when she was very young.

Also known as Ana de Sousa, Nzinga was the daughter of 17th-century Ngola Kia Samba, king of the Ndongo, an African stronghold known today as Angola. The name Angola itself comes from the olden-day title of the king, the Ngola. Born to one of the king’s wives, Nzinga entered the world with her umbilical cord around her neck. This custom would have rattled modern-day medicine practitioners and called for emergency measures but not to the Ndongo. Inead, the nation viewed the circumstances of her birth as a good omen, indicating that Nzinga would grow up to be majestic,  grand, and destined for greatness.

Nzinga was her father’s favorite child and spent considerable time with the king, according to oral history. Under his mentorship, Nzinga grew up well-versed in diplomacy, leadership, and the daily events of her kingdom and surrounding regions. Nzinga had a heightened curiosity, making her well-educated, well-read, and literate. She was also fluent in Portuguese. Nzinga went on to receive military training. In addition to being her father’s favorite child, she also had a likable personality, an indescribable magnetism that made her popular with anyone she encountered. Charismatic, intelligent, and fearless are other adjectives applied to Nzinga.

Seemingly very fortunate and raised in an affluent life, Nzinga was born when the Portuguese were a thorn in the flesh of her kingdom, capturing people and shipping them away for enslavement. At that time, the Portuguese slave trade had been happening for 50 years; the plantation business was in full swing. Unfortunately, the Portuguese established their permanent fort in Luanda, a port city and the capital of Angola. From their stronghold in Luanda, the Portuguese captured the local population in great numbers. The issue troubled Nzinga as she witnessed her father’s battle against the Portuguese slave trade.

State of the Kingdom

When we speak of thriving ancient African Kingdoms, Egypt and Mali quickly come to mind, and only a few may know of the Ndongo. Initially a subsidiary of the greater Kongo kingdom, Ndongo broke away in the 1500s and became a thriving kingdom in its own right. The vast land was made up of smaller kingdoms. Ndongo was the land ruled by Nzinga’s father. The Ndongo was a reasonably large territory with about 50, 000 people. At the time, the population of Britain was three times as much, so Ndongo’s population was relatively substantial and good for economic and military advantage.

Although local kingdoms attacked each other frequently, the people of these lands lived reasonably well. Their lands were vibrant and had robust economic activity and advancements. They had established trade relations with neighboring kingdoms and Portuguese and Arab traders. Silver had been discovered recently, but unfortunately, European foreigners arrived determined to loot as much of this precious commodity as possible.

The concept of female rulers was not a unicorn idea in kingdoms around Ndongo and other African lands at the time. However, many people were not very fond of women being involved in political affairs, let alone ruling the kingdom. Males were preferred as leaders, although the leadership of a kingdom itself wasn’t designed to pass from father to child always automatically. The role of the king was negotiated through alliances with noble families; therefore, solid personal relationships were critical. It was also important that an elected king express his gratitude to his supporters by giving them something of value.

When we look at this, it seems Nzinga’s chance of ever being the ruler of her people would have seemed almost non-existent and would have been made worse by the fact that her mother was not of noble blood. Her mother, a former servant at the royal court, was not born noble, and that fact seemingly further diminished any of her children’s chances of succeeding their father. The king had several wives, and those of the first wife or those whose mother was of royal blood stood a better chance, as with Nzinga’s half-brother Mbande.

The Ngola, Nzinga’s father, faced an untimely death after being assassinated. The assassination was orchestrated by people close to him, with some sources claiming that his son Mbande had a hand in his father’s killing. The king’s death devastated Nzinga and the people of the land who revered their king. Nevertheless, a new king had to be elected, and Nzinga’s half-brother Mbande became the new king. Mbande would later realize that leading the kingdom was no easy feat. Even with his underhanded ways and thirst for power, he was unpopular with his people.

Additionally, the Portuguese remained hot on the heels of his people, plundering and destroying villages as they captured and shipped off local peoples. In all the carnage and havoc, Mbande, who was not as wise or strong-willed as his sister, didn’t have a solid plan to redeem his people. With a weak king at the helm, things got a lot easier for the slave traders. The kingdom became more vulnerable, and Portuguese raiders captured many residents. Africans who resisted were killed, leaving a trail of carnage and horror and, at times emptying entire villages. Mbande acknowledged that he was in trouble and realized his underhanded tactics and murderous ways couldn’t save the kingdom. Therefore, he turned to his politically wise sister Nzinga, pleading with her to travel to the capital to negotiate peace with the Portuguese.

The Treaty that Launched a Fierce Queen

Nzinga had first-hand experience of how ruthless colonization was and how big a task it would be to face off against the Portuguese.  The political unrest continued to bother her, and she gladly agreed to help Mbande as they explored ways to save their people. She became his political advisor. Nzinga traveled to Luanda with a convoy in tow to negotiate an amicable solution to her people’s problems.

Something noteworthy happened during these famous negotiations. When it was time to sit down and talk, the Portuguese representative sat on a chair and offered Nzinga a mat/rug instead of a chair. Nzinga didn’t sit on the mat and instead asked one of her convoy members to bend on the floor on all fours, thereby improvising a chair for her. She sat on her make-do chair and then proceeded with the negotiations, talking with the Portuguese at eye level. It may seem degrading that Nzinga had to reduce one of her people to a chair, but this was a very clever move in line with the circumstance. Her insistence on looking at the Portuguese at eye level was an assertion of power; it was a literal and figurative statement to show that she refused to be belittled and wouldn’t be a walkover.

Color illustration of Queen Nzinga sitting across from Jao de Sousa.

Nzinga’s message was clear to Jao de Sousa, governor at the time, and by the time Nzinga set off back home to her brother King, an agreement was in place. The agreement treaty promised that the Portuguese would not maintain their stronghold, a port; they would limit raiding and enslaving people and not interfere in Mbande’s rule. In return, he would allow them to establish some trade routes. In another diplomatic move, Nzinga feigned solidarity with the religion of the Portuguese and got baptized, earning a new name, Dona Ana de Sousa. Christianity was a big deal to the Europeans at the time, and in all their worldwide travels, amassing wealth was prominent on their agenda; high up there with it was evangelism and converting as many to Christianity as they could. The Catholic church was also very influential, its power going beyond spiritual matters and controlling politics. Through her baptism, Nzinga had made an intelligent move.

A New Queen

The Portuguese were not very loyal in their dealings and didn’t live up to the terms for long. A few years later, they continued captureing people and occupying the fort. On the other hand, Mbande succumbed to defeat as he had no solution to stop the Portuguese and took his own life after only a three-year rule. His young son, Aka, would be next in line to the throne. Until Aka came of age, Nzinga would be his regent. Unfortunately, Aka didn’t live to adulthood, and upon his death, his regent, Nzinga, became the queen of the Ndongo kingdom.

Nzinga came to power in 1662; she was in her 40s. However , the breach of the treaty saw the Portuguese launch attacks again, forcing Nzinga to retreat as far as she could get, leaving Ndongo and settling into the kingdom of Matamba. Maintaining a controlling role, she installed a puppet leader in Ndongo while she stayed in Matamba. She effectively ruled both Ndongo and Matamba kingdoms; thus, she is often called the double queen. Thankfully for her, the Matamba people had a long history of female leaders, and it was easier for her to rule there. Also, realizing that the Portuguese had breached their treaty, Nzinga conspicuously abandoned Christianity.

She would continue to have a relatively long reign of more than 35 years, with active involvement in state matters and military battles well into her 60s. Her power could be that long as she was a renowned military strategist; what makes her reign remarkable is that she ruled at a very turbulent time, having to defend her land from local and foreign enemy forces. Her two sisters supported her rule, serving as advisors and generals. They had supported her from the beginning and would also carry on her legacy when she died.

Today, we may know Nzinga as queen, but in her time, she preferred to be referred to as the king, dressing up as one at times. In her turbulent reign, the war against the trading and enslavement of her people raged for 30 years. On top of fighting against the enslavement of her people, she opened up her kingdom, offering sanctuary to enslaved people from other African kingdoms who had managed to run away from their capturers. Centuries after her death, her kingdom stood as a haven for runaway enslaved people. At one point, she was victorious, driving the Portuguese entirely out of her land for a year. She managed this victory by allying with the Dutch, newcomers to Africa at the time, who were enemies with the Portuguese.

At that point in history, no other known African leader had successfully made an ally of a European nation against another European one. At times, when the battle became heated, Queen Nzinga didn’t give up but retreated to the Islands to regroup before appearing to carry on the fight. Desperate to gain control of Africa, the Portuguese united with the Brazilians, returned, and started trouble in Nzinga’s kingdom again, driving away the Dutch. Nzinga would continue her fight against the Portuguese until she died.


Bloody Tales

Most powerful historical figures ascended to the top using violence as a tool, and Queen Nzinga is no exception. Undeniably, she had a profound and undying love for her people, but some versions of her biography portray her as a woman of ambiguous morality. Moreover, some historians believe that Nzinga herself murdered her half-brother Mbande to accelerate her rise to the top. When Mbande died, his son would have become king when he came of age, but before then, according to some accounts, Nzingais killed the young nephew Kaza and swiftly moved up from her role of regent to the king.

Murderous tales about Nzinga suggest she imposed unreasonable rules, and citizens who disobeyed were killed. Due to a shrinking population caused by the Portuguese’s bottomless pit of enslavement of its people, Ndongo was desperate for new soldiers to beef up its army. This meant that men fought battles, and women were also trained and went into the battlefield alongside them. It is said that Queen Nzinga laid down the law with an iron fist, insisting that women not have children until a certain age so that they could give their best in defending the country. According to sources, women joined the army in their 30s, so they could only have children after 40. According to some accounts, those who dared to defy would be killed in the most brutal ways imaginable.

In a quest to prove that she was equal to any male leader, Nzinga is said to have done some unconventional things. In addition to dressing as a man, she kept a harem of many male lovers (concubines), disposing of them as she pleased, according to some narratives. Varying accounts depict her as having up to 60 concubines. One of her short-lived marriages was to Kasanje, the leader of the mercenary Imbangala, whom she married more for diplomatic purposes and to extend her army and gain protection from her enemies. Closer to the end of her life, Nzinga would settle with one man. This was in line with Catholic doctrine; Nzinga had once again returned to the church to get her country’s approval and  recognition of her country and to help her get closer to freeing her people. Whatever the facts, it is very plausible that those who controlled the narrative at the time would go as far as they could to tarnish this mighty queen’s legacy.

Tumultuous and mostly spent trying to free her people from the shackles of enslavement, Queen Nzinga’s rule remains significant in history today. Nzinga, her father’s daughter, ruled her country for years and died in 1663 when she was 82. And in her reign, the slave traders restlessly tried to capture and subdue her. Determined to pass the torch, Nzinga mentored her sister in the last four years of her life. Her sister succeeded her, carrying on the resistance, followed by another three female rulers before the Ndongo throne would again be ruled by a male.

No other country in history, or the modern world, has ever had five consecutive female rulers. Some European scholars and artists liked her unforgettable story; by the time it reached their shores and others worldwide, there were many versions of Nzinga. She was depicted as outright cruel by others, insane by some, and some accused her of being a cannibal, and an unspeakable character who sold her people into slavery.

But as Angolan historians take greater control of the narrative of their ancestors, Queen Nzinga has emerged as a hero. Local historians honored and celebrated Nzinga and viewed her as a woman who persistently fought against colonialism, slavery, and regional conflict. The country has a statue and a street named in her honor. In addition, a series of coins were issued in the country in her tribute. Queen Nzinga’s legacy would inspire future generations, with people employing her army tactics and keeping an unbreakable spirit until Angola gained independence from the Portuguese in 1975. Hers is a true testament to an unparalleled queen who remained dedicated to her cause in the face of adversity. Her life story inspired the recent Netflix docu-series African Queens produced by Jada Pinkett Smith.

Luanda, Angola: bronze statue of the 17th century Queen Anna Nzinga (c. 1583 – 1663), also known as Njinga Mbande or Ana de Sousa Nzinga Mbande, located outside Sao Miguel fortress - ruler of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms of the Mbundu people in Angola - sculptor Rui de Matos - Rainha Jinga


Edited by Sharon Rosenberg

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