Reading about one of Africa’s best documented 17th-century rulers, and one of the the world’s most controversial queens, I am both in awe and slightly disturbed at the magnitude of her power and the ways in which she displayed and demonstrated it.
Ruling of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms in what is today known as Angola, in southern Africa, Queen Nzinga Mbanda (aka Ana de Sousa Nzinga Mbande) fought fiercely over her territory against encroaching colonial Portuguese forces at a time when the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade was destroying much of the Western coast of the African continent.
Many sources cite Queen Nzinga as a strong military strategist, a trait that probably stems from her upbringing where she spent much of her youth accompanying her father, a warrior named Ndambi Kiluanji who was the ‘ngola’ (king) of the Ndongo in the mid-1500s, during times of war. Her father had led the Ndongo people to war against Portuguese forces in rebellion, at a time when other neighbouring peoples were making deals with the Portuguese. Queen Nzinga’s mother, Kangela, was her father’s second wife and a captive from another ethnic group.
Following her father’s death, her older brother, Mbandi, and son of her father’s first wife became king some time in the early 1620s. In 1622, King Mbandi sent his younger sister on a diplomatic mission to see Portuguese governor Joao Corria de Sousa with whom she was to find an agreement on a way to end the fighting between the Ndongo and the Portuguese forces. It was during this meeting that one of the most iconic moments (as seen in the top drawing imagined and re-created by Italian priest Cavazzi) is recorded. Upon her arrival, de Sousa offered Nzinga a mat on which to sit on, which she refused. Instead, she instructed a servant to offer his back to her as a seat in order for her to sit level with the governor. Despite not wanting to agree to the terms laid out by the Portuguese, because of the odds her people faced, Nzinga reluctantly agreed to adopt Christianity and was baptised Ana de Sousa Nzinga Mbande with the Portuguese colonial governor and his wife as her godparents, opening up trade between her people and the Portuguese, urging her brother to do the same. Her brother, on the other hand, was not able to handle the mounting pressures of the Portuguese forces with the same defiant attitudes of his sister and, after the Portuguese did not adhere to the terms of the treaty, tragically committed suicide as he was convinced that he would never recover what was lost during the war. The Portuguese, in order to legitimize Nzinga’s succession to the throne, maintained that she had poisoned her brother.
During her reign, Queen Nzinga would eventually be forced to save her people from further tragedy by creating alliances with the Portuguese, who eventually betrayed her by not adhering to the treaty they had signed with her, forcing Queen Nzinga to flee to the neighbouring Matamba Kingdom when fighting once again broke out. Once there, Nzinga captured the Queen of Matamba and used her army to fight on behalf of the Ndongo’s.
To further build up her military capacity, Queen Nzinga offered sanctuary to any runaway slaves and Portuguese-trained African soldiers, laying a foundation for an ideology that many of us today refer to as Pan-Africanism. More out of necessity than anything else, Nzinga also reached out to the Dutch and formed an alliance with them against the Portuguese. However, despite her efforts this was not enough to drive the Portuguese out of the area as they had won over many neighbouring African groups in the area.
Whilst unable to completely drive the Portuguese out of the area as she had intended, Queen Nzinga’s defiant attitude and spirit of resistance remained long-reigned over her people and was a source of constant inspiration as even after her death in 1661 at age 81, her people continued to resist efforts by the Portuguese to integrate them into the colony of Angola. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the Portuguese became successful in integrating the joined Ndongo and Matamba kingdoms into Angola.
Where Nzinga’s life gets interested, and rather complicated, is in the reports that say that she “immolated her lovers” who were often part of a large all-men harem. According to History of Zangua, Queen of Angola
and the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Budoir, Nzinga is said to have made her lovers fight to the death in order to spend the night with her and, after a single night with her, would put them to death. She is said to have also made them dress in women’s clothing. Whether this is true or is simply a fantasy of some sort concocted by European sources is something that remains somewhat of a mystery.
(sources: 1, 2, 3)
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