Drawing of Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba in Luanda, Angola
Writing for blog www.notedman.com, Sibusiso Mnyanda says: “Women have been at the centre of every civilisation, kingdom and empire driven by Patriarchs on the continent and the rest of the known world. They have led, endured, conquered and developed societies that today we claim to be great contributors to human development and African identity. The new phenomenon of selective amnesia among our modern literates – who harbour the skill to impart anti-female socialisation – is destroying and decaying our moral fibre. Africa has had many revered leaders who were also mothers, grandmothers, wifes, daughters, sisters and aunts. These women were part of nation building and wars of resistance against imperialism”.
As part of our African Queens Series, UnCensored brings you Queen Anna Nzinga, known also as Ana de Sousa Nzinga Mbande. She was a queen of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms (occupying what is today the country of Angola in the southern part of Africa) who lived during the 16 th and 17 th centuries AD. Queen Nzinga is best remembered for her resistance against the Portuguese, and setting her people free from slavery.
Queen Nzinga is believed to have been born during the first half of the 1580s. Nzinga’s father, Ngola Kiluanji Kia Samba, was a ruler of the Ndongo people. In the same year that Nzinga was born, the king began to lead his people against the Portuguese colonialists. These Europeans are said to have been raiding the territory of the Ndongo for slaves, due to the increasing demands of slave labor in their New World colonies, such as Brazil. Additionally, the Portuguese were attempting to conquer areas where they believed contained silver mines.
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According to one source, Ngola Kiluanji was deposed by his son, Mbandi, who was also Nzinga’s brother. The queen’s child is also said to have been murdered by the new king. Perhaps fearing for their lives, Nzinga and her husband fled to Matamba. It has also been claimed that Mbandi’s rule was cruel and chaotic, and that he was an unpopular ruler. Other sources, however, do not mention this episode. It is perhaps more likely that Nzinga remained at her brother’s court, and that the flight to Matamba was a later episode in Nzinga’s life.
In any event, 1621/2 was an important year in the life of Nzinga. It was during this year that the Portuguese invited Mbandi to a peace conference in the hopes of ending hostilities between the two peoples (the Portuguese had forced the king to flee from his court in 1617). Nzinga was sent to represent the king during the meeting with Joao Corria de Sousa, the Portuguese governor, in Luanda. One of the best-known stories about Nzinga took place during this meeting. Prior to the meeting, the Portuguese are said to have prepared the room with only one chair. This meant that Nzinga would be obliged to stand during the negotiations, thus making her seem inferior. Instead of doing so, Nzinga had one of her male servants get down on his hands and knees, thus serving as her chair.
Nzinga’s infamous meeting with the Portuguese
The negotiations were a success, as peace was achieved, and the Portuguese restored Mbandi to his throne, as well as agreeing to limit slave raiding activities. Nzinga also converted to Christianity, and was baptised, taking the name of Dona Ana de Sousa. Her godparents were the Portuguese governor, Joao Corria de Sousa and his wife. Nevertheless, this period of peace did not last for long, and the Portuguese renewed their aggression towards the Ndongo several years later.
In 1626, Nzinga became the queen of her people following her brother’s death. According to one source, the king had committed suicide in the face of the increasingly aggressive Portuguese presence in the region. Another source, however, claims that it was Nzinga who murdered her brother. Propaganda about her rise to power was always a tool that was used by the Portuguese to discredit her rule as it threated their colonial effort. The Neighboring Imbangala were susceptible to this propaganda and colluded with the Europeans against Nzinga.
In the same year, the Portuguese renewed their attacks against the Ndongo by hiring the Imbangala to do their fighting for them. Unable to defeat the Portuguese militarily, Nzinga and her people fled westwards, and founded a new state at Matamba. She would then form an allegiance with the Dutch, who saw an opportunity in assisting the monarch. She wrestled back some areas of Matamba in 1629 and started opening up pockets of forest refugee camps for escaped slaves and Portuguese-trained African soldiers who came to her kingdom.
In 1641, the Dutch, working in alliance with the Kongo, gained control of Luanda from the Portuguese. Nzinga saw her opportunity and with the assistance of the Dutch defeated the Portuguese army at Ngoleme in 1644. There would be a ping pong of wars between the two forces till 1647.
The wars would not end and Nzinga would not back down from serving her nation’s liberty, rallying her warriors in battle into the advanced age of sixty. Her work continued beyond the wars and focused on humanitarian programmes of rehabilitating former slave. She was obsessed with restoring order and traditional governance of her people. It is said that one of the reasons she was so influential is that her men fought to the death to spend the night with her and, after a single night of lovemaking, were put to death. It is also said that Nzinga made her male servants dress as women. Today, she is remembered for her diplomatic prowess and unmatched guerrilla military tactics that revolutionised the fight against colonialism. Regardless of the countless attempts by the Portuguese and their allies to assassinate and dethrone Queen Nzinga, she died peacefully in her eighties on December 17, 1663.