She was born into the ruling family of Ndongo, and she received military and political training as a child, demonstrating an aptitude for defusing political crises as an ambassador to the Portuguese Empire.
She later took over the kingdoms after the death of her father and brother, who both served as kings. She ruled during a period of rapid growth in the African slave trade and encroachment of the Portuguese Empire into South West Africa, in attempts to control the slave trade.
In her 37 year reign, Queen Nzingha fought for the Independence and stature of her kingdoms against the Portuguese.
Ever since her death, Queen Nzingha has become a historical figure in Angola. She is remembered for her intelligence, her political and diplomatic wisdom, and her brilliant military tactics. A major street in Luanda is named after her.
QUEEN NZINGHA: POLITICAL AND DIPLOMATIC PROWESS
Shortly after her ascension to power, the peace between Ndongo and Imbangala collapsed. The Ndongo were driven out of their court in Kabasa, which made the king officially in exile. The Portuguese did not want to proceed with a peace treaty if the king was in exile and unbaptized.
Therefore, the Portuguese ignored the treaty and continued their raiding and conquest of the kingdom, taking Africans as slaves, as well as making away with precious items.
After the death of Ngola Mbande, Queen Nzingha’s brother, the Portuguese declared war on Ndongo as well as on other nearby tribes.
Hari a Ndongo, a rival of Nzingha’s, who was opposed to a woman ruling, swore vassalage to the Portuguese. With the help of the Kasanje Kingdom and Ndongo nobility who opposed Nzingha, she was removed from Luanda.
Following her removal, Nzingha fled, and kidnapped the Queen of Matamba and her army. She asserted herself as their Queen and took over the kingdom. She would later lead the kidnapped army in a battle to take back her home.
Sometime in the 1640s, as a result of her gender which made her kingship illegitimate, Nzingha decided to ‘become a man’, which is actually a practice many female rulers in central and western Africa used to maintain their power.
Nzingha reinforced this maleness by engaging in masculine pursuits. She led her troops personally in battle, and she was deft in the use of arms herself.
Nzingha soon sent a diplomatic mission to negotiate with the Dutch. She forged an alliance with the Dutch, against the Portuguese, who continued to occupy the inland parts of their colony with their main headquarters in Massangano.
With this alliance, Nzingha moved her capital to Kavanga, in the northern part of Ndongo’s former domains. This move was made in the hope of recovering lost lands with Dutch help.
In 1644, Nzingha defeated the Portuguese army at Ngoleme, but was unable to follow up. Then, in 1646, she was defeated by the Portuguese at Kavanga and, in the process, her other sister was captured, along with her archives, which revealed her alliance with Kongo.
These archives also showed that her captive sister had been in secret correspondence with Nzingha and had revealed coveted Portuguese plans to her. As a result of the woman’s spying, the Portuguese reputedly drowned the sister in the Kwanza River. There are other accounts of the event which suggest that the sister managed to escape, and ran away to what is now Namibia.
The Dutch in Luanda sent Nzingha reinforcements, and with their help, Nzingha routed a Portuguese army in 1647. Nzingha then laid siege to the Portuguese capital of Masangano.
Queen Nzingha implemented guerrilla warfare tactics and had begun to order trenches to be made around her island, created hidden caves, and stocked up on supplies to prepare her people for a potential long standing siege.
She also made an unusual decree, establishing her kingdom as a safe haven for runaway slaves seeking refuge from the European colonists. In those thirty years fighting against the Portuguese, she created false alliances with neighboring kingdoms, expanding her reign farther and farther, even as she got older.
QUEEN NZINGHA LATER LIFE AND LEGACY
In 1656, Queen Nzingha converted again to Christianity. This conversion was notable, as she had opposed Christianity since 1627, but she later tried to similarly convert her people.
On November 24, 1657, the Portuguese decided to give up their claims to Ndongo and the land was returned to its traditional leader through a treaty ratified in Lisbon by King Pedro VI.
After the wars with Portugal ended, she attempted to rebuild her nation, which had been seriously damaged by years of conflict and over-farming. She developed Matamba as a trading power by capitalizing on its strategic position as the gateway to the Central African interior.
She was anxious that Njinga Mona’s Imbangala would not succeed her as ruler of the combined kingdom of Ndongo and Matamba, and inserted language in the treaty that bound Portugal to assist her family to retain power.
Lacking a son to succeed her, she tried to vest power in the Ngola Kanini family and arranged for her sister to marry João Guterres Ngola Kanini and to succeed her. This marriage, however, was not allowed, as priests maintained that João already had a wife in Ambaca.
She devoted her efforts to resettling former slaves and allowing women to bear children. Despite numerous efforts to dethrone her, as well as many attempts by the Portuguese to kill her, Nzingha died a peaceful death at the age of eighty-two on December 17, 1663, in Matamba.
One legend records that Nzingha executed her lovers. She kept 50–60 men dressed as women, according to Dapper’s Description of Africa, as her harem, and she had them fight to the death for the privilege and duty of spending the night with her. In the morning, the winner was put to death.
Today, she is remembered in Angola as the Mother of Angola, the fighter of negotiations, and the protector of her people. She is still honored throughout Africa as a remarkable leader and woman, for her political and diplomatic acumen, as well as her brilliant military tactics.
Accounts of her life are often romanticized, and she is considered a symbol of the fight against oppression. Queen Nzingha ultimately managed to shape her state into a form that tolerated her authority, though surely the fact that she survived all attacks on her and built up a strong base of loyal supporters helped as much as the relevance of the precedents she cited.
A major street in Luanda is named after her, and a statue of her was placed in Kinaxixi on an impressive square in 2002, dedicated by President Santos to celebrate the 27th anniversary of independence. Angolan women are often married near the statue, especially on Thursdays and Fridays.
The National Reserve Bank of Angola (BNA) issued a series of coins in tribute to Nzingha “in recognition of her role to defend self-determination and cultural identity of her people.”
An Angolan film, Njinga: Queen Of Angola (Portuguese: Njinga, Rainha de Angola), was released in 2013.
Writer AUrora Levins has decribed Nzingha saying:
“She was a fierce anticolonial warrior, a militant fighter, a woman holding power in a male-dominated society, and she laid the basis for successful Angolan resistance to Portuguese colonialism all the way into the twentieth century,”
“She was also an elite woman living off the labor of others, murdered her brother and his children, fought other African people on behalf of the Portuguese, and collaborated in the slave trade.”
By Oluwamayowa Akinyemi
Oluwamayowa Akinyemi is a digital and web content developer with experience in web content development and management as well as research and writing. He is an avid reader of random subject matters and a sucker for movies and video games. He is also passionate about youth empowerment and is a global affairs analyst and enthusiast.