Africa's Great Civilizations, Leading Warrior Woman: Queen Nzinga

Updated: Jul 24, 2019

Queen Nzinga

March, is Womens month and in honor of this great month we want to pay homage to few audacious women from the continent whose ferocious and audacious brilliance fostered progress.

Queen Ana Nzinga (c. 1583 – December 17, 1663), also known as Njinga Mbande or Ana de Sousa Nzinga Mbande, was a 17th-century queen (muchino a muhatu) of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms of the Mbundu people in Angola. Born into the ruling family of Ndongo and Matamba, Nzinga demonstrated an aptitude for defusing political crises in her capacity as ambassador to the Portuguese, whose bold ambitions and ruthless methods forced Queen Nzinga to protect her kingdom against slavery. She assumed power over the kingdoms when her brother, then king, committed suicide.

According to tradition, she was named Njinga because her umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck (the Kimbundu verb kujinga means to twist or turn). It was said to be an indication that the person who had this characteristic would be proud and haughty, and a wise woman told her mother that Nzinga would become queen one day. Base on her recollections later in life, she was greatly favored by her father, who allowed her to witness as he governed his kingdom, and would carry her with him to war. Her siblings were a brother, Mbandi, and two sisters, Kifunji and Mukambu.

Queen Nzinga

The Portuguese established a fort and settlement at Luanda in 1617, encroaching on Mbundu land. In 1622 they invited Ngola (King) Mbande to attend a peace conference there to end the hostilities with the Mbundu. Mbande, the king at the time, sent his sister Nzinga to represent him in a meeting with Portuguese Governor Joao Corria de Sousa. Nzinga was aware of her diplomatically awkward position. She knew of events in the Kongo which had led to Portuguese domination of the nominally independent nation. She also recognized, however, that to refuse to trade with the Portuguese would remove a potential ally and the major source of guns for her own state.

In 1626 Nzinga became Queen of the Mbundu when her brother committed suicide in the face of rising Portuguese demands for slave trade concessions. There are conflicting accounts as to how Nzinga ascended to leadership. One account shows that after her negotiations with the Portuguese, Nzinga returned home, jailed her brother, declared herself ngola and issued her first orders. Another account notes that in 1624, Nzinga succeeded to the throne of Ndongo after her brother died under what some deem suspicious circumstances. After Nzinga had claimed the title of ngola, she retreated eastward to Matamba, as a puppet ngola had been put in her brother’s place by the Portuguese after his death.

Nzinga, however, refused to allow them to control her nation. In the first of a series of meetings Nzinga sought to establish her equality with the representative of the Portugal crown. Noting that the only chair in the room belonged to Governor Corria, she immediately motioned to one of her assistants who fell on her hands and knees and served as a chair for Nzinga for the rest of the meeting. In 1627, after forming alliances with former rival states, she led her army against the Portuguese, initiating a thirty-year war against them. She exploited European rivalry by forging an alliance with the Dutch who had conquered Luanda in 1641. With their help, Nzinga defeated a Portuguese army in 1647.

When the Dutch were in turn defeated by the Portuguese the following year and withdrew from Central Africa, Nzinga continued her struggle against the Portuguese. Even in her 60s she still led troops in battle. Nzinga fought fearlessly and cleverly for the freedom and stature of her kingdoms against the Portuguese. She also orchestrated guerilla attacks on the Portuguese which would continue long after her death and inspire the ultimately successful 20th Century armed resistance against the Portuguese that resulted in independent Angola in 1975. Despite repeated attempts by the Portuguese and their allies to capture or kill Queen Nzinga, she died peacefully in her eighties on December 17, 1663.

Today, she is remembered in Angola for her political and diplomatic acumen, as well as her brilliant military tactics. A major street in Luanda is named after her, and in 2002 a statue of her in Kinaxixi was dedicated by then-President Santos to celebrate the 27th anniversary of independence.

Queen Nzinga Statue

Through her clever manipulations of the Portuguese, the Imbangala and the Dutch, Nzinga was able to dominate Kimbundu politics for 40 years. Her legacy is immense, if contradictory.

First, she was a leader who could inspire her people to resist the Europeans. Second, she had unusual strength, and her role as a warrior and an anti-colonialist is an excellent example of the commitment of African women to values of self-reliance and survival. From the period of Nzinga’s leadership to the present, African women have been at the forefront of resisting the militarism and the murderous tendencies of colonial economic relations and of social structures that privileged masculinity and violence. As to Nzinga’s role as a slave trader, many either choose not to believe it or to simply accept it as part of her legacy. One perspective on Nzinga’s contradictions is that her quest to preserve the humanity of African people required her to develop a flexible and strategic identity, most notably when she converted to Christianity and took the name Ana de Sousa Nzinga to appease the Portuguese.

Queen Nzinga’s record as a military leader, diplomat, spiritual leader and mother belie any simplistic conception of gender identities in African societies. She has a special position in

Angolan history and is seen as an important root of African nationalism both because of her resistance to colonial rule and because of her success in breaking the regional power of the old ethnic provinces.

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