Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, December 17, 2017

Nzinga, Queen of Ndongo and Matamba

Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba (died 17 December 1663)

Given my educational and professional background, I usually write about historical women with whom I have some familiarity and experience, either from the classroom or from my own research and reading.

Close-up view of a statue of
Queen Nzinga,
Luanda, Angola
(contrast to romanticized European view
of Nzinga, below)
But I recently ran across a reference to Nzinga, queen of  Ndongo and Matamba, also known as Queen Anna Njinga Mbande. I am ashamed to admit that I don't know much at all about the history of any of the kingdoms, states, and peoples of Africa, and so I had never heard about this remarkable ruler of the Mbundu people.

Today's post isn't one that reflects any expertise or deep knowledge on my part--still, I hope that it piques your interest to explore further.

Sometimes (as well) known by the name Dona Ana de Souza, Nzinga was born about the year 1583, the daughter of Ngola (King) Kiluanji Kia Samba and his queen, Guenguela Cakombewas.

By the time of Nzinga's birth, the Mbundu people had already had a long and troubled history with Portuguese invaders, would-be colonial rulers, and slave traders, who had first arrived in the area at the end of the fifteenth century and, in 1575, had established the colony of Luanda.

Nzinga's father, who became king about the year 1592, had begun to resist Portuguese raids into his territory for slaves. At some point in the early seventeenth century, about the year 1617, King Kiluanji was replaced by his son, Mbandi, Nzinga's half brother. 

The circumstances surrounding this event aren't clear--many online sources suggest the king was deposed by his "illegitimate son," adding that Mbandi killed Nzinga's son (or the queen's son, it's not clear). Others claim that Nzinga and her husband fled after her father was deposed, others that they remained behind after Ngola Kihuanji was replaced by his son, still others that the king was not deposed but, more simply, died, to be followed on the throne by his son.

According to Hettie V. Williams's entry on Nzinga in the Encyclopedia of African American History, because of King Kiluanji Kia's resistance to supplying them with slaves, the Portuguese enlisted the aid of neighboring Imbangala warriors to attack him, thus "bringing the kingdom to its knees." After Mbandi's succession, Nzinga and her husband, fearing for their safety, left the kingdom. (Williams indicates that the child Mbandi killed was Nzinga's son.)

Whatever the circumstances of Mbandi's rise, the first solid detail about Nzinga's political life is dated to 1622, when she served as her brother's emissary to the Portuguese governor, João Correia de Sousa, in Luanda. 

Before meeting with the governor, she is said to have been baptized, acquiring her Portuguese name, Ana de Sousa, deriving from the name of the governor's wife, who served as her godmother. By all accounts Nzinga's baptism seems to be regarded today as a wily act of political expediency.

In a singularly strategic gesture, Nzinga seems also to have outwitted a Portuguese attempt to humiliate her--finding herself in a room with only one chair, clearly designated for the governor, she realized that to be left standing while the governor sat was a ploy to demonstrate her inferiority.

To avoid this move, she chose to sit on the back of one of her attendants, thus removing any suggestion that she was inferior to the Portuguese man with whom she was dealing. (The moment was captured in a drawing of the meeting made by an observer.) 

The contemporary illustration,
 drawn by Italian priest Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi da Montecuccolo,
of Nzinga during the peace negotiations of 1622 

Nzinga successfully negotiated a treaty with the Portuguese, ending the conflicts between them and her brother, as king. Mbandi retained his throne, and the Portuguese agreed to limit their slaving efforts. (Though the Portuguese do not seem to have honored the terms of the treaty to which they had agreed.)

In 1624 (or 1626, sources differ), following her brother's death, Nzinga became queen. Again the details are unclear--according to some accounts, Mbandi committed suicide, with Nzinga first assuming the role of regent for his son; according to at least one other source, Nzinga murdered her brother in order to gain the throne for herself; in other sources, the Mbundi people resisted female rulers, and Nzinga sought assistance from the Portuguese to establish her rule; others sidestep the issue and simply say she became queen after her brother's death.

Or, in the account offered by Williams, Nzinga's brother died "in mysterious circumstances," and she "subsequently seized power." 

Whatever the circumstances, and however Nzinga became queen, the task facing her was a daunting one. According to Alexander Ives Bortolot's account on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's website, 
In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, states on the Central African coast found their economic power and territorial control threatened by Portuguese attempts to establish a colony at Luanda (in present-day Angola). Many of these states had become regional powers through trade in African slaves. It was the growing demand for this human labor in New World colonies such as Brazil that ultimately led Portugal to seek military and economic control of this region. Old trading partners came under military attack by Portuguese soldiers and indigenous African raiders in search of captives for the slave trade, and rulers were forced to adapt to these new circumstances or face certain destruction. One leader who proved to be adept at overcoming these difficulties was the queen of Ndongo, Ana Nzinga.*
Having become queen, Nzinga realized that she needed to carefully negotiate a position between the hostile Portuguese slave traders and the aggressive African neighbors surrounding her. Betrayed by the Portuguese with whom she had negotiated the 1622 peace treaty, she was ultimately forced to flee Ndongo, eventually establishing herself as queen of Matamba. (Interestingly, in establishing herself as the ruler of Matamba, Nzinga defeated and replaced the ruling queen, Mwongo Mataba.)

There, she offered sanctuary to runaway slaves as well as to runaway African soldiers, trained by the Portuguese. She was also able to incite rebellion in Ndongo, ruled after her flight by her sister, installed as a puppet ruler by the Portuguese--but who in reality acted as a spy for Nzinga.

In 1641, after the Dutch seized control of Luanda, forcing the Portuguese out, Nzinga negotiated an alliance with this new European colonial power. With the help of the Dutch, she went to war against the Portuguese, gaining some victories and suffering some defeats.

Notably, she "led troops into battle, dressed as a man, took the title of ngola or king, and kept male concubines"!

By 1651, the Portuguese having reestablished themselves in Luanda, Nzinga returned to Matamba, sued for peace, and negotiated a new settlement. She turned her attention to rebuilding the now combined kingdom of Ndongo and Mtamba, devastated by years of war. Given Matamba's geographical location, she was able to establish the kingdom as a trading power.

Achille Devéria's nineteenth-century
drawing of Queen Nzinga

She also resettled former slaves and, without a male heir to succeed her, consolidated her political power to ensure the future of her state. 

Nzinga reconverted to Christianity before her death, at age eighty-one, on 17 December 1663.

Following her death, civil war divided Matamba between followers of her sister, Barbara, and of Nzinga a Mona, an Imbrangala warrior who was a member of her court. The forces supporting Barbara were ultimately victorious

In addition to a novel and several books for children, there is a full-length historical study of Nzinga, Linda Heywood's Njinga of Angola: Africa's Warrior Queen. 

*The Metropolitan Museum of Art's history of art timeline, where Bortolot's essay appears, "pairs essays and works of art with chronologies,telling the story of art and global culture through the Museum’s collection." The essay on Nzinga is part of a larger series on "Women Leaders in African History, 17th-19th Century."

Update, 15 March 2023: The BBC's History Extra podcast series has just released "Njinga: Queen, Warrior, Diplomat." To listen, click here. (The link here is to Overcast, but the series is also available on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, and other streaming services--the podcasts used to be freely available at the History Extra site, but the new episodes now seem to be behind a paywall.)