Nzinga Mbande was born into African royalty, appointed herself queen when the king died, and kept a 60-man harem all while leading an army of her people against would-be Portuguese slave traders. She was a total boss who let nothing get in her way, and during her lifetime the white conquerors and colonizers were never successful in enslaving or destroying her people. Queen of the Ndonga and Matamba people and also known by the aliases Njinga Mbande, Ana Nzinga, and Rainha Ginga, she was born in 1583 to King Kiluanji of Ndonga and Matamba (modern day Angola). She was raised by her father's side and, after his death in 1617, served as an advisor to her brother-king, Ngola. She became queen after her brother's death in 1624, although the circumstances around his death remain questionable.
Nzinga learned about leadership from her father and her brother during their reigns, but once she became queen of Ndongo and Matamba, she proved herself to be a successful ruler in her own right. A warrior queen, a politician, a woman, and a killer, Nzinga fought for her kingdom and against Portuguese domination by any means necessary.
Nzinga Mbande Grew Up Watching The Portuguese Enslave Her Fellow Africans
Portuguese merchants landed in Ndongo, home to the Mbundu people, during the first half of the 1500s. They were attempting to settle in what is now the capital of Angola and retain control of the profitable slave trade through this region but established diplomatic relations with the local Ndongo people. By the time Nzinga's father came to power as king, the Portuguese had established a permanent base off the coast of Africa and were trading with both Ndongo and the kingdom of the Kongo.
As her father's reign went on, diplomacy with Portugal deteriorated. In 1617, when Nzinga's brother King Ngola was on the throne, the Portuguese attacked Luanda, the capital of Ndongo. King Ngola was forced to flee to Kindonga Island in the Kwanza River. By some accounts, the Portuguese took King Ngola captive and threw him in prison.
- Photo: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
Her Brother, The King, Sent Her To Negotiate A Treaty With The Portuguese In 1622
King Ngola spent years exiled on Kindonga Island, finally sending his sister, Nzinga, as an emissary to meet with the Portuguese in 1622. She was supposed to negotiate a treaty to end the war, get back Mbundu hostages, and enlist the Portuguese's help in fighting the problematic Imbangala tribe.
By some accounts, Nzinga went to meet with the Portuguese to negotiate the release of her brother. When she arrived, the Portuguese refused to offer her a chair and told her to sit on one of the mats reserved for servants. She then made one of her servants get on all fours to make a seat for her while she negotiated. Legacy has it that after she had arranged for her brother's release, she stood, slit her servant's throat and told the Portuguese that she never sat on the same seat twice.
Most historians agree that the first part of this story is more likely true than the second. Either way, she accomplished her mission: her great diplomatic and communication skills led to her brother's release, although he died two years later.
- Photo: Achille Devéria/Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
She May Have Killed Her Brother To Become Queen
After Nzinga's successful negotiation with the Portuguese, she and her brother returned to Kindonga Island. With the failed peace treaty, King Ngola died, allegedly comitting suicide, in 1624, leaving a seven-year-old son. Some reports say Nzinga killed her brother to become queen, killing him in his sleep or poisoning him and killing his son and heir as well. Some historians dispute this, however.
Nzinga claimed the throne in 1624. Her brother was dead, his heir was a minor, and generally, power in the kingdom then went to the most capable person. Nzinga asserted her authority but at first she was not widely accepted. A female ruler among the Mbundu was not common and the Portuguese refused to recognize her as well. To gain support, Nzinga turned to those same problematic tribesmen she'd tried to fight against with the Portuguese, the Imbangala.
- Photo: CCO/Public Domain
Nzinga Converted To Christianity To Gain Portuguese Favor
When Nzinga visited the Portuguese in 1622, she converted to Christianity, was baptized, and took the Christian name Ana Nzinga, purportedly in a calculated attempt to convince them of her dedication to the cause, as her brother had authorized her do to this. With her baptism, the Portuguese governor was now Nzinga's godfather and the nations' relationship was supposedly sealed.
But just as the Portuguese violated the treaty against the Ngoda, Nzinga later abandoned Christianity.
She Supposedly Sacrificed Her Own Daughter To Earn Political Allies
In order to keep the support of the Imbangala people, Nzinga entered into a marriage of sorts with their leader, the kaza. The marriage ceremony of the Imbangala included a sacrifice and Nzinga was reported to have "thrown her own infant daughter into a mortar and using a pounding stick reduced to a shapeless mass of flesh and blood." Gruesome as it may see, this earned her the support of the Imbangala people and the Portuguese soon recognized her authority.
A theory worth mentioning, however, is that she did all of this prior to her brother's death and used the Imbangala to kill her brother and his son.
- Photo: Public Domain/[CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)] / Wikimedia Commons
She Gave Refuge To Escaped Slaves And Turned Them Into Her Warriors
Nzinga's alliance with the Imbangala fell apart in 1629 when they defected to join up with the Portuguese. Nzinga fled to Matamba and offered refuge to escaped slaves. With flocks of Africans streaming into Matamba, she had a new bulk of labor and military might that she could use to fight against the Portuguese.
Queen Nzinga spent the next 40 years fighting against the Portuguese, her original allies. She moved throughout Matamba, the Kwanza River region, and along the Dande River River to attack the Portuguese. She stirred up discontent in the part of Ndongo that was under Portuguese control and negotiated an alliance with the Dutch, also in the region, to oppose the Portuguese together.