Queen Nzinga Mbande of the Ambundu Kingdoms of Ndongo and Matamba, located in present-day northern Angola, is one of the most famous African women who resisted European colonization in South West Africa. She conducted warfare against the Portuguese in Angola for nearly 40 years, from the 1620s to the 1660s.

A skillful negotiator, and a military strategist, Queen Nzinga was directly responsible for restricting Luanda’s Portuguese colony to a few square miles. Remembered for her intelligence, her political and diplomatic wisdom, and her brilliant military tactics, Nzinga Mbande has become a historical figure in Angola.

Nzinga Mbande: Early Life and Education

In 1571, King Sebastian of Portugal declared that the kingdom of Ndongo should be subjected and captured. The Portuguese had already converted the Kongo, a neighbouring people, and were after slaves which were known as black ivory in Angola.

It was around 12 years after this royal order that Nzinga Mbande was born around 1583 in Kabasa, the capital of the Kingdom of Ndongo (now Angola), which was ruled by a people called ngolas.

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Queen Nzinga aka Ana de Sousa Nzinga Mbande (c. 1583 – December 17, 1663)/Flickr

Nzinga was as a child, greatly favored by her father, Ngola Karensi. Since she was not considered an heir to the throne, she was not seen as a direct rival, so the king could openly lavish attention on her.

Together with her father, she took part in many official and governing duties, including legal councils, war councils, and important rituals. In addition, Nzinga was taught to read and write in Portuguese by visiting Portuguese missionaries.

An Amazon and warrior, Nzinga Mbande used to dress in men’s clothing and was considered to be the best politician in the country. However, her strategies unsettled her brother, Ngola Mbandi who became ruler after their father’s death. Out of paranoia and fear that he would one day be assassinated, the new king had Nzinga’s only son killed and then sterilized Nzinga so that she would never have a child again.

However, after suffering many defeats by the Portuguese, Ngola Mbandi later begged his sister who had fled the kingdom for help, and, to his amazement, Nzinga agreed to help him and to keep the Ndongo people from being enslaved. As she spoke Portuguese, she was sent to negotiate a treaty, which was signed but not honoured.

Ascension to Leadership

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.

Conflict with the Portuguese

Nzinga had three main policy objectives. She wanted to stop the war between the Portuguese and her people, which was devastating the Luanda plateau.

She wanted to obtain from the Portuguese the diplomatic recognition that had been accorded to the Kongo. And she wanted to establish a regular and profitable trading relationship between Luanda and Europeans.

congo-civilization
Civilization in Congo by Edouard Manduau, 1884.

In the 1630s and 1640s, she forged an alliance with Dutch slave traders and used her wealth to consolidate her position.

She also overcame traditional Mbande resistance to women in politics, employing Mbande refugees, that is, runaway slaves, and others as mercenaries against local resistance where necessary. After continuous war against the Portuguese, she concluded a treaty with them that largely fulfilled her initial goals, and her policy continued successfully until her death.

Queen Nzinga Mbande resistance to Portuguese colonisation, stance on slavery, her legacy, and death are further revealed in the video below.

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