Queen Nzinga (Nzinga Mbande), the monarch of the Mbundu people, was a doyen of African feminist governance. An exceptional leader who stood tall against the Portuguese and their expanding slave trade in Central Africa, Queen Nzinga sits amongst the most revered ancient African female politicians in African political history. Born in 1583 she held a prestigious position as Queen of the Ambundu Kingdoms of Ndongo from the period 1624–1663 and Matamba from 1631–1663, located in modern-day northern Angola. Following her baptism and conversion to Christianity, she adopted the name Anna de Souza. Nzinga grew up in royalty and gained military training at a very tender age. Growing up in a royal family, she mastered the art of politics and diplomacy. Due to her unmatched intelligence, she rose through the family political ranks, establishing herself as her kingdom’s ambassador to the Portuguese empire.
Rise to political stardom
Queen Nzinga’s rise to the top echelons of political power was not contested by her predecessor, neither was her competency debated. Soon after her father, Ngola Mbandi Kiluanji’s demise in 1617, Nzinga’s elder brother Ngola Mbandi assumed office. His rule was characterised by insecurities since he lacked affirmation from elders for his somewhat lack of charisma, military know-how and political clout. One of the prime obstacles surrounding Ngola’s power was the incessant Portuguese invasions of his territory in search of slaves. This troubled Nzinga’s brother so much so that, he had to recall Nzinga from the exile in which he had subjected her in a bid to centralise his power. Mbandi knew the political genius in Nzinga such that, he offered her a politically significant role as an emissary to the Portuguese in Luanda. Cognisant of the need for tact in diplomatic missions, Nzinga sought authority to be baptised in order to resonate with the Portuguese administration. Apart from that, she was very eloquent in Portuguese making her a perfect ambassador to the foreign invaders.
In her diplomatic mission with the Portuguese enslavers, Queen Nzinga did not disappoint. Her solutions were purely in the best interest of her kingdom. She was not a figure that could be easily bullied because of her gender. She stood up against male leaders as well and was infamous for negotiating at an equal footing with male counterparts. In one of the meetings in which she was granted a mat to sit on while the Portuguese peers sat on chairs, she instructed one of her attendants to lie on all fours and serve as her chair. This was symbolic of the equal footing status between the intruders and herself and those she represented. On numerous diplomatic caucuses, Nzinga would stress that her kingdom had not been defeated and needed to be treated with the respect it deserved. As such, she consistently refused to pay tribute to any Portuguese official for it was responsibility for a conquered people.
Becoming Ngola Nzinga
Having faced political retraction, factionalism and incessant Portuguese raids, Nzinga’s brother succumbed to depression and committed suicide. However, he left a royal instruction that Nzinga should ascend to the highest office in the land. This ascendancy saw her consolidating her power, establishing herself as a Ngola which was a cultural name for leader. This title is of great salience to the Angolan people till date as it forms the etymology of the country’s name. To fully establish herself as the ruler, Nzinga had to carry out extensive political diplomacy within her internal political structure. She faced extreme opposition from patrilineal leaders who felt that as a female, it was taboo to lead such a great kingdom. One of her fierce political rivals Hari, a Portuguese puppet was whipped into rising against Nzinga. This culminated in successive Nzinga wars against the Portuguese.
The Nzinga -Portuguese wars
Between 1635-1650, Queen Nzinga engaged in a stint of wars against the Portuguese for economic and political control. In the initial phases of the wars, she would be defeated owing to her fractured internal politics and lack of advanced weapons. However, she would escape and maintain a significant army to build up from. Thanks to her diplomatic clout, Nzinga was able to forge alliances with the Imbangala people and the Dutch. The latter were against the Portuguese activities and in constant competition for slaves and trade ports. This coalition earned Nzinga a military leverage that proved too strong for the Portuguese army and their Ndongan puppet ruler. As a result, Queen Nzinga defeated the Portuguese in the famous Battle of Ngoleme and the 1647 Battle of Kombi. In the process, the military brilliance of Queen Nzinga also helped her topple the Queen of Matamba to become an iron lady who ruled two great kingdoms at once. The war with the Portuguese spurned over a period of at least 25 years, prompting both belligerents into negotiating lasting peace.
Queen Nzinga’s last days
In her last days, Queen Nzinga went on to engage in various battles against the Portuguese, forming strategic allies with neighboring kingdoms. This followed a peace settlement in which the Dutch reached political consensus with the Portuguese envoy. As she grew old, she extended her political strongholds through her army which she used as bait to attract possible allies and to influence succession outcomes to her benefit. By 1656, after a peace treaty was signed with the Portuguese, Queen Nzinga focused on unifying her kingdom and mapping a succession plan in which her sister Kambu, (named Barbara following a Christian baptism) later assumed the throne. Queen Nzinga died of a throat infection on the 17th of December in the year 1663.
While Western and Eurocentric historical perspectives tried to taint her image, accusing her of practicing cannibalism, it is settled that Nzinga was a great warrior and leader of her time and gender. She remains a definitive figure in the history of feminine leadership in Africa and the globe. To add further impetus, around 1661 Nzinga received correspondence from Pope Alexander VII in which the latter praised her splendid efforts in extending Christianity. One Portuguese historian who had an eye witness account of Nzinga’s fierce battles documents that, “she was like an Amazon Queen bent on protecting her territory”.