Queen Nzingha, also known as Ann Nzingha, was overlord of portions of both Angola and Zaire. She has been called the “greatest military strategist that ever confronted the armed forces of Portugal.” Nzingha’s military campaigns kept the Portuguese in Africa at bay for more than four decades. Her objective was nothing less than the complete and total destruction of the African slave trade. Nzingha sent ambassadors throughout West and Central Africa with the intent of enlisting a huge coalition of African armies to eject the Portuguese. Queen Nzingha died fighting for her people in 1663 at the ripe old age of eighty-one. Africa has known no greater patriot

By Runoko Rashidi: Lecture notes “The African Woman as Heroine~Great Black Women in History

 

In the sixteenth century, the Portuguese stake in the slave trade was threatened by England and France. This caused the Portuguese to transfer their slave-trading activities southward to the Congo and South West Africa. Their most stubborn opposition, as they entered the final phase of the conquest of Angola, came from a queen who was a great head of state, and a military leader with few peers in her time. The important facts about her life are outlined by Professor Glasgow of Bowie, Maryland:

Her extraordinary story begins about 1582, the year of her birth. She is referred to as Nzingha, or Jinga, but is better known as Ann Nzingha. She was the sister of the then-reigning King of Ndongo, Ngoli Bbondi, whose country was later called Angola. Nzingha was from an ethnic group called the Jagas. The Jagas were an extremely militant group who formed a human shield against the Portuguese slave traders. Nzingha never accepted the Portuguese conquest of Angola, and was always on the military offensive. As part of her strategy against the invaders, she formed an alliance with the Dutch, who she intended to use to defeat the Portuguese slave traders.”

In 1623, at the age of forty-one, Nzingha became Queen of Ndongo. She forbade her subjects to call her Queen, She preferred to be called King, and when leading an army in battle, dressed in men’s clothing.

The immediate cause of her embassy was her brother’s attempt to get the Portuguese to withdraw the fortress of Ambaca that had been built on his land in 1617 by the Governor Luis Mendes de Vasconcelos, to have some of his subjects (semi-servile groups called kaxicos in Kimbundu and sometimes called slaves in Portuguese) who had been taken captive by Governor Mendes de Vasconcelos’ campaigns (1617-21) returned and to persuade the governor to stop the marauding of Imbangala mercenaries in Portuguese service. Nzinga’s efforts were successful, but difficult in that the governor João Correia de Sousa, never gained the advantage at the meeting, which resulted in a treaty on equal terms and agreed to her terms. One point of disagreement was the question of whether Ndongo surrendered to Portugal and accepted vassalage status. A famous story says that the in her meeting with the Portuguese governor, recorded by a Dutch artist, Correia de Sousa offered her no chair to sit on during the negotiations, and had placed a mat on the floor for her to sit, which in Mbundu custom was appropriate to subordinates. Not willing to accept this she ordered one of her servants to get down on the ground and sat on her back. By doing this, she wanted to assert that she was equal to the governor.

Nzinga converted to Christianity to strengthen the peace treaty with the Portuguese and adopted the name Dona Anna de Sousa when she was baptised in honour of the governor’s wife, who was also her godmother. She sometimes used this name in her correspondence (or just Anna). The Portuguese never honoured the treaty however, neither withdrawing Ambaca, nor returning the subjects, who they held were slaves captured in war, and they were unable to restrain the Imbangala.

Nzinga’s brother committed suicide following this diplomatic impasse, convinced that he would never have been able to recover what he had lost in the war. Rumours were also afoot that Nzinga had actually poisoned him, and these rumours were repeated by the Portuguese as grounds for not honouring her right to succeed her brother.

Nzinga assumed control as regent of his young son, who was then residing with the Imbangala band commanded by Kaza. Nzinga sent to Kaza to have the boy in her charge, and, again according to later reports, won Kaza’s heart when he saw her. He returned the son, who she is alleged to have killed, and then she refused marriage to him. She then assumed the powers of ruling in Ndongo. In her correspondence in 1624 she styled herself “Lady of Andongo” (senhora de Andongo), but in a letter of 1626 she now called herself “Queen of Andongo” (rainha de Andongo), a title which she bore from then on.

The new Portuguese governor, Fernão de Sousa, arrived in 1624 and entered into negotiations with Nzinga, but from the beginning claimed possession of the kaxicos and refused to evacuate Ambaca. This impasse led to war, and de Sousa was able to oust Nzinga from her island capital of Kidonga that year. She fled to the east and reoccupied the island in 1627, but was driven out again in 1629, during which time they captured Nzingha’s sister. Portuguese forces pursued Nzinga and the remnants of her army to the Baixa de Cassange district, when Nzinga was only able to escape by climbing down the steep cliffs that surrounded this depression on ropes.

Unable to hold on to Ndongo and deeming the island of Kidonga too vulnerable, she sought to raise a new army by allying with the Imbangala band of Kasanje. He refused her equal status with him, however, and she soon raised sufficient forces to take over the neighbouring Kingdom of Matamba, which she accomplished in 1631. During this time she declared herself an Imbangala, and allied with a smaller Imbangala band led by Njinga Mona (Nzinga’s child).

The Portuguese and Capuchin priests often asserted that Nzinga’s army practised the rites and rituals of the Imbangala, which included infanticide and cannibalism, but acceptance of such reports must be tempered with knowledge that Europeans often created stories of barbarism to justify the dehumanization and enslavement of African peoples. It is unclear whether Nzinga or her armies ever engaged in these rites. Nzinga’s own attitude toward Christianity is difficult to discern. After she adopted Imbangala practises during her stay with Kasanje’s band, and following the integration of the Imbangala band of Njinga Mona into her army, she may well have engaged in some of their practises, and put herself as an enemy of Christianity. On the other hand, in her speech to her army in 1657, Nzinga presented the Imbangala alliance as a necessary evil in her war with the Portuguese. Nzinga was respectful of priests when they were captured by her, and she permitted Portuguese prisoners and Christian Africans to have sacraments. Following the peace treaty of 1657, she became very pious, according to the Capuchin witnesses Gaeta and Cavazzi, and Gaeta at least regarded her as a model Christian.

Queen Nzingha was very loyal to the resistance movement and made good use of her feminine charm or masculine drive depending on the circumstances, also utilizing religion as a political ploy to gain the upper hand.

Queen Nzingha sent envoys throughout West and Central Africa in an effort to recruit a massive combined force of African armies to help drive out the Portuguese, and also developed affiliations with other foreign authorities before setting them against each other as rivals, in a further attempt to rid Angola of this European scourge.

Nzingha’s efforts helped to motivate others to join the fight against the invaders, which included people like Madame Tinubu of Nigeria; Nandi, the mother of Chaka – the great Zulu warrior; Kaipkire of the Herero people of South West Africa; as well as the female army which supported Behanzin Bowelle, the Dahomian King.

In 1659, at the age of seventy-five, she signed a treaty with the Portuguese, bringing her no feeling of triumph. Nzingha had resisted the Portuguese most of her adult life. African bravery, however, was no match for gun powder. This great African Amazon Warrior Queen died in 1663 fighting for her people at an old ripe age of eighty-one, which was followed by the massive expansion of the Portuguese slave trade.

References:

http://blackhistory.freei.me/amazonqueens.html

The Global African Comunity Lecture Notes by Runoko Rashidi; http://www.cwo.com/~lucumi/women.html

Historical Personalities and Issues compiled and edited by Phillip True Jr. http://www.africawithin.com/hpi/hp16.htm

The Best of Africa Blog http://www.thebestofafrica.com/2009/07/queen-nzingha-of-ndongo-1582-1663/

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