Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba from the UNESCO series on women in African history

Queen Nzinga: A Ruler who Set her People Free

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Queen Anna Nzinga, known also as Ana de Sousa Nzinga Mbande, was a queen of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms (occupying what is today the country of Angola in the southern part of Africa) who lived during the 16 th and 17 th centuries AD. Queen Nzinga is best remembered for her resistance against the Portuguese, and setting her people free from slavery.

Early Life

Queen Nzinga is believed to have been born during the first half of the 1580s. Nzinga’s father, Ngola Kiluanji Kia Samba, was a ruler of the Ndongo people. In the same year that Nzinga was born, the king began to lead his people against the Portuguese colonialists. These Europeans are said to have been raiding the territory of the Ndongo for slaves, due to the increasing demands of slave labor in their New World colonies, such as Brazil. Additionally, the Portuguese were attempting to conquer areas where they believed contained silver mines.

According to one source, Ngola Kiluanji was deposed by his son, Mbandi, who was also Nzinga’s brother. The queen’s child is also said to have been murdered by the new king. Perhaps fearing for their lives, Nzinga and her husband fled to Matamba. It has also been claimed that Mbandi’s rule was cruel and chaotic, and that he was an unpopular ruler. Other sources, however, do not mention this episode. It is perhaps more likely that Nzinga remained at her brother’s court, and that the flight to Matamba was a later episode in Nzinga’s life.

Drawing of Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba in Luanda, Angola.

Drawing of Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba in Luanda, Angola. ( Public Domain )

Peace Treaty

In any event, 1621/2 was an important year in the life of Nzinga. It was during this year that the Portuguese invited Mbandi to a peace conference in the hopes of ending hostilities between the two peoples (the Portuguese had forced the king to flee from his court in 1617). Nzinga was sent to represent the king during the meeting with Joao Corria de Sousa, the Portuguese governor, in Luanda. One of the best-known stories about Nzinga took place during this meeting. Prior to the meeting, the Portuguese are said to have prepared the room with only one chair. This meant that Nzinga would be obliged to stand during the negotiations, thus making her seem inferior. Instead of doing so, Nzinga had one of her male servants get down on his hands and knees, thus serving as her chair.

The negotiations were a success, as peace was achieved, and the Portuguese restored Mbandi to his throne, as well as agreeing to limit slave raiding activities. Nzinga also converted to Christianity, and was baptized, taking the name of Dona Ana de Sousa. Her godparents were the Portuguese governor, Joao Corria de Sousa and his wife. Nevertheless, this period of peace did not last for long, and the Portuguese renewed their aggression towards the Ndongo several years later.

Nzinga Meeting with Portuguese Governor Joao Corria de Sousa.

Nzinga Meeting with Portuguese Governor Joao Corria de Sousa. ( Public Domain )

Portuguese War

In 1626, Nzinga became the queen of her people following her brother’s death. According to one source, the king had committed suicide in the face of the increasingly aggressive Portuguese presence in the region. Another source, however, claims that it was Nzinga who murdered her brother. In the same year, the Portuguese renewed their attacks against the Ndongo by hiring the Imbangala to do their fighting for them. Unable to defeat the Portuguese militarily, Nzinga and her people fled westwards, and founded a new state at Matamba.             

An image depicting Portuguese in Africa

An image depicting Portuguese in Africa ( Public Domain )

From Matamba, Nzinga fought against the Portuguese in a war that lasted three decades. Amongst other measures, the queen offered sanctuary to runaway slaves and Portuguese-trained African soldiers who came to her kingdom. Additionally, she stirred up unrest within Ndongo as well, which was at that time controlled indirectly by the Portuguese via a puppet king. Moreover, Nzinga exploited European rivalries to her advantage. This can be seen in the alliance that she forged with the Dutch, who were the rivals of Portugal.

The culmination of this struggle may be said to be the expulsion of the Portuguese from Luanda in 1641 by a combined forces of the Dutch and the Matamba. In the following year, however, the Portuguese were back, and managed to reclaim Luanda. The Dutch were driven out of Angola, and the queen had to retreat back to Matamba.

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