In an era when colonialism was dominant, Queen Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba emerged as an exceptional African monarch. Queen Nzinga fearlessly opposed Portuguese colonialists and safeguarded her people from the atrocities of enslavement. Queen Nzinga was a total power freak who called herself King.
Yet, her story goes even further, for it’s not just the tale of a queen’s ascent to power but a narrative of her audacious choices that created a living legend and legacy.
Daughter of a King
Born in 1583 into royalty, Nzinga was the daughter of King Kilombo of Ndongo. Her mother, Kengela ka Nkombe, though a slave wife, held favor as the King’s favorite concubine. Her birth was marked by a difficult delivery, with the umbilical cord tangled around her neck, leading to her name, Nzinga, a term in the Kimbundu language meaning “to twist or turn.” Such a birth was believed to portend a future of power and pride. A wise woman who witnessed her birth even prophesied that she would one day ascend to the throne as a queen.
At the tender age of 10, Nzinga’s life significantly turned as her father ascended the throne, earning the title of Ngola, or King of Ngdongo. Despite being a girl in a society favoring male heirs, she enjoyed her father’s unwavering favor and attention. This familial dynamic allowed her to thrive. As a girl, she wasn’t seen as a potential heir or competitor for the throne like her brothers.
But Nzinga was no ordinary princess. She was trained as a warrior, learning the ways of battle to fight alongside her father and brothers. Her skills with a battle axe, the traditional weapon of Ndongan warriors, were impressive. Beyond her martial training, Portuguese missionaries who had visited the region taught her how to read and write. She was almost always with her father as he carried out his important duties. Observing his interactions with advisors, warriors, and dignitaries, she absorbed much knowledge about governance, diplomacy, and the art of war.
In the 15th century, King Kilombo confronted a dire situation as Portuguese forces seized the southwest African coast, enslaving locals and shipping them to Brazilian plantations. Depleted coastal resources drove them to exploit inland communities for the inexhaustible transatlantic slave trade.
Birth of a Queen
In 1617, when Nzinga was 34 years old, her father passed away, and her brother Mbandi took over as the ruler. Mbandi had always been jealous of Nzinga and worried that her young son might challenge him for power one day. So, he did something fierce: he had Nzinga’s son killed. To make matters worse, Mbandi forced Nzinga and her sisters to undergo a procedure that would prevent them from having more sons who could threaten his power.
Heartbroken and fearful, Nzinga and her husband, Prince Azeze, fled Ndongo, seeking refuge in the neighboring Kingdom of Matamba. From Matamba, they watched their homeland descend into chaos, hunger, and fear under Mbandi’s weak leadership. Unfortunately, her husband Azeze later died in battle, leaving her a widow.
Watching the chaos from afar, Ndongo observed as Mbandi tried negotiating with the Portuguese but had to retreat because they were more powerful. Desperate, he turned to his sister, asking her to be his ambassador. She agreed, but with conditions, demanding a royal title, an entourage, and attire befitting a queen. Nzinga, unlike many Africans who wore European clothes when meeting the Portuguese, proudly wore her people’s finest clothing to assert her culture’s equality.
Upon reaching Luanda, she found only chairs for the Portuguese, forcing her to kneel on a mat. In defiance, Nzinga ordered her servant to become her makeshift throne. She was an adept negotiator. In her meeting with the governor, they agreed on a peace treaty. The treaty said the Portuguese soldiers would leave Ndonga, no more tribute or human raids, and they had to recognize the kingdom’s sovereignty.
In exchange, Nzinga agreed to trade with the Portuguese, explore Christianity, and undergo baptism. She resided in Luanda for half a year, where she familiarized herself with the Catholic faith and Portuguese customs. She was baptized and adopted the Christian name Donna Ana de Sousa.
Upon her return home, Nzinga received a hero’s welcome and publicly criticized her brother for his weak leadership. Her brother, Nbandi, lost the support of the people and, in shame, took his own life by drinking poison in 1625.
She then took control of Ndango on behalf of her nephew, who had lived among Mbangala warriors. To strengthen her rule Nzinga convinced Kasanje (Mbangala warlord) that she was in love with him and wanted to marry him. During their wedding, Nzinga seized her nephew, stabbed him to death, and threw his body in the river, declaring to all that she had finally avenged her son’s murder.
During her marriage to Kasanje, Nzinga underwent various warrior initiation ceremonies, including the cuia, which involved drinking human blood. To gain the status of an Imbangala leader, she was required to kill her child and create a massaging oil with his blood. Since Nzinga had no children, she used one belonging to one of her concubines. After she came into power in 1631 she began building her own army of male and female soldiers.
She then ended their relationship with Kasanje and conquered Matamba with her troops, taking control of Ndango on behalf of her nephew, who had lived among Mongola warriors. To strengthen her rule, Nzinga married a Mongola warrior, and during their wedding, Nzinga seized her nephew, stabbed him to death, and threw his body in the river, declaring to all that she had finally avenged her son’s murder.
A Harem of Husbands
Nzinga had secured her position as the ruler of Ndango, but there were still those among the nobility who opposed the idea of a woman in power. Nzinga adopted a unique strategy to protect her reign, one commonly employed by female leaders in Central and West Africa during that era. She began to live as a man, engaging in activities typically associated with men and taking multiple husbands, known as Chibados. These Chibados existed as a distinct third gender in Ndango, dressing as women and being able to marry both men and women without facing social stigma.
There were a whopping 60 men in her harem, and during the night, she would randomly select two of her husbands and engage them in a brutal fight to the death, watching with intense lust as they fought to rip each other’s hearts out for her. The winner was rewarded with spending only one night with her as no one ever slept with her twice. The winner met his demise in the morning, and she would start the cycle anew. Nzinga’s husbands lived among her maids-in-waiting, but they were prohibited from engaging in romantic relationships with them.
Fighting for Her Queendom
Queen Nzinga of Ndango boldly resisted Portuguese demands for tribute and enslaved people. She encouraged dissatisfied individuals to seek refuge in Ndango, challenging Portuguese claims of ownership. The Portuguese attempted to undermine her rule by reminding the public that she was a woman and that she wasn’t truly a Christian. Nzinga, displaying remarkable strategic acumen, retreated to the more accepting Matamba region, fortified her army, and forged an alliance with the Dutch.
Nzinga personally led her troops, capturing the city of Luanda and securing regional support. She recognized the unlikelihood of military victory and employed political and economic strategies to disrupt Portuguese expansion. She curtailed the slave trade and sought Church support, ultimately forcing the Portuguese into negotiations recognizing her as the rightful ruler of her empire.
Nzinga was a remarkable leader who combined strength, cunning, and diplomacy to secure her people’s well-being. She dressed splendidly, embracing European and African fashion, always wearing a royal crown for official duties. Queen Nzinga peacefully died in her sleep in 1663 at 80, briefly succeeded by her sister Mungumbu. After her death, various male heirs vied for the throne. Despite the challenges, Nzinga’s legacy paved the way for women’s leadership in the region, with queens ruling over the Ndongo people for a significant portion of the century that followed her passing.
Today, women hold 36% of legislative seats, surpassing the UK and the US; they enjoy significant social independence, contributing to the military, police, government, and economy. Queen Nzinga is still celebrated for her political, military, and diplomatic brilliance and is honored as the mother of Angola.
- Fizza Tanveer writes stories about history for The Feisty News. She resurrects lost stories with her pen-as-time machine. To her, history isn't mere facts and figures; instead, it's about understanding the past's impact on our world.
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