The Portuguese had begun colonizing Africa after their rounding of the Cape of Good Hope in 1488. The English and the French had begun exploring northeast Africa, so the Portuguese concentrated on the south, what is now Congo and Angola. Their chief aim was to provide slaves for their colony of Brazil in South America.
Ndongo was ruled by a king called a Ngola, and the government was run by slaves. This was similar to the system of the janissaries in the Ottoman Empire. Slaves loyal to the royal family took high positions in the government and the military to ensure absolute loyalty. Ndongo was a trading partner of the Portuguese as much as you can be a partner of someone forcing you to do business with them. The deal was basically, you provide us with slaves and we won’t make slaves of you. Great deal.
In 1617, the Portuguese built a fort and a settlement at Luanda on Ndongo land. The governor of Luanda began an aggressive campaign against the Ndongo, and took thousands of Ndongo people prisoner. He invaded the capital and forced Ngola Mbandi to flee. The Portuguese’s allies in this fight were another indigenous people, the Imbangala. The Imbalgala were not people to mess with. They kidnapped boys from other tribes to train as soldiers from a young age, killed any children born in their camp to not slow down the army and practiced ritual cannibalism. Nice guys. They did elect their leaders democratically, so there is that. Not much else on the good side for these guys.
These hostilities continued until 1621, when Governor João Correia de Sousa invited Mbandi to a peace conference at Luanda. Mbandi did not go himself, but sent his half sister Nzinga. Nzinga was born the daughter of a slave and Ngola Kia Samba around 1583. According to legend, she was born with her umbilical cord around her neck, which inspired her name from the Kimbundu verb kujinga meaning to twist or turn. This was supposedly an indication she would be proud, and in this case this omen was correct.
Governor Correia de Sousa thought he would humble the emissary of the Ndongo by not having a chair for her at the meeting. Nzinga came into the room and saw the
governor seated on an elaborate chair and only a mat available for her to kneel on. Without batting an eye, she made a motion to one of her attendants, who got down on her hands and knees. Nzinga sat down on her attendant’s back and began negotiations. The company was stunned. This was the first indication the Portuguese didn’t know who they were dealing with. The Portuguese demanded that all Portuguese prisoners of war be returned. Nzinga countered saying she would be happy to do so if all the Ndongo people in slavery in Brazil be released. That was not going to happen. In the end, they agreed to return of Portuguese prisoners if the Portuguese supported Mbandi’s return to the capital and the throne against two other challengers. Nzinga became a Catholic as a pledge of good faith and had the governor stand as her godfather. She took his name- Dona Ana de Sousa.
Nzinga returned to her half brother with a great deal, and they all should have lived happily ever after right? Not so much. There was a history of conflict between Nzinga and Mbandi. Mbandi had killed Nzinga’s father in his bid for the throne, and according to some sources he also killed Nzinga’s infant son. Three years later, this came to a head and Mbandi ended up dead. Some say he committed suicide, other sources implicate Nzinga. It is not known. However, if he really did kill her son, my money is on her.
Despite the fact the Ndongo did not have a history of female rulers as well as even hereditary rulership had not been practiced for very long. Prior to the coming of the Portuguese, the kingship passed between noble families and there was a coup about every ten years. Added on to that, Nzinga’s mother was a slave, which would have counted her out as well. It didn’t matter. Nzinga was born to rule, and rule she did. However, as unstable as her grip on the throne was she needed allies. Enter the Portuguese. They provided her with weapons and legitimacy and she provided them with slaves from her African enemies. She also welcomed missionaries into her territory to emphasize she was a good Christian ally.
However, in the shifting sands of colonial politics, the Portuguese could only be depended on for so long. In 1626, Nzingo was driven out of Ndongo to the neighboring country of Matamba. Not wanting to live in exile, Nzinga conquered Matamba and became its queen. She did an about face and allied with the former Portuguese ally of the Imbalgala. She threw off the role of slave provider, and put out a call to all escaped slaves offering them sanctuary in her country. These ex slaves became her most formidable warriors as they gave her absolute loyalty for protecting them from slavery. These men would infiltrate the battalions of native soldiers used by the Portuguese and turn them or spy on them. Whole companies of Portuguese native soldiers would desert to Nzinga. Nzinga also reached out to the Dutch to fight off the Portuguese. She blocked the slave routes through Matamba by forming confederations with her neighbors. By 1648, the Portuguese were kicked out of Luanda.
Nzinga neatly sidestepped the problem of being a “queen” by declaring herself king, much like Hatshepsut before her in Egypt. Nzinga took it a step farther and flipped the gender roles. She lead the army dressed as a king in skins with a sword around her neck. Her sisters were her generals, and they were fiercely loyal to her. They were not the only women in positions of power, as she filled the government and military with other capable women. She also had an all female bodyguard. She also had a 60 man harem, who would dress as women and sleep in the same chamber as her ladies in waiting.
However, when Dutch pulled out of Luanda in 1650, Nzinga had to about face again and ally with the Portuguese. She reconverted to Christianity and in return for guarantees Matamba and Ndongo would maintain independence promised a quota of slaves to the Portuguese. Nzinga died in 1661 at the age of 81. After her death, her generals established a dynasty of queens, which ruled the two nations for 80 more years.
Nzinga’s legend grew popular after a salacious biography was published in 1769 by Jean-Louis Castilhon called Zingha, Reine d’Angola. I’m sure the male harem featured prominently. Her guerilla style attacks inspired the armed resistance against the Portuguese that resulted in independent Angola in 1975.
Sources available on request