The start of the Transatlantic slave trade was during the 15th century when the Portuguese began kidnapping people from Africa’s west coast and transported them to America and Europe. For almost a century, Portugal was rising and growing as an empire, an empire that was built on the use of slaves captured from Africa for mining gold and other valuable resources.
In the late 16th century, when England and France threatened Portugal’s monopoly of the slave trade in northern and western Africa, Portugal’s attention shifted towards new areas for exploitation, namely Southwest Africa, the Congo and Angola. Little did they know that out of one of these places, a resilient and fearless female warrior would stand up to them and fight for the freedom of her kingdom. Not only would that warrior stand up against the Portuguese attempts to colonize her land but she would transform her kingdom into a powerful commercial state that stands head to head with the Portuguese colonies. That warrior is none other than the valiant African queen, Njinga Mbande.
Born around the year 1583 to King Kiluanji Kia Samba of Ndongo, (a part of Angola’s divided nation at the time) and his second wife Kangela, Anna Njinga, also known as Njinga Mbande was raised observing the ways of how her father ruled. From her youth, she grew aware of the struggles that her people faced against their enemies. Her intellect and sharp powers of observation allowed her to absorb much of her father’s methods and techniques of governing the kingdom and handling political and military affairs. However, following her father’s death, her brother, Ngola Mbandi, heir to the throne was the one to carry this responsibility on his shoulders. According to many stories though, he was not fit for the position and was an unpopular ruler.
King Mbandi had managed to achieve some sort of an arrangement with the Portuguese where he worked with them in arranging the slave trade on the one condition that his people not to be involved or harmed in any way.
After the King’s death, the Portuguese violated the agreements and in 1617, Ndongo was brutally invaded by the governor of Luanda, and the King’s son and successor, King Ngola Mbandi was forced to flee from the area. Due to Njinga Mbandi’s fluency in the Portuguese language along with her diplomatic skills, Ngola then sent his sister, Njinga to negotiate a peace treaty with the Portuguese in 1621 in what was to become one of the many negotiations with the Portuguese handled by Njinga.
Her powerful character and pride is demonstrated in the iconic meeting with the Portuguese in the city of Luanda (the modern day capital of Angola) for peace negotiations. Upon her entrance to the room, she noticed that they haven’t provided her with a chair, and that the only chair in the room belonged to the Portuguese Governor Joao Corria de Sousa. A rug was provided. This implied that Njinga would have to sit on the rug – on the floor – during the negotiations, which would make her seem inferior for optics and records of the meeting. In order for Njinga (who wasn’t yet an official queen at the time) to establish her equality with the Governor and representative of the Portuguese crown, she motioned for one of her assistants to kneel on her hands and knees serving as a chair for Njinga for the duration of the meeting.
She managed to achieve successful negotiations after which the Portuguese signed a peace treaty and agreed to limit the slave raiding activities. Moreover, Njinga converted to Christianity afterwards and was baptized taking the name Dona Ana de Sousa. Alas, this peace period didn’t last long for the Portuguese did not honour the treaty and renewed their aggression some years later.
Njinga became the Queen of Mbundu in 1626 after the death of her brother, of which the exact details remain a bit foggy. Some accounts say that his death was mysterious, while others say that he committed suicide due to the rising violence and aggression of the Portuguese.
A year later, in 1627, Queen Njinga started forming alliances with former rival states and led her army against the Portuguese in what was to be the start of a thirty-year war based from the newly founded state at Matamba. In Matamba, Njinga offered sanctuary to runaway slaves and African soldiers trained by the Portuguese who sought refuge at her kingdom. While in Matamba, she was still stirring up rebellion in Ndongo which at the time was indirectly controlled by the Portuguese through a puppet king. She formed alliances with the Dutch who conquered Luanda in 1641 and with their assistance, she defeated a Portuguese army in 1647. This was one of the first African-European alliances. However, in the following year, the Dutch were defeated by the Portuguese and as a result, they withdrew from Central Africa. Nevertheless, Njinga continued with her resistance and struggle against the Portuguese, for up until she was in her sixties she would still lead the troops into battle.
Her vigor and determination was an inspiration to her people that lead to the constant resistance to the Portuguese colonization accompanied with attacks on them even after her death. This resulted in the successful 20th Century armed resistance against the Portuguese which lead to the independence of Angola in 1975.
Even though there were numerous attempts by the Portuguese and their allies to capture or kill Queen Njinga, she peacefully passed away in her eighties on the 17th of December, 1663.
Njinga the leader was able to inspire her people to resist the Europeans. Nzinga the warrior had unusual strength and determination enough to set an example of African women’s commitment to values of self-reliance, survival and resisting murderous tendencies of colonialism as well as the social structures that privileged masculinity and violence.
Statue of Ana Njinga Mbande, Luanda, Angola (source)
Queen Njinga was an icon, a model of a true queen who demonstrated her status not by mere words and orders but by powerful actions. She was an excellent diplomat with exceptional negotiation skills, a great warrior who applied her intelligence in her military tactics, and above all resilient in achieving her goals of liberating her people from slavery and her land from colonization, all while transforming her kingdom into a formidable commercial state.
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- Njinga Mbandi, UNESCO, https://www.unesco.org/womeninafrica