Nzinga, monarch of the Mbundu people and queen of Ndongo, was a strong leader who opposed the Portuguese and their expanding slave trade in Central Africa. She elicited equal parts wonder and abhorrence from kings, missionaries, tribal warriors and two empires feuding for the resource goldmine that is Africa’s coast.
16th century Southwest Africa, or modern day Angola, was dominated by tribal kingdoms. When the Portuguese arrived in the early 17th century, they threatened the territorial control and economic strength that had existed in Africa for decades. This invasion would motivate one woman to use her skills of diplomacy to save her people and birthright, her name was Nzinga.
Nzinga Mbande was born in 1583, her father, King Ndongo, was the tribal leader of Ndongo, one of the more powerful tribes in Africa at the time, and her mother was a descendant of a Mbundu lineage. Growing up in a divided land, Nzinga was privy to the political upheaval, she quickly became invested in her people’s struggles with their lifelong adversaries – the enemy tribe known as the Kongo.
The instability of her nation molded Nzinga from an early age, she was noted for her expertise with the battle axe, skilled in the art of martial dancing, and was feared among her people and enemies. Nzinga was not one for tradition. She kept an array of male and female consorts and lovers, which was not customary of female royalty at the time. Nonetheless, Nzinga didn’t care, for if anyone had anything to say about her “hobbies,” she would have them executed or worse, kill one of their relatives for their careless words.
As the civil war between the two tribes raged on and hundreds of thousands of miles across the sea, Portugal set its sights on Angola as a prime target for its blossoming slave trade.
When the Portuguese finally arrived, King Ngola, whose name inspired the future name “Angola,” attempted to negotiate a deal with the Portuguese in which he would be willing to arrange a slave trade if the Portuguese spared his people.
The deal lasted until 1617 when Nzinga was thirty-five years old, her father was usurped and murdered by his own men. At the time, Nzinga was pregnant by one of her concubines. With the king gone, supporters of Nzinga’s brother, Mbande, declared him the new ruler. Mbande’s position was precarious, and he was willing to do just about anything to keep his new title. To ensure his royal lineage, he murdered rivals, nobles and even family members.
When Nzinga gave birth, her brother killed the child. He proceeded to forcibly sterilize Nzinga and her sisters to prevent anyone, other than his direct line, from attaining the throne. He used a mixture of herbs,
“While boiling onto the bellies of his sisters, so that, from the shock, fear and pain, they should forever be unable to give birth.”
After this atrocity, Nzinga spent the next nine years in exile in Matamba whereshe remained unwed and was never pregnant again. She preferred her independence from then on and reveled in her assortment of male and female concubines that she shared intimacy with whenever she pleased.
Following the king’s death, the Portuguese saw no point in holding up their end of the bargain and went on to throw King Ngola’s son, the heir to the throne, in jail. Portugal officially had control of the entire kingdom.
Nzinga was her kingdom’s last hope, she marched into the Portuguese governor’s office and insisted that he release her brother and leave Ndongo. During the meeting, the governor refused to offer Nzinga a chair to sit on and instead only provided a floor mat which was typically used for servants.
This was a sign of disrespect. A floor mat was no place for the daughter of King Ngola, so in response, she ordered one of her servants to get on all fours and sat on the servant’s back, providing a throne fit for a queen.
Nzinga’s defiance and cleverness charmed the governor. On behalf of her brother, she made a military alliance and managed to convince the governor to return runaway slaves.
In return, the Portugeuse wanted Nzinga to provide an annual tribute of slaves for them which she refused. With tensions rising, Nzinga played her last hand, she agreed to be baptized into the Catholic faith that allowed her to officially win over the Portuguese.
With her people safe from enslavement, Nzinga set her sights on her brother. The man who had failed as a king, who nearly led her country to ruin, who had sterilized her and her sisters, who had killed her first born child.
Nzinga never was one for forgiveness.
She got her revenge by pushing her brother to his psychological breaking point. She relentlessly insulted and berated him. She told him that he was not worthy of being called Ngola, he should find himself a farm and tend to his garden because he had no use being king.
The people of Ngola watched in disgust as their king took this abuse from his younger sister. He began to break down, he tried to seek help from healers, but all refused to treat him. Mbande’s suffering finally ended in the spring of 1624 when he swallowed poison, Some claim Nzinga helped him kill himself, others believe that he took it of his own volition.
It didn’t matter either way for the people of Ngola, because Mbande’s death allowed Nzinga to take her rightful place as regent for Mbande’s seven-year-old son and heir. Her 37-year reign brought much peace to the people of Ngola.