Anna Nzinga (1583– 17 December 1663) was born the same year that the Ndongo people, led by her father, Ngola Kiluanji Kia Samba, began fighting against the Portuguese who were raiding their territory for enslaved people and attempting to conquer the land they believed included silver mines. She was a capable negotiator who managed to convince the Portuguese invaders to limit the trade of enslaved people, which was widespread at that time in Central Africa—in what is present-day Angola—an area where Nzinga would rule as queen for 40 years. She was also a mighty warrior who later led her army—a coalition of forces—in a complete route of the Portuguese army in 1647 and then laid siege the Portuguese capital in Central Africa, before signing a peace treaty with the colonial power in 1657, rebuilding her kingdom until her death six years later. Though vilified for centuries by European writers and historians, Nzinga managed for a time to halt the Portuguese incursion into her lands, slow the trade of enslaved people in central Africa, and lay the groundwork for Angolan independence centuries later.
Anna Nzinga was born in 1583 in what is current-day Angola to a father, Ngola Kilombo Kia Kasenda, who was the ruler of Ndongo, a kingdom in central Africa, and a mother, Kengela ka Nkombe. When Anna’s brother, Mbandi, deposed his father, he had Nzinga’s child murdered. She fled with her husband to Matamba. Mbandi’s rule was cruel, unpopular, and chaotic.
In 1623, Mbandi asked Nzinga to return and negotiate a treaty with the Portuguese. Anna Nzinga mustered a royal impression as she approached the negotiations. The Portuguese arranged the meeting room with only one chair, so Nzinga would have to stand, making her appear to be inferior to the Portuguese governor. But she outsmarted the Portuguese and had her maid kneel, creating a human chair and an impression of power.
Nzinga succeeded in this negotiation with the Portuguese governor, Correa de Souza, restoring her brother to power, and the Portuguese agreed to limit the trade of enslaved people. Around this time, Nzinga allowed herself to be baptized as a Christian—likely as more of a political move than a religious one—taking the name Dona Anna de Souza.
In 1633, Nzinga’s brother died. Some historians say that she had her brother killed; others say it was suicide. Upon his death, Nzinga became ruler of the kingdom of Ndongo. The Portuguese named her the governor of Luanda, and she opened her land to Christian missionaries and to the introduction of whatever modern technologies she could attract.
By 1626, she had resumed the conflict with the Portuguese, pointing to their many treaty violations. The Portuguese established one of Nzinga’s relatives as a puppet king (Phillip) while Nzinga’s forces continued to fight the Portuguese.
Nzinga found allies in some neighboring peoples, and Dutch merchants, and conquered and became ruler of the Matamba, a neighboring kingdom, in 1630, continuing a resistance campaign against the Portuguese.
In 1639, Nzinga’s campaign was successful enough that the Portuguese opened peace negotiations, but these failed. The Portuguese encountered increasing resistance, including the Kongo and the Dutch as well as Nzinga, and by 1641 had pulled back considerably.
In 1648, additional troops arrived from Portugal and the Portuguese began to succeed, so Nzinga opened peace talks which lasted for six years. She was forced to accept Philip as ruler and the de facto rule of the Portuguese in Ndongo but was able to maintain her dominance in Matamba and to maintain Matamba’s independence from the Portuguese.
Nzinga died in 1663 at the age of 82 and was succeeded by Barbara, her sister in Matamba.
Though Nzinga was eventually forced to negotiate for peace with the Portuguese, her legacy is a lasting one. As Linda M. Heywood explained in her book, “Njinga of Angola,” which Heywood took nine years to research:
“Queen Njinga….came to power in Africa through her military prowess, skillful manipulations of religion, successful diplomacy, and remarkable understanding of politics. Despite her outstanding accomplishments and her decades-long reign, comparable to that of Elizabeth I of England, she was vilified by European contemporaries and later writers as an uncivilized savage who embodied the worst of womankind.”
But Queen Nzinga’s vilification eventually changed to admiration and even reverence for her accomplishments as a warrior, leader, and negotiator. As Kate Sullivan notes in an article on the famous queen published on Grunge.com:
“(H)er fame would really skyrocket after Frenchman Jean Louis Castilhon published a semi-historical ‘biography,’ (titled) ‘Zingha, Reine d’Angola,’ in 1770. The colorful work of historical fiction kept her name and legacy alive, with various Angolan writers taking up her story over the years.”
Nzinga’s rule represented the most-successful resistance to colonial power in the area’s history. Her resistance laid the groundwork for the ending of the trade of enslaved people in Angola in 1836, the freeing of all enslaved people in 1854, and the eventual independence of the central African nation in 1974. As Grunge.com further explains: “Today, Queen Nzinga is revered as Angola’s founding mother, with a monumental statue in the capital city of Luanda.”
Written by: Mandy Law