Queen Nzinga Mbande was a 17th-century African ruler of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms of the Mbundo people, in present-day northern Angola. She is known for her diplomatic and military strategies in defending her kingdoms against Portuguese colonisers and the slave trade, successfully transforming them into a commercial state to rival Portuguese colonies.
Here we explore more about her life and reign.
Early life and regional politics of the time
Born into the Ndongo royal family in 1583, Ana Nzinga trained as a warrior, fighting alongside her father, Ngola Mbande Kiluanji, the King of Ndongo.
Her life coincided with increased encroachment by the Portuguese Empire and the development of the slave trade along the Central African coast. Many nearby states had subsequently become regional powers, and growing demand had led Portugal to seek military and economic control of the region, wishing to establish a colony at Luanda (present-day Angola) – drastically changing the political, social, economic and cultural environment of Ndongo and surrounding region.
Portuguese soldiers and indigenous African raiders, aiming to capture individuals for the slave trade, often launched attacks on long-standing allies and trading partners – compelling local rulers to adjust or risk destruction, including Ndongo, situated just east of Luanda.
Brother’s succession as king
After her father died in 1617, his son, Ngola Mbande, became the new king, though lacked his father’s charisma and the intelligence of his sister Nzinga.
Upon assuming the throne, he killed many rival claimants, including his older half-brother and their family. Nzinga was spared but Ngola ordered her young son killed, and Nzinga and her two sisters were forcibly sterilised, prompting Nzinga to flee to Matamba.
Having consolidated his power, Ngola vowed to continue war against the Portuguese.
Ngola’s alliance with the Imbangala, proved ineffective due to his lack of military expertise, allowing the Portuguese to make significant advances. Seeking peace, Ngola requested Nzinga’s assistance as his envoy to negotiate with Dom João Correia de Sousa, the Portuguese Governor.
Nzinga proved to be an exceptional negotiator and diplomat, demonstrating great political acumen. Unlike other Ndongo leaders who typically adopted European attire when meeting the Portuguese, Nzinga deliberately wore lavish traditional clothing to assert the equality of their cultures. Notably, when denied a chair by the Portuguese – implying subordination – she had an attendant go on their hands and knees to serve as her chair, enabling her to speak face-to-face, positioning herself as an equal.
Nzinga’s goal was to secure peace and cooperation. Recognising the need for Ndongo to reposition itself as an intermediary rather than a supplier in the slave trade, she promised an end to hostilities, and allowed slave traders inside Ndongo. In return, she demanded the removal of Portuguese forts from Ndongan territory, and asserted that Ndongo would not ‘pay tribute’ to Portugal, having not been defeated.
Nzinga also expressed a desire for cooperation. In a gesture of commitment to peace, Nzinga underwent a public baptism, with the Portuguese colonial governor acting as her godfather. This alliance and peace treaty provided Ndongo with a valuable ally against its African enemies, and ended Portuguese slave raids in the kingdom.
Exile of the king
Despite success with the Portuguese, peace between Ndongo and the Imbangala collapsed and the Ndongan royalty were driven out of their court in Kabasa – with Nzinga’s brother, the king, forced in exile. The Portuguese refused to help Ndongo until Ngola had recaptured Kabasa and been baptised.
Ngola retook Kabasa in 1623 and took tentative steps towards Christianity, but remained distrustful of the Portuguese. Nzinga had become an influential figure, and in a possible political ploy, warned her brother that a baptism would offend his traditionalist supporters. The Portuguese began breaking the terms of the treaty by refusing to withdraw from their fortresses and conducting raids. By 1624, Ngola had fallen into depression and relinquished many of his duties to Nzinga.
Before his death (of mysterious causes) in 1624, Ngola designated Nzinga as his successor, despite opposition. To solidify her position, Nzinga married Imbangala war chief Kasa, guardian of her 7-year-old nephew, whom she saw as a potential threat. After the wedding, Nzinga had her nephew killed, seeking revenge for the loss of her own murdered son.
Nevertheless, Nzinga’s opponents and neighbouring aggressors refused to see her as the legitimate ruler. Meanwhile relations between Ndongo and Portugal became increasingly complex. Nzinga sought to fulfil the 1621 peace treaty. Governor de Sousa was also keen to avoid conflict, and both were eager to re-open the slave trade vital to the region’s economy. However, tensions arose over some of the promises made in the earlier treaty.
Nzinga’s policies threatened the income of Portuguese and Mbande nobles (including Hari a Kiluanje, who opposed female rule and was himself descended from the royal family), prompting them form an alliance and incite rebellion against her. The Portuguese sent soldiers to protect Kiluanje, and Nzinga’s attempt to suppress the revolt failed, weakening her position.
Nzinga petitioned the Portuguese to stop supporting Kiluanje, but the Portuguese perceived this as a delaying tactic while she gathered her military. They recognised Kiluanje as king of Ndongo, declaring war on Nzinga in March 1626. Nzinga was forced to flee west to a group of islands in the Kwanza river, where she founded a new kingdom at Matamba, beyond Portuguese reach.
Queen Nzinga proved an exceptional ruler. After deposing Queen Mwongo Matamba in 1631, Nzinga began settling Matamba with exiled Ndongans, using it as a stronghold to reclaim her homeland. Matamba’s cultural tradition of female leadership, provided Nzinga with a stable power base.
Nzinga offered sanctuary to runaway slaves and Portuguese-trained African soldiers, leveraging the slave trade to fund wars and divert income away from the Portuguese. She also instigated rebellion within Ndongo – now indirectly governed by the Portuguese through a puppet ruler.
A skilled politician and diplomat, Nzinga formed numerous strategic alliances and trading agreements with neighbouring kingdoms and the Dutch, who temporarily seized Luanda for its own commercial purposes in 1641. However, after the Portuguese reclaimed Luanda, Nzinga retreated again to Matamba, focusing on developing it as a thriving trading centre by capitalising on its position as the gateway to Central Africa.
Nzinga’s ruling prowess successfully made Matamba a commercial powerhouse to rival Portuguese colonies, and her knowledge of trade and religious issues, as well as her tactics in warfare and espionage, helped her resist Portugal’s colonialist aspirations. She continued to lead her troops into battle well into her sixties.
In 1657, the Portuguese finally relented and signed a peace treaty returning Ndongo to Nzinga. Her recent conversion to Christianity and awareness of her age, along with Portugal’s expensive war against Spain and desire to re-open the slave trade, played significant roles.
To ensure a smooth succession, Nzinga appointed her sister Kambu as heir, bypassing traditional Mbundu elections. At the time of her death in 1663, Matamba had become a formidable commercial state, engaging with the Portuguese colony on equal terms.
After her death, oral traditions in Angola immediately began celebrating Nzinga’s life. Nzinga’s reign also ensured her female successors faced little problem in being accepted as rulers – in the period of 104 years that followed her death, queens ruled for at least 80 of them, testament to Nzinga’s influence.
Nzinga’s story gained international attention, especially in Europe with the publication of Jean Louis Castilhon’s ‘biography’ Zingha, Reine d’Angola, in Paris in 1769.
In the mid-20th century, Nzinga became a powerful and iconic symbol of resistance during the Angolan War of Independence. Today she is referred to as the ‘Mother of Angola’, and her life has been the subject of numerous works, including a 2023 Netflix docudrama African Queens: Njinga, chronicling her life.
Nzinga continues to inspire African leaders and remains an enduring symbol of anti-colonial resistance and female empowerment.