Njinga Mbandi (also known as Nzinga and Ana Njinga) was born around 1582, the oldest daughter of Mbandi a Ngola Kiluanji, king of Ndongo (present-day central Angola). Early in her life, Njinga exhibited great physical prowess, which her father fostered by allowing her to train with the army. Displaying extraordinary charisma and physical prowess at a young age, he also groomed her for leadership, allowing her to sit in court sessions alongside him at a young age. This training was essential since, throughout her childhood, Portuguese forces attempted to invade Ndongo and enslaved hundreds of thousands of Ndongo’s subjects. Those who were taken by the Portuguese either labored in Portuguese Angola or were absorbed into the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
When Mbande a Ngola died (ca. 1617), his son Ngola Mbandi became king. Between 1619 and 1621, the kingdom of Ndongo faced increasing pressure from the colony of Angola, as Portuguese-led forces attacked under the leadership of Governor Luis Mendes de Vasconcelos, forcing Mbandi to move his kingdom to the Kidonga Islands. Mbandi sent Njinga, then 22, to Luanda to negotiate a peace treaty with the Portuguese. During this trip, Njinga made a huge impression on João Correa de Sousa, the governor of Luanda, when she refused to sit on the floor before him as was the custom for Africans. Instead, Njinga commanded one of her servants to kneel on all fours and sat on the servant as a human chair. She also agreed to be baptized during this trip, perhaps to garner favor with the colonialists, taking the Christian name Ana de Sousa. Njinga and de Sousa negotiated a peace treaty in which the Portuguese agreed to withdraw their forces and assist Ndongo in pushing back mercenaries attacking the kingdom.
This peace was short-lived as relations between Ndongo and the Portuguese deteriorated. Njinga’s brother, the king Ngola Mbandi, committed suicide in 1622, leaving Njinga in charge as regent for his young son; she became queen in 1624 when Mbandi’s heir was killed, reportedly by Njinga herself. From the time she took the throne in 1624 until her death in 1663, Njinga continued to negotiate with Portuguese authorities, although these attempts were largely unsuccessful. In the late 1620s, the Portuguese sided with dissidents of Ndongo who rejected Njinga’s claim to the throne, instead promoting Hari a Ngola, a rival leader who challenged Njinga rights to the throne. This move by the Portuguese resulted in prolonged conflicts between Njinga and the Portuguese and their local allies.
Although she struggled to regain her hold over Ndongo, Njinga conquered the neighboring kingdoms of Kidonga and Matamba in the mid-1630s. She entered into a partnership with the Dutch West India Company following their occupation of Luanda in 1641, utilizing this alliance to fend off conflict with the Portuguese. With Dutch help?, Njinga defeated the Portuguese army that attacked her capital in Matamba in 1644. Although Njinga’s forces and the Dutch held off the Portuguese from 1641- to 1648, the Portuguese ultimately regained their hold following the arrival of reinforcements from Brazil and pushed Njinga back to Matamba. After negotiations, the Portuguese eventually signed a peace treaty with Njinga in 1657 which recognized her claim to rule, delineated the territory under her control, agreed to disband the Imbangala (warrior founders of the Kasanje Kingdom), and stipulated that she would allow missionaries into her territory. Njinga spent the remainder of her reign arranging for her succession and defending her kingdom against the Imbangala of Kasanje to the east. Following her death on December 17, 1663, her sister Barbara succeeded to the throne.
Njinga quickly gained notoriety amongst Portuguese onlookers, both for her ferocious stance against the imposition of Portuguese colonialism as well as her fierce rejection of gendered norms. Njinga’s sexuality scandalized the Portuguese, as she kept both male and female concubines, married multiple husbands, dressed as a man and insisted on being referred to as king and not queen. Njinga also gained notoriety during this period for her involvement in the slave trade. As a result of the conflicts during her reign, Njinga’s forces took hundreds of thousands of captives, allowing the queen to sell nearly 200,000 slaves to the Portuguese. Njinga’s memory is preserved in the traditions of black Brazilians and Afro-Portuguese descendants worldwide. In particular, Njinga is remembered among Afro-Brazilians descended in part from Angolan slaves who each year celebrate her legend by electing a King of Kongo and a Queen Njinga each year, and dedicating floats and sing praises to her during the Rio Carnival. In 2013, the Angolan government commemorated the 350th anniversary of Njinga’s death by erecting a statue in her honor in Luanda.
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Thornton, John K. “Elite Women in the Kingdom of Kongo: Historical Perspectives on Women's Political Power.” The Journal of African History 47, 3 (2006): 437-460.
Elizabeth Timbs and David Glovsky
Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.