Queen Njinga, the 17th century Queen of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms, is well-known for her successful resistance to Portuguese occupation in what is now northern Angola. But her story transcends African colonialism and takes on larger themes of gender, politics and power. Her story is about a woman’s political ambitions and her clever navigation of the socio-political landscape of 17th century Africa.
According to historian Joseph C. Miller, Njinga’s ascendance to the Ndongo throne bucked Mbundu tradition. Firstly, she was a woman, her mother was a lineage-less slave (no royal matrilineage); and most importantly, descent was not the only requirement for succession. An incoming ruler had to have support from the Mbundu nobles, royal court slaves and military support in the form of hired mercenaries and military slaves.
Therefore Njinga’s claim to the throne was contested by other Mbundu nobles after her brother, Ngola Mbande (the reigning monarch) mysteriously died. Some historians believe Njinga had him murdered.
Two years prior, in 1622, Njinga was commissioned by her brother to negotiate peace with the Portuguese. Njinga returned from negotiations not only securing peace but also as a new Christian-convert. To the Portuguese, she represented evangelist aspirations and thus secured their support for her reign after her brother was killed.
Queen Njinga spent the majority of her reign stewarding alliances with slaves, non-Mbundu warrior tribes, mercenaries and Europeans whose support she depended on. However, most of these allegiances were fickle. For example, the peace treaty she negotiated with the Portuguese prior to her brother’s death dissolved due to changes in the Portuguese government. They even sought to overthrow her throne by supporting a rival heir.
Njinga retaliated by offering asylum to slaves who had escaped the Portuguese. However, she had little backing from her subjects. But the rejected queen was not easily thwarted. She secured a new alliance with the Imbangla, a warrior tribe living on the borders of her kingdom. Imbangla tradition reserved a major title for women, tembanza, that conferred powers in both war and politics. Taking refuge in Imbangla territory, Njinga launched attacks on the Portuguese, harassing their slave traders.
But the Imbangla, too, soon turned on her, questioning her legitimacy to rule. Njinga fled Imbangla territory to Matamba, a 16th century kingdom known for its history of female leadership. However, pressures from the Portuguese and Imbangla had created a political vacuum within Matamba that Njinga decided to fill.
Njinga’s cunning ability to take advantage of opportunities amidst innumerable obstacles is indicative of her intelligence, her advisors, and great emotional strength.
While at Matamba, Njinga took over the Angolan slave trade, which allowed her to build an army and resurrect the Matamba kingdom. First, she blocked Portuguese access to slave producing areas along the Kwango river. Then, she diverted slaves from surrounding areas to Matamba. She partnered with Dutch slave traders to contain the Portuguese. Her trade with the Dutch was particularly lucrative. The Dutch reported purchases of as many as 13,000 slaves during their years of partnership with Njinga.
But like prior unions, her cooperation with the Dutch also ceased with their departure from the region. The Portuguese had renewed their strength and in 1656 Njinga negotiated a peace treaty. Furthermore, she embraced Catholicism again and welcomed missionaries to her courts.
Queen Njinga was the most successful African ruler in resisting the Portuguese. Further, her rule established a precedent for female rulers. According to historian John K. Thorton, “…her female successors faced little problem in being accepted as rulers.”
But, Queen Njinga can’t be easily categorized as ‘heroine.’ She was also a murderer, accused of killing her brother and nephew; an active and systematic participant in the slave trade; and she used religion as a tool for negotiation. But all of this is what makes her story compelling and a woman worth studying. Historian Linda M. Heywood compares Njinga to the famed Elizabeth I of England, known for her successful maneuvering of foreign affairs and internal politics.
Yet, in the western world, little has been written about her, nor have I seen a film production or a mini-series attempt to tackle the story. Is Njinga’s story–and stories like hers–not worthy of representation? Is she not equally as interesting and complex as the other morally problematic historical figures we clamor to?
Njinga’s tenacity and ingenuity in maintaining and wielding power inspire those of us pursuing leadership in our own lives. While our success should never come at the destruction of another, we ought to recognize–especially as Black women–that we are powerful and capable of creating and steering our own paths.
Visual artist YZ says, “To know where we are going we need to know where we have been,” and these stories are important to educate the next generation, especially women. I believe Queen Njinga is such a story.
- The Columbia Encyclopedia
- Thorton, John K. “Legitimacy and Political Power: Queen Njinga, 1624-1663” The Journal of African History. Vol. 32, No. 1 (1991), pp. 25-40. http://www.jstor.org/stable/182577
- Miller, Joseph C. “Nzinga of Matamba in a New Perspective.” The Journal of African History. Vol. 16, No. 2 (1975), pp. 201-216. http://www.jstor.org/stable/180812
- Heywood, Linda M. Njinga of Angola: Africa’s Warrior Queen. Harvard University Press
photo credit: Statue of Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba in Luanda, Angola.