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Nzingha, Queen of Ndongo (1582--1663)

Although many strong women grace history as powerful rulers, perhaps none was more cunning and skilled in militarism as Nzingha, Queen of Ndongo.

Queen Nzingha of Ndongo belonged to the Mbundu, a large and ancient ethnic group that lived in modern-day Angola. The Mbundu were divided into tribes, including the Songo, Lenge, Libolo, Hungu, Pende, Ndongo, and Imbangala. Every group was made up of clans descended from their mother's side of the family. Every clan was identified with their mother's clan and all the marriages were marriages between clans related maternally. Nzingha's family ruled the Ndongo people. 

 

Nzingha was born in 1582 to Ndambi Kiluanji, the ngola, king, of the Ndongo tribe and territories, and his second wife, Kangela. Kangela had been captured from her tribe as a teenager and brought to the Ndongo capital, Kabasa, where she became a jaga, an outsider. Kiluanji fell in love with her, but because she was a captive and a jaga, she didn't have a clan and therefore she was not fit for the prince in the eyes of his mother, who is said to have been a very powerful person behind the throne, as most mothers were to their ngola sons. To please his family, Kiluanji married a more suitable woman, and then married Kangela. Kiluanji had his first child, a son named Mbandi, in 1579. The boy was useless. He was fat and lazy and showed no interest in athletic or military activity nor in intellectual or diplomatic activity. His mother was a schemer and was hated at the royal compounds in Kabasa, where she plotted to get her son on the throne. In 1582, Kiluanji had a daughter, Nzingha. She was more promising. She was a great athlete and highly intelligent. She was skilled in diplomacy and was cunning. The only problem is that she was a female. Nzingha was followed by two more daughters, Mukambu (born in 1584) and Kifunji (born in 1587). Although Kangela had failed her duty to bear male heirs, Kiluanji still deeply loved his wife.

 

Nzingha grew up in a world normally suited for males. She was educated in the fields of hunting and archery and in diplomacy and trade. Mbandi also received this training, although his training was more vigorous. He was awful. He never ceased from whining and complaining and eating. The only person who sympathized with him was his mother. Nzingha's relationship with Mbandi was rooted in hatred. She could not stand her half-brother and often picked fights with him (normally winning unless his mother interfered and went crying to Kiluanji). However, Nzingha often could not control herself off the training fields and was even reputed to be banished from attending court when she insulted Mbandi at a meeting in front of all the concubines, children, and government officials. But the people adored Nzingha and she was brought back.

 

Nzingha's relationship with her sisters was different. They all loved one another and got along well, often joining Nzingha on her hunts and during training. One of Nzingha's childhood friends was a man named Njali, a prisoner from another tribe that became one of Kiluanji's closest confidants. He taught Nzingha the ways of war and hunting, from picking the best poison to put on the tip of her spear to how to sneak up on grazing animals.

 

During Nzingha's teenage years a man named Giovanni Gavazzi, a Portuguese priest, recorded most of what went on in Kabasa and among the Mbundu people. He was captured as a slave before Nzingha's birth and lived at Kiluanji's court for many years. While most Europeans found the tribes appallingly primitive, Gavazzi embraced the culture and set out to educate the people in European ways while educating the Europeans in the Mbundu ways.

However, while one Portuguese man befriended the Mbundu people, the Portuguese slave traders tried their best to destroy the Mbundu culture. Starting in the 1400s, Portuguese traders had set up ports and cities along the African coast, such as Luanda. Their job was simply to capture Mbundu people to sell. The fate of the slaves was horrible. Most died on the three-month voyage from Luanda to the West Indies, or threw themselves overboard while still chained to drown. Those who made it spent their lives toiling under Portuguese slave drivers. Kiluanji's reign was plagued by weak relations with the Portuguese to keep the Mbundu safe. He kept peace, but the Portuguese set out to capture and enslave the innocent and betrayed Mbundu people. Other Mbundu tribes had made deals and alliances with the Portuguese, but Kiluanji refused to give in. Because the other tribes made alliances, the Portuguese advanced closer and closer to Ndongo territory. Thousands of the Ndongo people were captured, and Kiluanji led his people into war with the foreigners.

 

Nzingha married a fellow royal Mbundu, a prince named Azeze, who had come to Kabasa in 1595 when Nzingha was 13 to make an alliance between his tribe and the Ndongo. Azeze and Nzingha were both deeply in love, and Azeze admired Nzingha's strength and her abilities on the field. They had a son between in the early 1600's, but unfortunately Azeze died in battle a few years afterwards. Although she was a widow, Nzingha still refused to lay down her bow and arrow and often went on hunting escapes, her sister trailing behind her, who also both lost their husbands in battle.

 

In 1617, Kiluanji died, and the powerless and pathetic Mbandi was given the seat if power over the Ndongo. With his uncles controlling him, Mbandi ordered the deaths of all those who opposed him. Nzingha's son was murdered, as was her mother. Nzingha herself would have been murdered, but the people loved her and an outcry would arise if she were killed. Nzingha had promised her father before his death that she would do whatever was possible to keep the Portuguese out of the Ndongo territory. When she was called to go to the Portuguese city of Luanda, Nzingha reluctantly led a party to make an alliance with the Portuguese. When she met with the governor of Luanda, she was refused a seat. To show the governor her power and that she would not be below him, she sat on the back of one of her male servants and made him a human bench. There, she made a peace agreement. Also while she was in Luanda, she came into contact with Father Giovanni, the priest who had lived among the Ndongo. She had him baptize her and took the name Ana de Sousa, in honor of the new Luanda governor, Joao Carreida de Sousa. It was rumored that Nzingha was only baptized to achieve respect from the Portuguese and establish herself as a leader.

 

Nzingha returned to Kabasa in 1617, and not too long after her arrival, Mbandi was dead, supposedly murdered under Nzingha's orders. Without a leader, the Portuguese attacked Kabasa and burned it to the ground. Nzingha fled to the mountains with her people and over the next few years, organized an army to fight back. 

 

Seven years later, in 1624, 42-year-old Nzingha rallied her people and led them to take control of their territory. Nzingha was declared Ngola Kiluanji of the Mbundu of Ndongo, a prediction made when she was born. Her closest aides were her sisters, Mukambu and Kifunji. Never had the Mbundu seen a female government, but it proved capable. Nzingha's childhood friend, Njali, helped her make an alliance with the Imbangala tribes.

 

For the next forty years, Nzingha led her people into battle against the Portuguese from the rocky slopes of Matamba. Her sisters were captured during a battle, but with the help of slaves in Luanda, they escaped from slavery. Later, Kifunji died from battle wounds. 

 

Nzingha led many battles and peace treaties, some with the Portuguese, some with the Dutch, but she never resisted against slavery and the ill treatment of her people. She never returned to the ruins of Kabasa, and many remember her as the Queen of Matamba, because she ruled from the Matamba mountains and countryside, never from the Ndongo territory, despite her titles. When she died in 1663 at age 82, her sister, Mukambu, took over the seat of power as head of the Mbundu people. Mukambu had Nzingha laid to rest in her leopard skins and with her bow over her shoulder and arrows in her hand.

Last updated, September, 2003