Queen Nzinga (c. 1583-1663) was a 17th-century ruler of modern-day Angola. Renowned for resisting Portuguese colonization and opposing the slave trade, she adeptly used diplomacy and military strategy to protect her kingdoms. Nzinga remains a symbol of resistance and inspiration today.
Early Life of Queen Nzinga
Nzinga got her name from the verb “Kujinga” in Kimbundu which means twist or turn. It was believed that children from royal households who survived difficult births had spiritual gifts and some people believed their birth was an indicator that a person would become powerful and proud.
At 10 years old, Nzinga got military training and was trained to be a warrior. Nzinga learned how to fight alongside her father, who was King of Ndongo at the time. She had considerable ability with a battle axe which was the traditional weapon of the Ndongo warriors. Nzinga participated in official and governance duties alongside her father. These duties include war councils, legal councils and important rituals. Nzinga was taught to read and write in Portuguese by Portuguese missionaries.
Queen Nzinga, a Political Mastermind
Queen Nzinga inherited the war against the Portuguese as well as political tensions with other African nations. Because of this, Queen Nzinga played an elaborate political game to ensure her nation, the Kingdom of Ndongo maintained independence from external forces, particularly the Portuguese.
The Portuguese came to Ndongo in 1575 and settled in Luanda by setting up a trading post. This was possible thanks to the Kingdom of Kongo which was Ndongo’s rival. The Kingdom of Ndongo faced political and military pressure from Kongo and Portugal. Both Portugal and Kongo conquered more territory of the Kingdom of Ndongo.
By 1580, Portugal waged war on the Kingdom of Ndongo and built forts in Ndongo territory so they can control the slave trade. Queen Nzinga’s father became the King of Ndongo in 1593, by this time, the Kingdom of Ndongo had been destroyed due to the war, diminishing the king’s power. Queen Nzinga’s father attempted to handle the crisis through negotiations, diplomacy and open warfare, but none of these approaches improved the situation.
Ngola Mandi Kiluanji died in 1617 and Nzinga’s brother came into power. Nzinga had a rivalry with her brother so she fled to the Kingdom of Matamba. Ngola Mandi, Nzinga’s brother spent months killing rival claimants to the throne, including Nzinga’s son who was young at the time.
Ngola Mbandi continued the war with the Portuguese but lacked military skill, however, he managed to form an alliance with the Imbangala who were tribal bands of mercenaries known for being ferocious in battle. Despite this alliance, the Portuguese made significant military gains. By 1621, Ngola Mandi contacted Nzinga so she can be his ambassador to the Portuguese in Luanda. Nzinga was best for the job because she was fluent in Portuguese and has a royal lineage.
Nzinga went to Luanda and was met with interest by the Portuguese which led to the Portuguese governor paying for all of her party’s expenses. Ndongo leaders normally met the Portuguese in European clothing. Nzinga wore the traditional clothing of the Ndongo people to demonstrate her culture was not inferior. Nzinga used flattery as a tool for diplomacy and she purposely chose to have a contrasting approach to her brother’s aggressive style, she had her own diplomatic decorum.
Nzinga’s goal was to ensure peace between the Kingdom of Ndongo and the Portuguese. Ndongo was being attacked by the Portuguese and neighbouring African rivals. Ndongo had to remain viable, Nzinga knew Ndongo had to reposition itself as an intermediary instead of a supplier in the slave trade. Nzinga formed an alliance with Portugal which meant that the Kingdom of Ndongo had partners to fight against African rivals and an end to the Portuguese slave raiding in Ndongo. The alliance was formed by Nzinga promising an end to hostilities with the Portuguese and describing previous conflicts coordinated by her brother as mistakes of a young king. She agreed to allow Portuguese slave traders in Ndongo and returned escaped Portuguese slaves who were fighting in her brother’s army. Nzinga requested the removal of Portuguese forts built in Ndongo territory. She ensured the kingdom of Ndongo would not pay tribute to Portugal as only conquered nations pay tribute and her nation was not conquered or defeated. Nzinga was baptised and she used this as a diplomatic tool against the Portuguese. The governor of Portugal and his wife became Nzinga’s Godparents. Through Nzinga, Portugal and the Kingdom of Ndongo agreed on a peace treaty in 1622.
The Rise of Queen Nzinga
Ngola Mbandi died in 1624, before his death, he made it clear that Nzinga will be his successor. By 1626, Portugal betrayed Ndongo and broke the agreements of the peace treaty. Queen Nzinga executed a plan to weaken the Portuguese colonial administration. She sent out messengers, known as the Makunzes to encourage slaves of Mbande origin to flee Portuguese plantations and join the Kingdom of Ndongo. This deprived the Portuguese colony of manpower and income. The Portuguese expressed concerns about the escapes. Queen Nzinga responded to these concerns by telling the Portuguese she is following the treaty and returning escaped slaves but she doesn’t have any in her kingdom. Queen Nzinga was successful with this plan and many Sobas allied with her which strengthened her position. This resulted in the Portuguese fearing a Mbande uprising.
Queen Nzinga’s war with the Portuguese
Queen Nzinga’s plan to weaken the Portuguese colony threatened the income of the Portuguese and the Mbande nobles. The Portuguese encouraged a rebellion in the Kingdom of Ndongo whilst supporting Hari a Kiluanje who was a Soba who opposed a woman ruling Ndongo. Hari a Kiluanje, a descendant of the royal family led a rebellion. Queen Nzinga attempted to stop the rebellion but was defeated, which weakened her position and more nobles revolted. The Portuguese recognised Hari a Kiluanje as King of Ndongo and then declared war on Queen Nzinga.
Nzinga had to flee the Kingdom of Ndongo and withdraw to the Cuanza River with her army. Queen Nzinga and her supporters continued to fight the Portuguese despite the fact that her army was greatly reduced. Nzinga continued to strengthen her army whilst ensuring she was out of reach from the Portuguese to ensure the safety of her reduced army and supporters. Queen Nzinga allied with the Imbangala warriors and remodelled her army to resemble the very effective Imbangala warriors. In 1631, Queen Nzinga rebuilt her army and orchestrated successful guerrilla attacks on the Portuguese.
During this time period, between 1631 and 1635, Queen Nzinga invaded the kingdom of Matamba and assumed the throne of the kingdom. She planned to use the kingdom as a base to continue the war with the Portuguese and reclaim the Kingdom of Ndongo. Unlike Ndongo, Matamba was a matriarchal society. This gave Queen Nzinga a stable power base to grow her army and continue her war with the Portuguese. She used Matamba as a sanctuary for slaves who escaped Portuguese plantations. Queen Nzinga grew an army of Portuguese-trained African soldiers and created an organisation known as Kilombo. Queen Nzinga focused on making Matamba a trading power and capitalised on the fact that it was a gateway to Central Africa. She then used the profits generated to fund her war against the Portuguese.
Queen Nzinga caused a rebellion in Ndongo as the kingdom was being governed by Portugal indirectly through a puppet ruler who was Ngola Hari following the death Hari a Kiluanje from smallpox. She did this by taking advantage of his political weakness and highlighting his lack of political experience. Ngola Hari was very unpopular with both the Portuguese and the noblemen of the Kingdom of Ndongo. Queen Nzinga sent threatening letters to Ngola Hari, challenging him to a battle with her army knowing he was not a warrior and did not have an army of his own so he relied on the Portuguese which was abnormal for the people of Ndongo. Ngola Hari was terrified and called on the Portuguese army for support which diminished his prestige even further and strengthened Queen Nzinga’s reputation.
Queen Nzinga exploited European rivalry and formed an alliance with the Dutch who conquered Luanda in 1641. By 1647, Queen Nzinga and the Dutch defeated the Portuguese army. The combined forces were not sufficient enough to drive the Portuguese out of the Kingdom of Ndongo completely. Political infighting and developments in Europe weakened the Dutch army in Luanda which led to the Portuguese reclaiming Luanda and forcing Queen Nzinga back to Matamba in 1648. From 1648 onwards, Nzinga focused on preventing Portuguese expansion into inland Africa instead of trying to reclaim the Kingdom of Ndongo.
Queen Nzinga continued her war with the Portuguese. Despite being in her 60s, she personally led troops in battle. She continued to create alliances with nearby kingdoms and expand her influence even as she got older. She used her army as a political tool, enforced her rule over local noblemen and used her army to affect succession disputes and sway them in her favour.
Despite continuous attempts by the Portuguese and their allies to kill or capture Queen Nzinga, she had a peaceful death in her 80s on December 17th, 1663. Nzinga’s guerilla attacks continued after her death which inspired the armed revolution against the Portuguese which led to the independence of Angola in 1975.
Samuel, Isaac. “The Kingdom of Ndongo and the Portuguese.” Substack, September 12, 2021. https://isaacsamuel.substack.com/p/the-kingdom-of-ndongo-and-the-portuguese.
National Portrait Gallery. “Queen Nzinga Mbande (Anna de Sousa Nzinga).” Accessed August 14, 2022. https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp95201/queen-nzinga-mbande-anna-de-sousa-nzinga.
Pappas, Stephanie. “Queen Nzinga: A Ruler Who Set Her People Free.” Ancient Origins, May 16, 2016. https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/queen-nzinga-ruler-who-set-her-people-free-006235.