Queen Anna Nzinga was a 17th-century African ruler who ruled the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms of the Mbundu people in Angola and fought against the slave trade and European influence in Angola.
Anna Nzinga was born in 1581 in Kabasa, the capital of the Kingdom of Ndongo, which was ruled by a Mbundu-speaking people called ngolas. Her father was Ngola Kilombo Kia Kasenda, who was the ruler of Ndongo. Her mother was Kengela ka Nkombe.
Nzinga’s early years
As a child, Nzinga was greatly favoured by her father. As she was not considered an heir to the throne (like her brothers), she was not seen as direct competition, so the king could freely lavish attention on her without fear of offending his heir apparent. She was taught by visiting Portuguese missionaries to read and write in Portuguese. She received military training and was trained as a warrior to fight alongside her father, displaying considerable aptitude with a battle axe, the traditional weapon of Ndongan warriors. Nzinga participated in many official and governance duties alongside her father, including legal councils, war councils, and important rituals.
Europeans and the slave trade
The European development of the slave trade along the southern African coast radically changed the political, social, economic and cultural environment of the whole region. The Kingdom of Ndongo was no exception.
In the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century, Europeans were negotiating interests in the African slave trade. The Portuguese wanted slaves for their new colony in Brazil. Threatened by English and French interests in northeast Africa, the Portuguese moved their slave-trading activities further south to what is today the region of Congo and Angola.
The king had accepted limited slave trading with the Portuguese, but when the Portuguese pushed further into the country and broke boundaries set up by the king, Ndongo went to war against the Portuguese.
Anna’s father died in 1617, and her brother Ngola Mbandi took the throne. To consolidate his power, he killed many rival claimants to the throne, including his older half-brother and their family. Nzinga was spared, but Mbandi had her young son killed while she and her two sisters were forcibly sterilised, ensuring that she would never have a child again.
The kingdom broke apart as Nzinga fled with her husband to the nearby state of Matamba. Meanwhile, Mbandi’s rule remained cruel, unpopular, and chaotic. Ngola Mbandi had neither his father’s charisma nor the intelligence of his sister Nzinga.
Nzinga negotiates peace
After several years of fierce fighting with the Portuguese, Ngola Mbandi sent a message to his sister in 1621 asking for her help. He dispatched Nzinga Mbandi to negotiate a peace settlement with the Portuguese. Nzinga had demonstrated exceptional negotiation and diplomatic skills and won significant concessions from the Portuguese by the end of her trip to Luanda.
Nzinga convinced the Portuguese to recognise Ndongo as an independent monarchy while agreeing to release European captives taken by her brother. As a concession to the Portuguese, she converted to Christianity, adopted the name Dona Anna de Souza and was baptised in honour of the governor’s wife, who became her godmother.
Using religion as a political tool, she reasoned that this would open her country to European missionaries and advanced science and technology. In 1623, she was named Governor of Luanda for the Portuguese and held the position until 1626.
Nzinga becomes queen
Only a year after the treaty was signed, the Portuguese dishonoured the terms of the treaty and resumed their slave-gathering activities. Mbandi fell into depression and eventually committed suicide. Some say Nzinga poisoned him.
Nzinga became his successor through the support of the army and key allies. The Portuguese opposed her succession to the throne, knowing that she would insist on Ndongo’s independence.
Her ascension to the throne also faced severe opposition from male claimants from other noble families. According to Mbande tradition, neither Nzingha nor her predecessor brother had a direct right to the throne because they were children of slave wives, not the first wife. Nzingha refuted this argument, strategically using the claim that she was descended from the main royal line through her father, as opposed to her rivals who had no bloodline connection. Her opponents, on the other hand, used the fact that she was female and therefore unqualified for the throne.
Through the backing of some of Njinga’s subordinates, she was ousted in a war waged against her in 1626 and forced to flee the kingdom. She took over as ruler of the nearby kingdom of Matamba, capturing Queen Mwongo Matamba and crushing her army. Nzinga then made Matamba her capital, joining it to the Kingdom of Ndongo.
After forming alliances with former rival states, Nzinga led her army against the Portuguese in 1627, initiating a thirty-year war against them. She exploited European rivalry by forging an alliance with the Dutch. She achieved victory in 1647, aided by the Dutch, and encouraged rebellion within Ndongo, which was now governed through a puppet ruler.
When the Dutch, in turn, suffered defeat at Portuguese hands and withdrew from Central Africa, Nzinga, now in her 60s, continued her struggle, leading her own troops into battle. She also orchestrated guerrilla attacks on the Portuguese, which would continue long after her death. She developed Matamba as a trading power by utilising its strategic position as the gateway to the Central African interior.
Despite numerous attempts by the Portuguese and their allies to capture or kill Queen Nzinga, she died peacefully in her eighties on 17 December 1663, by which time Matamba had become a strong commercial state.
Queen Nzinga Mbande is known by many different names including both Kimbundu and Portuguese names, alternate spellings. Common spellings found in Portuguese and English sources include Nzinga, Nzingha, Njinga and Njingha. In colonial documentation, including her own manuscripts, her name was also spelt Jinga, Ginga, Zinga, Zingua, Zhinga and Singa.
Whichever way you spell her name, today, Queen Nzinga is remembered in Angola as the Mother of Angola, the fighter of negotiations, and the protector of her people. She is still honoured throughout Africa as an extraordinary leader and woman for her political and diplomatic acuity, as well as her brilliant military tactics.