Queen Nzingha of Angola (1583-1663)
Brilliant military strategist, charismatic leader, and a true Warrior Queen, all of these terms aptly describe the remarkable character of Queen Nzingha of Angola.
Nzingha's rise to power occurred during the early 17th century in the kingdom of Ndongo, which is now the present day country of Angola, in South West Africa. She lived during a period when the Atlantic slave trade was steadily growing, a time marked by the increased intensity of slave trading and consolidation of power by the Portuguese in her region. Portugal had been a presence in Angola since the early 16th century.
Starting with the forts they built along the coastline, the Portuguese gradually expanded their territory, as well as their control of the slave trade. They were able to do so by forming alliances with various local chiefs who supplied them with slaves in exchange for guns and other material items. One of these slave-trading chiefs was the King of Ndongo himself, Nzingha's own brother.
Nzingha had strongly opposed her brother's participation in the slave trade. However, it was not until the Portuguese traders began to make heavier demands on the King for slaves, thereby reducing his own profit from the trade, that he decided to resist and declare war. The war between the Portuguese, and the Ndongo people lasted for several years until the Portuguese decided that a peace conference would be held for both sides to negotiate an end to the war. It was at this conference that Nzingha would display her immense pride, determination, and iron will, traits that the Portuguese would be forced to reckon with for the next thirty years.
The conference was held in the city of Luanda in 1622. Nzingha, though not yet Queen, was the most ablest and uncompromising member of the royal delegate sent to represent the King. Despite the alleged purpose of the conference, to negotiate peace, the racist attitudes of the Portuguese were in full display. The governor only provided chairs in the conference room for himself and his councilors, in an attempt to force the future Queen to stand humbly before his presence. Nzingha and her people were unfazed by the governor's arrogance. Her attendants promptly rolled out the royal carpet for Nzingha, and then one of them went down on all fours and formed himself into a human throne for her to sit on.
It was a move that spoke volumes not only about the fierce, and unbreakable spirit that she possessed, but also about the tremendous respect and devotion that her people had for her.
In 1623, after the death of her brother, Nzingha became the Queen of Ndongo.
The Portuguese had not respected the peace treaty signed at Luanda the year before, as they had continued their slave trading operations in Ndongo. Her first major move as Queen was to deliver an ultimatum to the Portuguese, demanding that they respect the terms of the treaty or else war would be declared. The Portuguese ignored her warning and so in that same year Nzingha went to war with them and commandeered a series of devastating strikes, defeating them in many battles.
Nzingha was an incredibly strong and charismatic woman. She was dearly loved by the people of Ndongo, able to rally masses of them to listen to her messages. A brave general, she was known to personally lead her troops into battle, and she forbade her subjects to call her "Queen" preferring the masculine title of King. Yet her aggressive traits were balanced by her charming and engaging personality, which she used to her own advantages when forming alliances with other kingdoms.
So clever was the Queen that she was able to take advantage of the Dutch arrival in Angola and form an alliance with them against the Portuguese. Certainly, the Dutch were not there as liberators of the Africans, they were merely competing against Portugal for a greater share of the slave trade. Still, Nzingha was wise enough to side with the foreigners to suit her own needs, a tactic she would use later on in her life by pretending to adopt Christianity.
One of Nzingha's greatest acts as Queen occurred in 1624 when she declared all territory over which she had control to be Free Country. All slaves and reaching it from any region were forever free. This was to have a monumental impact, as thousands of slaves deserted Portuguese held areas to head for Nzingha's land, strengthening her armies in the process.
Nzingha was perhaps the first Black Nationalist. By opening her territory to anyone escaping slavery, she transcended all the various ethnic and cultural differences of the people in the Angolan region. She saw that the common enemy was the Portuguese, who had been the masterminds of the slave trade and its devastating effect on her people for over one hundred years. Nzingha was well aware that the Portuguese used Black soldiers to fight their wars for them, and so she undertook a carefully organized attempt to infiltrate and destroy this use of Black soldiers by Europeans. She had several groups of her men wander back into Portuguese territory, and enlist in military service. Once her agents were established, they were able to convert whole companies of men to rebel against the Portuguese and join the cause of the Queen, taking with them the much needed guns and ammunition.
The Portuguese were outraged at this seemingly unbeatable Black Queen who constantly thwarted their efforts to conquer all of Angola. Their tactics of divide and conquer were ineffective against her because there was so much patriotism and fanatical devotion towards her. They even tried to discredit Nzingha by formally declaring that she was the illegitimate ruler of Angola, and by "appointing" their own ruler King Phillip.
In 1626, Nzingha's stronghold in the city of Cuanza was captured, and she was forced to retreat from her country. Her time away seemingly only made her stronger, for in 1627 she returned to her country at the head of a strong army and recaptured Cuanza, sending the puppet King Philip fleeing for his life.
During her exile, Nzingha had become the Queen of the country of Matamba as well, and so she returned as the empress of two nations, more determined than ever to liberate her people. Despite several losses, including the capture and beheading of her sister by the hands of the Portuguese, Nzingha's spirit was never broken.
She valiantly fought and held off the Portuguese control of Angola for over thirty years.
Finally in 1659, Nzingha, now more than seventy-five years old and perhaps weary from the long years of struggle, signed a peace treaty with the Portuguese. The remaining years of her life were spent trying to reconstruct her nations, seriously depleted by all the years of conflict.
She devoted her efforts to re-settling former slaves, and developing an economy of free men and women that could succeed without the slave trade.
Nzingha passed away in 1663 at the age of eighty. Sadly, the massive expansion of the Portuguese slave trade and eventual conquest of Angola followed her death, as none of her successors possessed her indomitable spirit. Though she did not succeed in expelling the Portuguese from her country, her historical legacy is of great importance as she awakened the spirit of nationalism and Black unity among her people in resistance to European domination.
Her legend would serve as an inspiration to the later resistance and anti-colonial movements that would occur throughout the West-Central African regions. To this day, her memory lives on among the oral traditions of the Angolan people who have not forgotten their Great Warrior Queen, Nzingha of Angola.