This is the second of a two-part series that will explore the legacy of Queen Nzinga, the iconic defender of Ndongo and Matamba and possibly the greatest figure in the history of Angola.
In the year 1624, Mbandi Kiluanji, Ngola, or king, of Ndongo died under circumstances that remain mysterious, leaving behind a realm that found itself caught between the ambitions of the Portuguese empire, Kongolese Kings, Imbangala warbands, and rival claimants to the throne. The dead king’s sister, who despite suffering brutality at the hands of her brother had concluded a historic peace deal with the Portuguese, now found herself fleeing the war-torn country as the Portuguese reneged on the deal.
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To Nzinga, the princess who had painstakingly concluded the treaty, this would have been a betrayal that cut deep. After all, she had become baptized, adopted as a goddaughter by the governor of Luanda, and taken on a Christian name, Dona Anna de Sousa, in their honour. When Nzinga claimed the throne in accordance with her late brother’s wishes, the Portuguese responded by elevating Hari, baptized as Felipe I, as a puppet ruler instead, who promptly swore vassalage, nullifying Nzinga’s hard-won concessions. The new King, with aid from the Imabangala-led Kasanje Kingdom, and Ndongo’s own aristocrats, drove Nzinga out, deeming her unfit to rule owing to her gender.
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Nzinga, however, already had a plan. Biding her time, she took control over the neighbouring kingdom of Matamba and began to develop an extensive network of alliances. Having already demonstrated her ability as a diplomat, now Queen Nzinga had an opportunity to show off her military prowess. Before long, Nzinga was firmly in control of both Ndongo and Matamba and proving herself to be a force to reckon with. But as the Portuguese woke up to the unprecedented threat that this West African Queen represented, the balance of power shifted yet again.
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The Netherlands had long been controlled by the Holy Roman Empire, a complex confusing confederation of Central European states under the control of the Habsburg royal family. However, as the Spanish Habsburgs lost their hold over these northern provinces, they declared their independence as the Dutch Republic in 1581, quickly establishing themselves as Europe’s premier mercantile state, and set about creating their own colonial empire. In 1641, the Dutch arrived in West Africa and Nzinga saw an opportunity, immediately striking up an alliance. Three years later, the allied forces struck, defeating a Portuguese army, the first time a European force had been beaten back in the region. This first victory, however, was followed by a costly defeat. In 1646, Nzinga’s forces lost an engagement in the course of which her sister was captured, revealing that this whole time, Nzinga had also made a secret alliance with Kongo, and had known of several Portuguese plans in advance. The Portuguese, now incensed by the continued defiance and seemingly limitless resourcefulness of this Queen, realized that Nzinga must be crushed if their future in the region was to be secured. Meanwhile, for Queen Nzinga, this conflict was now personal. You see, the Portuguese made the mistake of drowning her sister in the Kwanza river, news that could not have gone over well with the Queen.
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The Ndongo-Dutch-Kongo alliance now intensified efforts to oust the Portuguese. Luanda had already fallen to the Dutch some years previously, and Nzinga laid siege to the temporary capital of Massangano. Portugal, however, had a final ace up its sleeve. In the hundred and fifty years leading up to the conflict with Nzinga, Portugal had established the first global empire. Its colonies were scattered across the globe, from India in the east to Brazi in the west, whereas the Netherlands, by contrast, had only a fledgeling empire and was deeply embroiled in the Thirty Years’ War. Eventually, the Dutch capitulated, leaving Nzinga alone in facing a foe that had the might of a global empire and the advantage of far superior European firearms behind it. Nzinga, ever the shrewd ruler, realized now that this was a war she could not win. But, if she was not going to prevail, she was going to make sure the Portuguese did not either.
For the umpteenth time, events had conspired against Queen Nzinga, forcing her into her territories in Matamba as the Portugues juggernaut looked set to steamroll southwest Africa. But, once more, Nzinga had a plan. She retreated into the interior of the country, setting up for a long guerilla war, and keeping the Portuguese presence away from the hinterland. In fact, it would not be until the 20th century that Portugal would be able to completely control Angola. While she carried out a sustained low-level campaign against the Portuguese, Nzinga was also diplomatically active. Having turned her back on European customs earlier, she once again embraced Christianity and launched a new diplomatic offensive, winning missionaries over to her side. Ultimately, Nzinga’s adroit handling of carrot and stick policies resulted in a 1657 treaty through which Portugal gave up its claim on Ndongo. Against all odds, Queen Nzinga had won.
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Nzinga faced obstacles throughout her reign. Not only did she inherit a weak and struggling kingdom that was bullied by a powerful neighbour and oppressive colonial power, but her reign was constantly resisted owing to her gender. In fact, from the 1640s onwards, Nzinga made a concerted effort to present herself as a “man”, performing all the duties of a male leader, including leading troops in battle, and, much like all of her pursuits, excelling at it. She spent most of her 37-year reign rebuilding a broken economy by establishing a trading kingdom and struggling against the Portuguese, making Ndongo a safe haven for slaves who had escaped the Portuguese. Lacking a child, she tried her best to keep political power within her family, but ultimately, without the herculean efforts of a leader of her calibre, Ndongo descended into civil war upon her death and was eventually annexed into Portuguese Angola. Although she could not overcome resistance to the idea of a female leader in her lifetime, a succession of queens followed her which was accepted with much more ease, no doubt a result of her reign. She remains a revered national figure in Angola and a symbol of the fight against oppression and a role model for women everywhere.