Queen Nzinga: The African Queen Who Fought Portuguese Colonialism and Slavery For 37 Years

For so many years that part of the history of Africa which has to deal with slavery has been distorted by the imperialists in a move to whitewash the true story of what happened in the continent hundreds of years ago. They usually would tell us that “Africans sold Africans into slavery”. These have been the words of the very people who invaded our lands, took our people and sell them into slavery, took our resources, and turn around to tell us that our ancestors sold themselves into slavery, which may be true but not entirely true as they would want to use it to justify their evil deeds.

Yes! Slavery did take place in some African Kingdoms. But what they (white historians) don’t want you to know is that two types of slavery did happen in Africa – one was the slavery between African Kingdoms, in which the slaves were prisoners of war and not commodities, they were not sold as goods – the other was the slavery between Africans and the Europeans and Arabs and Americans, which the African slaves were used and sold as commodities and they were dehumanized. These were two different kinds of slavery that took place in Africa. For some people (I mean white historians) to boldly say that Africans sold Africans into slavery, that’s the highest of disrespect to the Africans. Africans rebelled against the events of slavery. There were over eight hundred rebellions and resistance in Africa; many, I mean many African Kingdoms rebelled against the white man’s slavery. One of these Kingdoms was The Kingdom of Ndongo, present-day Angola.

The Kingdom of Ndongo also known as the Kingdom of Kongo was one of the largest Kingdoms in ancient Africa. The Kingdom was first inhabited at about 25,000 years BCE. The Kingdom was probably the most famous and expansive in Africa at the time. It was established by the Bakongo-speaking people and formed around the great city of Mbanza Kongo around 1390. It was, and still is, one of the richest kingdoms in Africa before the arrival of the Portuguese, who later colonized the various local people and created the colony of Angola in 1575 and ruled for 400 years. The Portuguese were known as the first set of Europeans to sail their way to Africa and start the slave trade. The Portuguese established a bilateral relationship with King Nzinga-a-Nkuwu also known as King Afonso (he was the King who made Angola a Christian nation but that’s for another article). Although slavery had already existed before the coming of the Portuguese traders, it took another dimension – a larger and more brutal scale of slavery began.

The Portuguese continued their slave trade in the Kingdom and spread it across the whole of Angola down to Congo. Even though their trade activities were met with strong resistance from previous Kings of the Kingdom of Ndongo, a much stronger resistance and rebellion took place when the ferocious Queen Nzinga was born in 1582. Born into a Royal family, Nzinga would later become one of the greatest rulers of the Kingdom of Ndongo, and an inspiration to many Angolans. Nzinga was born at a time when the Portuguese and the natives of the Kingdom of Ndongo were in turmoil. At the time of her birth, her people, the Mbundu, engaged in a full-blown war with the Portuguese slave traders, a war that would cost the lives of many Mbundus. From the early 1580s, Portugal was in constant war with the natives of the Kingdom of Ndongo. Their motive was to conquer more land and acquire more slaves. The Mbundu people resisted and rebelled against these illegal and treacherous acts by the Portuguese. Due to the persistent resistance of the Mbundu people, the Portuguese saw their defeat so they had to make allies with the Imbangala people, armed bands of people traveling across central Africa, who were known for their guerilla warfare and their fighting skills. Their partnership yielded a positive result for the Portuguese but a negative one for the Mbundu people who suffered at the hands of the enemies. In 1618, the Portuguese had already almost defeated the natives and conquered the whole of the Kingdom of Ndongo.

Nzinga’s rise to prominence began in 1622, when her brother, the Ngola Mbandi (the King) sent her to negotiate a peace treaty with the Portuguese in the capital, Luanda. Her meeting with the Portuguese was a historic one. According to some notable historians, the Portuguese expected Nzinga to be frightened of their stature, but it went the complete opposite. The Portuguese were expecting Nzinga to sit on the floor whilst negotiating with the Portuguese Governor, but she didn’t. Nzinga rather told her servant she went with to kneel behind her so she could sit on his back while negotiating. The servant did and Nzinga’s first diplomatic approach with the Portuguese came defiantly. She stayed in Luanda for months negotiating with the Portuguese for a peace treaty. Due to the nature of the negotiations, Nzinga had to play along so she could beat the Portuguese at their own game. So she allowed herself to be baptized and become a Christian, changed her name to Anna de Sousa – something the Portuguese would love. Her baptism was to speed up the negotiations and sign a peace treaty, which she later managed to get at end. But that peace treaty didn’t last long.

After the death of her brother in 1964, Nzinga became the leading contender for the throne. But Nzinga had to face some tussle towards the throne due to customary reasons: her mother was said to be a slave; which limit her chances of becoming the Ngola Mbandi of the Kingdom of Ndongo because it was forbidden for sons and daughters of slaves to be the Ngola Mbandi. After a series of customary contentious, Nzinga finally had her way to the throne as she became the Ngola Mbandi (Queen) of the Ndongo Kingdom. As a Queen, Nzinga’s first diplomatic step was to sign another peace treaty with the Portuguese. In 1624, she negotiated a second treaty with the Portuguese, which would allow the Portuguese to trade (including slavery) and missionary work in return for the Portuguese respecting the territorial integrity of Ndongo and demolishing a Portuguese fort that was within Ndongo territory. Like the first treaty, the second didn’t last long, too. This happened because of two reasons: one, Queen Nzinga harbored runaway slaves from the Portuguese camps in her lands thus breaking her part of the deal; another reason was that the Portuguese Governor refused to remove their fortresses on the territory of Ndongo Kingdom. This got things to escalated quickly as the Portuguese pushed to gain control of the whole of Angola. But to achieve this, the Portuguese began to sponsor domestic rivals of Queen Nzinga who had eyes on the throne to rebel against the Queen. It was hard for Queen Nzinga but as smart as she was, she did not sit down and hide behind her fears. She stood up as a Queen. So, she called for help – and the Imbangala band was the first she enlisted. Queen Nzinga, through her political ingenious idea, managed to take control of the Imbangala band. Her clan, the Mbundu, started to practice the Imbangala martial arts. Because the Imbangala were so powerful and fierce, Queen Nzinga would use the south of Kwanza, where one of the Imbangala war bands, Kanza had already settled, as her retreat hideout as the Portuguese would dare not to cross over the Kwanza river.

Queen Nzinga led many battles against the Portuguese between 1626 and 1654. During that same period, she also led battles against King Ngola Hari a Kiluanje, a Portuguese puppet who helped the Portuguese a lot in the buying and selling of slaves and also capturing of lands. King Ngola Hari a Kiluanje died in the late 1620s. His son took over and resumed from where his father stopped (being a Portuguese puppet) for 25 years! Queen Nzinga, just like many other African Royals at that time who had the interest of their people at heart, had to fight two battles; one was a battle of within (locals against locals) and the other a battle against the outside enemies (locals against the Europeans). She formed many allies, and many also disconnected from her. Like the one, she formed with the Imbangala. Her relationship with the Imbangala died in 1629, this made her physically weak to fight the Portuguese as her strongest allies have abandoned her. To continue her quest for freedom, Queen Nzinga went to the east to the Kingdom of Matamba. By 1631, she had conquered Matamba and joined the two Kingdoms (Matamba and Ndongo) together to form a much stronger force against the Portuguese. By the mid-1630s, Queen Nzinga was able to cut off Portuguese slave raids going inland.

In the 1640s, Queen Nzinga allied with the Dutch. At the time, Europe was divided as to who and who would get the bigger cut of the cake in the slave trade business in Africa. So the Dutch arrived in Angola with one goal: to take over from the Portuguese and establish their slave forts. Seeing this divide between the two European countries, Queen Nzinga quickly capitalized on the situation and allied with the Dutch. In 1641, the Dutch sailed to Luanda, Angola’s capital, and seized it from the Portuguese. An alliance, which was called the ‘Afro-Dutch Alliance’ was then formed between the Kingdom of Kongo, Njinga’s Kingdom of Ndongo/Matamba, and the Dutch, to expel the Portuguese from their coastal fortresses. The battle began and it went on for seven years. The Dutch and Queen Nzinga defeated the Portuguese to the extent that the presence of the Portuguese was nearly felt in Angola in 1647. But the victory did not last long as the Portuguese rose from the dead to regain their place. In 1648, with the help of a group of other slave traders from Brazil, the Portuguese were able to regain control of the territory. This led to the dissolution of the Afro-Dutch Alliance as the Dutch were quick to make peace with the Portuguese. Queen Nzinga on the other hand had no choice but to retreat to the Kingdom of Matamba, where she would stay for some time to regroup and fight again.

She went to Matamba and regroup for another battle against the ruthless Portuguese. She fought for another six years until 1954 when she had to finally give up the battles as age was not in her favor and for a woman to be at war for 30 years against the Europeans, she had to call for peace. In 1654 she began to negotiate for peace with the Portuguese and after two long years of negotiating, Queen Nzinga and the Portuguese finally reached an agreement. They signed the peace treaty. The peace treaty had it that, Queen Nzinga would be the ruler of both the Matamba and Ndongo Kingdoms and in return, her Kingdoms would be opened to Portuguese slave traders and merchants. The treaty reaffirms the sovereignty of her Kingdoms and their people.

In 1663 Queen Nzinga died at the age of 81. She was succeeded by her sister Queen Barbara who ruled until 1666. One of the world’s most powerful Royals, Queen Nzinga left a huge legacy in Angola that would later see women in politics. At the time of her death, more female rulers ruled the Kingdom of Ndongo. Four more females became the Ngola Mbandi between 1666 and 1767. Even though Queen Nzinga’s success was because of the wealth she gained from selling her captured enemies as slaves, her fierceness and political strategies played a great role in limiting the activities of the Portuguese. As a woman who had to fight for more than thirty years for the freedom of her people and the independence of her kingdoms, Queen Nzinga showed bravery you would rarely see in today’s women. Her 30 years of fighting against the oppressors proved that Africans resisted slavery and that not ALL of Africa participated in the act.