“I never feared facing a group of 25 armed soldiers, except if they had muskets.” —Njinga, 1657 Twenty years after Elizabeth’s death, a Mbundu woman
“I never feared facing a group of 25 armed soldiers, except if they had muskets.”
Twenty years after Elizabeth’s death, a Mbundu woman in southwestern Africa became the talk of the Catholic world. General, diplomat, slave trader, fashionista, and hands-on warrior, Queen Njinga of Ndongo and Matamba elicited equal parts admiration and revulsion from missionaries, cannibals, kings, and two empires vying for control of Africa’s coast.
In the late sixteenth century, when West Africa was the hub of the Atlantic slave trade, Portugal was one of the trade’s biggest players. Lisbon dominated trading ports from China to Brazil, and its Brazilian sugar plantations drove the empire’s agricultural engine. And those plantations required slaves. Lots of them.
To fill the cane fields, Portuguese explorers, envoys, and conquistadores established trade relations with the Kongo kingdom on Africa’s southwestern coast. Kongolese war parties would raid neighboring villages and take prisoners, or they would simply buy slaves—locally called “pieces”—from discount middlemen in Africa’s interior. They would march the unfortunates to Portuguese markets near the coast, then sell their human chattel to white merchants who would ship them to Brazil. As the demand for “pieces” grew, Portuguese agents began moving south in search of larger sources.
Around the time that Spain’s King Philip was squaring off against Elizabeth’s sea dogs, the Portuguese quietly established a thriving trade center at the mouth of the broad Kwanza River. In two generations, this outpost would shatter the lives of thousands who claimed the Kingdom of Ndongo as their home.
Ndongo stretched nearly a hundred miles down Africa’s Atlantic coast, from Luanda in the north to the Longa River in the south. Thrusting some two hundred miles east into Africa’s heart, Ndongo lands ran an ecological gamut from semi-arid coastal scrubland—domain of the imbondiero, or baobab tree—to cool plateaus, tropical river valleys, and savannahs.
Ndongo’s semi-divine king, or ngola, was elected from one of several qualifying families by a clique of nobles. The ngola ruled his lands, called “Angola” by the Europeans, from his capital at Kabasa in Ndongo’s central highlands, and he administered the kingdom through local nobles called sobas.
The ngola was the Ndongo’s semi-divine king. Credit: Yuliia Lakeienko / Adobe Stock
The Mbundu who lived there were a traditional people who worshiped nature and communed with their dead ancestors. A class of clerics called ngangas healed the sick, guarded ancestral bones, coaxed rain from the sky, performed human sacrifices, and functioned as the ngola’s diplomatic corps. Ngangas were the spiritual lubricant that kept Mbundu villagers content, and the system held together reasonably well when not subjected to extreme stress.
But extreme stress showed up in 1575, when Portuguese conquistadores, merchants, and settlers built a mission on the coast called São Paulo de Luanda. Lisbon followed up by sending an army to Africa’s interior with instructions to subjugate “Angola.” Setting out from the coast, the conquistadores razed villages, carried off livestock, and took prisoners for the Brazilian cane fields. The accompanying slaughter was prodigious. Soldiers cut the noses off the bodies of Mbundu men and women to verify death counts, and after one battle the army had to assign twenty porters to carry all the severed noses back to the local presidio.
In 1575, Portuguese conquistadores were sent to Africa to subjugate Angola ( CC by SA 3.0 )
To the Portuguese, severed black noses, stolen cattle, and slaves all served a greater good. Especially the slaves. The commoditization of humans, wrote one conquistador,
“is not only useful for commerce, but still more for the service of God and the good of their souls. For with this trade, they avoid having so many slaughterhouses for human flesh, and they are instructed in the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ and, baptized and catechized, they sail for Brazil or other places where the Catholic faith is practiced. They are thus taken away from their heathen ways and are redeemed to live lives which serve God and are good for commerce.”
By 1600, the conquistadores had redeemed thousands of lives for God and commerce. Governors, missionaries, and generals became the ruling class of Ndongo’s coastal lands, and Jesuit missionaries converted much of the Mbundu elite. The extension of Christianity into Mbundu society was a blow to the ruling ngola, whose divinity could now be questioned, to nganga priests, whom Jesuits condemned as Devil-communing sorcerers, and to the political stability of the native kingdom.
Six years before the Spanish Armada weighed anchor, a Mbundu baby struggled to enter the world. An umbilical cord wrapped itself like a tree root around her neck, and nganga oracles predicted that she would not live a normal life, assuming she even survived infancy.
But she survived, and her father, thinking of that umbilical cord, named his daughter Njinga, after the Kimbundu tree root kujinga, meaning to “twist, turn, or wrap.”
Njinga’s father was a king, but war was her raging stepmother. Before her first birthday, her ngola grandfather fled his capital ahead of marching conquistadores. He died when Njinga was ten, setting off a wave of power struggles and political backdealing until her father was elected ngola. As a child, Njinga learned to fight with the battle axe, the Mbundu weapon of choice, and like other warriors, she mastered martial dancing, where nimble steps taught unshielded men how to dodge arrows and outmaneuver their opponents.
For a quarter century Njinga grew up in a kingdom buffeted by slavery, nomadic war bands, and Christian missionaries. In 1617, when Njinga was a thirty-five year-old mother, her father was betrayed by his men and murdered. Supporters of Njinga’s brother, Mbande, promptly declared him the new ngola, but his position was insecure. Moving quickly, he orchestrated the murder of any relatives who might advance rival claims, leading a purge of senior courtiers, nobles, and various family members.
Lithograph of Queen Njinga ( public domain )
Njinga escaped death, but not without cost. She had grown up as the sparkle in her father’s eye, the family favorite who had demonstrated mental and physical superiority to her brother. She also had a newborn son, fathered by one of her concubines, who could grow into another potential rival. Mbande had Njinga’s baby killed. He then sterilized his three sisters to ensure that no offshoots of the family baobab would threaten his line of succession. According to a missionary to whom Njinga related her ordeal, ngangas mixed herbs and oils and placed them, “while boiling, onto the bellies of his sisters, so that, from the shock, fear & pain, they should forever be unable to give birth.”
Njinga never recorded her feelings over the death of her baby and her sterilization. Neither could she forgive her brother. She moved with her concubines and supporters inland to the neighboring kingdom of Matamba, where she settled in for the next nine years.
Njinga’s exile in Matamba hardened her independence. As a woman of royal blood, she kept an assortment of concubines, male and female. She also refused to take a chief husband, preferring to share sexual intimacy with whomever she wanted, whenever she wanted.
She did not take criticism lightly from her inferiors, and could be cruel when crossed. When a courtier once criticized her for taking so many lovers—she brought shame onto her father’s court, the man said—Njinga addressed the man’s complaint by having his son brought in and murdered before his father’s eyes. Then she had him executed.
As Njinga lived in exile in Matamba, to the west the Portuguese pried away her brother’s lands. Four years into Mbande’s rule, the Ndongo kingdom had shrunk to half its former size as the border of Portuguese Angola pushed east behind a curtain of steel and gunpowder. Mbande was nearly captured when Portuguese raiders charged into his capital of Kabasa, and influential sobas, sniffing a Portuguese victory, began pledging fealty to King Philip III.
Mbande’s only wise move had been to form an alliance with two Imbangala clans. The Imbangalas, or “Jagas,” as the Portuguese called them, were loose-knit bands of mercenary warriors who fought for the highest bidder. Violent in the extreme and prone to cult rituals like cannibalism and child sacrifice, the Imbangalas formed a fearsome corps of auxiliaries for any army looking to dominate the Kongo-Ndongo-Matamba region.
Mbande formed an alliance with the Imbangalas, a fierce band of mercenary warriors ( CC by SA 3.0 )
In October 1621, a fresh breeze blew into Angola with the arrival of a new Portuguese governor. João Correia de Sousa set foot on Luanda with a more circumspect approach than his predecessors. He took the long view of colonization, and saw slaughter and conquest as inefficient tools of wealth building. The raison d’être of the colony was economic: It produced slaves. War disrupted the slave trade and cost money. Therefore, war was bad for business.
Governor de Sousa believed limited negotiations with Mbande might produce better long-term results than the old raid-and-conquest method. To negotiate a permanent peace with Mbande, he invited the king to send a delegation to Luanda, and Mbande dispatched messengers to Matamba to retrieve his sister. With her brother’s summons, Njinga began her rise to power.
Ana de Sousa, Regent Queen
In 1622, Njinga marched down Luanda’s central boulevard at the head of a parade of brightly colored retainers, bodyguards, slaves, and ambassadors. The governor welcomed her with a Portuguese honor guard, and soldiers escorted the princess into the town square, where she was greeted by the city’s leading citizens. Artillery and musket volleys boomed in salute, and musicians played songs from Mbundu and European instruments.
To Njinga, style mattered. Rejecting the drab European garb worn by Portuguese settlers, she set society tongues wagging with her vibrant Ndongo style. Strolling about Luanda’s streets mingling with the city’s upper class, she flashed her brand of elaborate cloth wraps, heavily jeweled bracelets and anklets, and colorful feathers radiating from her hair.
But the warm welcome was for public consumption only. When Njinga arrived at the government house to open negotiations over trade and border recognition, de Sousa’s men gave her a not-so-subtle message. Stepping into the meeting room, Njinga found the standard welcome for native guests: a seat for the governor only. Tribal emissaries sat on the floor at the feet of the governor, who negotiated from the comfort of a velvet-covered chair. The seating arrangements left no doubt as to who was the master, and who was the supplicant.
Njinga was ready for the old colonial ploy. When the governor’s aide gestured to an empty space on the carpeted floor, Njinga motioned to one of her female attendants. The woman walked to the spot selected for her princess, then dropped to her knees and elbows as Njinga settled herself onto the woman’s back. Through the long hours the two leaders negotiated, Njinga’s “chair” never moved.
Njinga sits on the back of her slave as she speaks to the governor ( CC by SA 3.0 )
Escorting the princess from the parlor when their work was done, Governor de Sousa turned and noticed Njinga’s attendant, still crouched on the floor. When he pointed out the servant, Njinga blithely told him the woman was a gift. An envoy of the ngola, she said, need never sit in the same chair twice; she had many other chairs like this one.
The Lady of Angola charmed de Sousa during her stay in Luanda, and on behalf of her brother she made several important concessions: a military alliance, peace, and the return of runaway slaves.
The one demand she refused was an annual tribute of slaves to the Portuguese king. Ngola Mbande, she observed, had not been conquered, and a tribute was only proper from a conquered people. “He who is born free,” she told de Sousa in her high-pitched voice, “should maintain himself in freedom, and not submit to others. . . [B]y paying tribute, her king . . . would become slave instead of free.”
Failing to look beyond short-term economics, the Portuguese insisted on their tribute. The market was booming, and slavery was a prime source of colonial wealth. When it became clear that both sides were at an impasse, Njinga played one last card: She agreed to be baptized into the Catholic faith.
The governor and his Jesuits, welcoming Njinga into Christ’s flock, modified their tribute demand. In an elaborate ceremony in Luanda’s main church, Njinga took the sacrament of baptism in the presence of Governor de Sousa, who stood as her godfather. For her Christian name, she took Ana de Sousa, honoring both the governor and a Portuguese noblewoman who stood godmother to her.
By the time she returned to Kabasa to report to her brother, Njinga had won over the Portuguese governor. Though de Sousa would take a hard line with her brother on occasion, he privately told Njinga that he wished to stay, informally, on friendly relations with Njinga’s own territory of Matamba. Reflecting on her visit years later, she told a Capuchin missionary she had felt a sense of “profound happiness and an extraordinary peace” during her time in Luanda.
Her brother would never know that peace. A novice at power plays, Mbande made the mistake of naming Njinga as regent for his son upon his death, giving Njinga every reason to hasten that day. As he grew dependent on her for political advice, Njinga pushed her fragile brother to his psychological breaking point. She berated, needled, and discredited him behind his back, and hectored him into awkward, hard-line stances with the Portuguese. He was no ngola, she told him. He was not even a real man. If he could not rule with strength and confidence, he should find himself a farm in the forest and till his garden.
Mbande took his sister’s abuse meekly, reducing him further in the eyes of his followers. He sank into a deep, dark melancholy. Longing for tranquility, he turned to traditional healers, but the ngangas could not help their king. In the spring of 1624 Ngola Mbande, King of Ndongo, swallowed poison. One Portuguese chronicler commented that Njinga “helped him to die,” while others concluded that he took the elixir of his own volition, to quell the black dog tearing at his heart.
Whether suicide or fratricide, Mbande’s death opened a power vacuum into which Njinga nimbly hopped, assembling enough electors to confirm her as regent for Mbande’s seven-year-old son and heir.
Top image: African warrior woman. Credit: Coka / Adobe Stock
Excerpt taken from ‘ The War Queens: Extraordinary Women Who Ruled the Battlefield ’, copyright 2020 by Jonathan W. Jordan and Emily Anne Jordan. Excerpt courtesy Diversion Books. Available at Amazon and Division Books .