In the 17th century, West Africa was bombarded by threats from the slave traders and the Portuguese. The slave traders would destroy lives by seizing people and selling them off, while the Portuguese subjugated the locals and established bases to colonize the people and control the slave trade.
Many of the rulers gave in and fell under the rule of the Portuguese while the ones that resisted fell were crushed by the colonizers. But not Queen Nzinga. The iron lady ruler of the Matamba and Ndongo kingdoms was super determined in her refusal to give in to the colonizers.
Nzinga’s kingdoms were based in the present-day Angola.
But who was exactly was this woman?
At a time when women were regarded as unfit to lead, this remarkable woman was able to transform her kingdom into a powerful state equally as strong as the Portuguese colonies.
Nzinga was born in the 1500s into Ndongo’s ruling family. Some legends say she was born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, which was seen as a remarkable sign. The villagers believed that because of her extraordinary birth, the little girl would one day be a powerful queen.
As the little girl grew, she became well versed in the troubles her people were going through, especially the attacks from their major enemy – the Kongo.
Around the same time, the Portuguese missionaries arrived in West Africa, after identifying the region as being a fine ground for slave trade. At first, Nzinga’s father, the king, saw the idea of slave trade as attractive, and cooperated with the Portuguese, on the condition that his people were spared. And an agreement was signed.
But when the king died, the Portuguese were freed of their obligation to honor the agreement. They went on to seize the next king, Nzinga’s elder brother and threw him in prison. After that, they took control of the kingdom.
But Nzinga did not take it lying down. She proceeded to the office of the Portuguese governor and demanded two things – the release of the kingdom and the freedom of her brother.
At the time, Nzinga had 50 male servants in her command. The governor refused to offer Nzinga a seat, at which point Nzinga ordered one of the servants to get down and set his back so that she would sit on it and negotiate with the governor.
As she had guessed, the governor refused to agree to Nzinga’s demands. Nzinga got up, seized one of the men who worked for the governor, and slit his throat in front of the governor.
Figuring that the lady might have been working with another more powerful individual behind the scenes, the Portuguese governor decided to let Nzinga’s brother go.
But upon getting back to the palace, Nzinga’s brother took his own life. Accounts speculated that he was too traumatized due to the state of affairs in the kingdom. Apparently, he felt helpless at fixing the turmoil and saving his kingdom like his father before him, and thus took his own life.
Following the king’s suicide in 1624, Nzinga became the queen of Ndongo.
But problems were only starting for Nzinga. She faced opposition from all directions.
First, the ruling class of the kingdom was opposed to the idea of a female monarch, and they took it upon them to frustrate Nzinga’s activities.
And secondly, the Portuguese were fighting to take control of the kingdom. For that, Nzinga fled the palace, leaving behind her sister to rule. Nzinga’s sister became a puppet queen, as the Portuguese ruled the kingdom through her.
Little did they know that she a spy for Nzinga as well, and was updating her sister with all that was going on.
In 1629, it was understood that a colony was growing within the kingdom that did not belong to the Portuguese. It was Nzinga’s colony, known as Matamba. It turned out that the lady had built a separate palace and mobilized thousands of men to join her and help her defeat the Portuguese to preserve their land and get saved from slavery.
Meanwhile, the Portuguese had taken complete control of the Ndongo kingdom, and were continuing to expand inland. They established their capital at Masangano, from where they were quickly taking Nzinga’s territory.
Figuring that she would not be able to defeat the Portuguese alone, Nzinga formed an alliance with the Dutch. In 1644, Nzinga went to battle with the Portuguese at Ngoleme, where she emerged the victor. But due to lack of resources, including adequate weapons, she was not able to follow up and root out the Portuguese.
Another battle happened in 1646, where the Portuguese defeated Nzinga. But their victory was short-lived, as Nzinga’s association with the Dutch proved to have been beneficial. Gathering her army as well as the soldiers that the Dutch had given her, Nzinga marched to the Portuguese capital, Masangano and laid siege to it.
But that did not stop the Portuguese. They sent reinforcements, forcing Nzinga to retreat to Matamba. Nzinga would continue to resist the Portuguese for the next 10 years, applying guerilla warfare to deal with them.
In 1656, the Portuguese finally gave up and stopped attacking Nzinga and her people. Thus, for the last 10 years of her life, Queen Nzinga enjoyed peace and saw her kingdom grow into a strong commercial hub and a haven for the slaves who managed to escape from the Portuguese.
Today, Queen Nzinga is fondly remembered as the woman who united the people of Angola. Many call her the Mother of Angola, the iron lady who protected her people from oppression. Queen Nzinga is an epitome of the black woman’s power and charisma.