Queen Nzinga: The African Queen Who Fought The Portuguese

drawing of Queen Nzinga meeting with Portugese main

Nzinga Mbande’s (1583-1663) destiny was to do great things. Only men are kings? No problem! She outwitted all her enemies and became king. Her mother was a slave. No problem!  Her skills as a negotiator, military leader, and rival to Portuguese colonial powers are legendary. Her fluidity of gender roles also makes Nzinga an early transgender figure.    

Nzinga’s Special Birth 

A daughter was born about 1583 to Mbandi Kiluanji and one of his favorite concubines (Kengela ka Nkombe) in Ndongo, one of his many slave wives. Ndongo was a kingdom in what is today Angola, a country on the coast of south-central Africa.

Legend states that she was born with an umbilical cord around her neck. Her name means “twist” or “turn” in her native language. 

People spell her name in many ways, including in her language and Portuguese. Translation of foreign words is complicated. Many English historical names have multiple variations. Do not be confused if you see her name spelled in various ways, including “Njinga.” 

Nzinga’s difficult birth was a sign of her future greatness. 

Growing Up 

Her father became king (“Ngola,” the source of the country name, Angola) in 1592.

Nzinga was his favorite. The king took her to official duties. She learned many languages, including Portuguese. She obtained military training, including in the battle axe.  

Special treatment of a son might cause jealousy. However, a girl was not likely to ever gain power. Nzinga benefited from the low expectations of her future. 

Brother Becomes King 

In 1617, Ngola Mbandi Kiluanji died. Mbandi, his son and Nzinga’s brother, seized power. 

The son of a slave would have a weak claim to the throne. He staged a coup before the traditional electors could assemble. Mbandi also killed off many possible rivals, including Nzinga’s son. Nzinga, now thirty-five, was not killed. Nonetheless, he had her sterilized.  

Nzinga fled to safety in the neighboring kingdom of Matamba.

Trouble With Portugal 

The 16th Century was the middle of European colonization of foreign lands in Africa, the Americas, and Asia. Portugal, a small coastal country, was a prime seafaring nation.   

The west coast of Africa was a significant early target for colonies. Portugal established a settlement in Angola shortly before Nzinga’s birth. The Portuguese soon looked to expand their territory. They used a divide-and-conquer strategy and obtained local allies. 

Ndongo became an unstable place. Enemies were attacking from within and without.   

Ambassador Nzinga

Mbandi decided the appointment of a new governor of Portuguese Angola was a prime time to negotiate. He asked his sister to serve as ambassador.

Nzinga put her language skills and lessons watching her father do his kingly duties to good use. Her negotiation skills were an early example of Nzinga’s leadership ability.  

She wore traditional tribal garb. She famously had a servant kneel to serve as a chair. The governor had only provided her a mat, which would have placed her in a more inferior position.   

An essential thing in her mind was to show that it was a negotiation between equal sovereigns. For instance, she refused to pay tribute. Tribute would imply that Nbongo was a conquered state. If the Portuguese were peaceful, she promised her own country would be.  

Nzinga also used religion to obtain a peaceful relationship between the two countries. She converted to Catholicism. Her baptismal name was Ana de Sousa, after her godparents and the Portuguese governor. Nbongo was a polytheistic society. Spreading the faith was very important to the Portuguese. Her negotiations were a success. She left with a peace treaty.

Nzinga Becomes Queen 

Her brother still had problems. Local rivals drove him into exile.

The Portuguese refused to sign the treaty without him becoming baptized. Nzinga counseled him this would be dishonorable. Mbandi refused. The Portugal reneged. 

Mbandi became very depressed and began to let his sister handle things. He chose her as his successor. In 1624, he died under mysterious circumstances, perhaps suicide or poisoning. Nzinga became queen. She was now Ngola of Nbongo.

Before he died, Mbandi entrusted his son with a tribal chief. Nzinga married him. After the wedding, she had her nephew killed. She declared that she had avenged the death of her son.

More Trouble With The Portuguese 

Nbongo and Portugal were soon at war again. Nzinga took a close part in the fighting. 

The Portuguese forced Nzinga to flee. However, you cannot keep a woman destined to rule from birth down. She conquered Matamba, which had a long tradition of women leaders. 

Nzinga also allied with the Dutch, a rival to the Portuguese. She built up a sizable military of 80,000. She dominated the slave trade in the area. The Portuguese had met their match.

Slavery Question

Nzinga was the daughter of a slave. Slavery existed as a regular practice in her world. Her people were involved in the slave trade. African slavery was not the same as the chattel slavery practiced by Europeans and Americans.  Nonetheless, Africans were involved there as well.

As a leader of her people, Nzinga also had a complicated relationship with slavery. She is famous for interfering with the Portuguese slave trade and releasing many slaves to freedom. 

She did not oppose slavery as a whole. She accepted the practice as a way of life. For instance, Nzinga included four hundred slaves as a gift to the Portuguese during a negotiation session. The Dutch also purchased thousands of slaves a year from her kingdom.  

Was Queen Nzinga an Early Trans Hero? 

Nzinga took the title “Ngola,” which is a masculine title. She also wore masculine garb. Her consorts were called her “wives.” Her male concubines wore female clothing. 

Later in life, after peace with Portugal, she started to wear more feminine garb once more. She married one of her concubines. Nzinga began to adopt more traditional feminine mannerisms.

Nzinga was an early transgender historical figure. She recognized a flexible concept of gender roles. She was “male” or “female” as required.  

Final Years 

After thirty years of fighting, both sides were tired. Nzinga was in her seventies. She wanted to be able to negotiate the release of her sister from Portuguese control.  

They negotiated a treaty in 1656.  Each side made land concessions. Nzinga allowed missionaries into her territory. Each side made trade and military concessions. She ensured once again that each side was equally sovereign. Her sister was also released.
Nzinga died at age 80. Her sister was her successor.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.