Njinga (c. 1580s–1663)

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Njinga (c. 1580s–1663)

Angolan warrior queen and proto-nationalist who ruled for 40 years, alternately defeating and allying herself with the Portuguese, Dutch, and local tribes. Pronunciation: Oon-ZHIN-ga. Name variations: Jinga; Nzinga; Singa; Zinga or Zhinga; Nzingha Mbande or Mbandi. Born Njinga Mbandi in the 1580s in Angola; died in Angola in 1663; married many men as she had her own harem.

Baptized a Christian, and allied herself with the Portuguese (1622); took the throne after brother died under mysterious circumstances (1624); began fighting the Portuguese after their failure to honor their treaty (1624); forced to flee her kingdom (1629); established a new kingdom in Matamba; closed the main slave trail, blocking Portuguese access to slave producing areas (1630s); expanded Matamba into the largest state in the area and shifted alliance to the Dutch (1640s); forced the Portuguese from the area (1648); shifted alliance back to the Portuguese (1650); signed a formal treaty with the Portuguese (1656); ruled in peace until her death (1663); established a dynasty of female leaders which ruled after her death for 100 years.

Africa is famous for its powerful queens, and one the best known was Queen Njinga of Matamba, who reigned for 40 years, beginning around the 1620s, and established a female dynasty which succeeded her upon her death. A proto-nationalist leader, Njinga maintained her power by adopting contradictory strategies which ultimately succeeded.

The Portuguese arrived on the African continent in the late 1400s and within less than a century established an expansive slave trade to supply the labor for their plantations in Brazil. In the 1570s, when they reached what is now modern Angola, they found a group of decentralized states—African kingdoms based on a kinship of loosely related family members. In each kingdom, the family members banded together to capture the throne, and the king then ruled along with a number of powerful nobles who represented a check on his power. The structure of government was not at all rigid, and politically skilled nobles frequently vied to capture the kingship. Losing factions often viewed defeat as no more than a temporary setback and the struggle for royal power would begin again almost as soon as a new ruler was crowned. One of the most important of these kingdoms was Ndongo, which had been formed by the Mbundu by the late 15th century. The king of Ndongo was called Ngola, the word from which the Portuguese derived Angola.

The decentralized form of government in the region was in the midst of change. As rulers moved to consolidate their authority in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, they began to assert their right to hereditary command rather than submitting to election by noble families. At the same time, these rulers became increasingly dependent on royal slaves rather than the territorially based nobles. Slaves in Africa did not share the low status to which their brethren in the Americas were subjected. They were more like the janissaries in Turkey, who had the status of slaves but in reality could move into positions of great authority. Rulers collected large numbers of slaves and made use of their loyalty to consolidate their power. Slaves managed court affairs, formed the army's elite and officer corps, became judicial and military supervisors over territorial nobles, and were allowed to collect taxes from the nobility.

After the Portuguese arrived in Angola, they initially did not advance their territorial hold far beyond the lower Kwanza River and the coastal plain. But from 1612 to 1622, they enlisted Imbangala warriors and won a series of stunning military victories which changed the balance of power in the region. The Imbangala were bands of mercenary soldiers, as well as cannibals, who recruited their members by enslaving adolescent boys. Led by democratically selected commanders, they were ruthless and determined. The Imbangala brought the Mbundu state to near-total collapse, and it was under these circumstances that Njinga would ally herself with the Portuguese.

She first appears in the historical record around 1621–22, when she arrived in the Portuguese colony of Luanda, claiming to be an emissary of her brother Mbandi of Ndongo, the Ngola (king). Her desire to ally herself with the Europeans was driven by internal politics. At the time, she was caught in a struggle with two African leaders, Hari a Kiluanji and Ngola Hari. Although Ngola Hari had fought to keep the Portuguese out of the Angolan highlands to the east of Luanda, Njinga was willing to reach a compromise with the Europeans in order to stave off Hari a Kiluanji. In 1622, she accepted Christian baptism, which quickly won the hearts of the devout Europeans. Two years after her arrival in Luanda, her brother died under mysterious circumstances. Njinga claimed his kingdom of Ndongo and joined in a treaty that opened Mbundu lands to Portuguese slave traders. With the advantage of Portugal's material and military might behind her, Njinga returned home to eliminate all domestic opponents to her rule, and she welcomed missionaries to her capital.

Acunning and prudent Virago, so much addicted to arms that she hardly uses other exercises; and withal so generously valiant that she never hurt a Portuguese after quarter given, and commanded all her slaves and soldiers alike.

—Captain Fuller, speaking of Queen Njinga

Njinga's seizure of power in Ndongo violated established norms of the Mbundu. Although she claimed to be a close relative of the king, the Mbundu had not yet established hereditary succession; even if they had, she would have been excluded because her mother was a slave. Another deterrent to her assumption of power was the Mbundu opposition to females assuming any title. Although women often ruled other African tribes as queens, the Mbundu expressly forbade women to take the kingship of Ndongo. Njinga's seizure of power, therefore, was actually a coup. She continued the process of centralization begun by earlier rulers, basing her power entirely on the support of royal slaves rather than noble families. Through force of character, she was able to establish a precedent for female leadership which would outlast her reign.

Her alliance with the Portuguese was a tactical one and proved to be short-lived. In 1624, the new Portuguese governor withdrew the promise of his predecessor to remove a fortress on Njinga's lands. About this same time, Njinga began offering asylum to slaves fleeing Portuguese plantations near the coast. When the Portuguese retaliated by backing another pretender to the Ndongo throne, Njinga redoubled her efforts to attract slaves escaping from the Europeans. In their gratitude, these new arrivals became her loyal and devoted subjects.

When the Imbangala had a falling out with the Europeans, Njinga formed a powerful new alliance with these warriors, which was strengthened by their tradition of granting political power to kinless women. As the Imbangala controlled the south side of the Kwanza River, Njinga was able to exploit this position to launch numerous attacks against Portuguese slave traders. But the Imbangala coalition also proved short-lived, and in 1629 Njinga was forced to flee her kingdom of Ndongo. She settled in a lowland area on the northeastern fringes of the old Ngola state, the political structure of which had been left in disarray by the Portuguese-Imbangala raids from 1617 to 1621. Once known as the kingdom of Matamba, the area was now without a ruler. Matamba had a tradition of queens as rulers in ancient times, and Njinga was able to reestablish her power there over a new kingdom.

Control over the movement of slaves often meant control over a region's wealth and power. Njinga soon began trading slaves again. In the 1630s, she closed the main slave trail, blocking Portuguese access to the slave-producing areas along the Kwango. Although she sold some slaves to Europeans, she kept many as mercenaries, and in this way resurrected the Matamba kingdom. In 1635, she succeeded in forming a large coalition—with the states of Matamba, Ndongo, Congo, Kassanje, Dembos, and Kissamas. From her position as head of this alliance, Njinga forced the Portuguese to retreat. As well, Portugal was shifting focus from its overseas territories, because it had more pressing affairs at home: economic and social decline and hostilities with Spain. The Dutch took advantage of the situation by occupying Luanda in 1641. By the 1640s, when Njinga began to make alliances with Dutch slavers, Matamba was the largest state in the region. With her new allies, Njinga managed to dominate both the highlands and lowlands, and in 1648 the Portuguese finally withdrew from the region.

During the 1640s, Njinga decided to "become a man," that is, she took on certain trappings as a means to overcome what was still regarded by some as the illegitimacy of her gender to rule. She took several husbands and required them to dress in women's clothing. They slept among her ladies-in-waiting under the threat of death if they touched them sexually. Among powerful women in central Africa, there were precedents for similar gender shifts; in the Kongo, for example, ruling upper-class women

had the right to marry several men and to dispose of them as they saw fit.

Njinga appointed women to high government positions and recruited them for her armies. She equipped a battalion of ladies-inwaiting as soldiers and used them for her personal bodyguard. She led her troops into battle for many years. When armed for war, she was clad in animal skins, with a sword slung from her neck, an ax at her girdle, and bows and arrows in her hands. Two of her sisters were also warriors: Kifunji, who was killed by the Portuguese, and Mukumbu, whom she had to ransom from them.

In 1650, the Dutch left Angola. Having fought the Portuguese for more than two decades, Njinga allied herself with them once again. A formal treaty was signed in 1656 and would remain in force until the end of her life. She embraced Christianity once again, welcomed missionaries to her court, allowed free passage of Portuguese merchants, and promised to deliver a quota of slaves to them each year. Her return to Christianity probably had more to do with maintaining her authority than any true religious conversion. Since many of those whom she ruled continued to view her as a usurper, it was impossible to further alienate them, and the conversion essentially created a small ruling party of Angolan Catholics comprised of Njinga, her relatives and supporters, and the Portuguese.

A powerful individual, Njinga was both wily and intelligent. During one negotiating session with the Portuguese, the Europeans deliberately failed to provide a chair for the queen, intending to humble her. Njinga responded by ordering one of her servants down on his hands and knees, and sat regally on his back, making the Europeans look ridiculous. Political dexterity allowed her to adapt to constantly changing conditions. Conversion to Christianity, adoption of ritual cannibalism, and reconversion to Christianity were means to advance her goal. She saw religious affiliation as having more to do with political power than with faith, a perspective not unlike that of certain European monarchs, including England's Henry VIII. She battled prejudice against her gender, lineage, and race, while in control of two successive kingdoms. Njinga never gave up the notion that she was the queen of Ndongo, even when she was forced to relocate in Matamba or to surrender territory to the Portuguese. In the end, she had shaped a state that tolerated her authority and built up a base of loyal supporters. For 40 years, she remained a power to be reckoned with in Angola. Tales of the cunning and power of Queen Njinga, well known in Africa, became widespread in Europe.

Her legacy was a dynasty of queens who ruled the combined kingdoms of Ndongo and Matamba. Women ruled for at least 80 of the 104 years following Njinga's death. Her successors included Verónica I (who became queen in 1681), followed by Ana I (d. 1744), Verónica II (crowned in 1756), and Ana II (d. 1767).


Birmingham, David. Trade and Conflict in Angola: The Mbundu and their Neighbours under the Influence of the Portuguese 1483–1790. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Fraser, Antonia. Boadicea's Chariot: The Warrior Queens. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988.

Martin, Phyllis M. Historical Dictionary of Angola. London: Scarecrow Press, 1980.

Miller, Joseph C. "Nzinga of Matamba in a New Perspective," in Journal of African History. Vol. 16, no. 2, 1975, pp. 201–216.

Thornton, John K. "Legitimacy and Political Power: Queen Njinga, 1624–1663," in Journal of African History. Vol. 32, no. 1, 1991, pp. 25–40.

Karin Loewen Haag , writer, Athens, Georgia