Some terminology before I begin: The Ngola ruled over Ndongo where the Mbundu people resided. Later, as a result of war with Portuguese invaders, the ruler of Ndongo came to rule over Matamba as well; however, the culture remained that of the Mbundu people. To the Portuguese, these lands were called Angola.
Queen Njinga (also known/spelled as: Nzinga, Dona Ana de Souza, Ana de Souza, Zhinga, N’Zhinga, Jinga, and Ngola Ana Nzinga Mbande) of Ndongo and Matamba was born in 1582 and died in 1663. In Portuguese historiography, she is alternatively remembered as a hero, a collaborator, a heretic, and an enemy; in West African historiography (particularly within the Angolan Liberation Movement), she is remembered as a hero and a liberator who shielded the interior of Western Africa from Portuguese penetration for decades. In reality, what emerges from the life and times of Njinga is a female ruler rivaling the likes of Dowager Empress Cixi in complexity (not to set up a false dichotomy of fierceness, of course).
Portrait of Queen Njinga (clearly side-eyeing the Portuguese); source unknown (let me know if you are familiar with the artist/owner of this portrait)
Njinga was born to the Ngola Kiluanji and his consort Kangela in 1583, 168 years after the Portuguese first arrived on the West Coast of Africa. The coast and interior of Western Africa would become the base from which Portugal would launch their overseas empire, to be supported by the labor of the human capital wrested from the interior of Western Africa.
By the late sixteenth century—around the time of Njinga’s birth—the Portuguese had occupied the island of Luanda, establishing it as a slave post and using it as staging grounds for their religious and political incursions into Ndongo land. This threatened Ndongo sovereignty, and disrupted the economy as their incursions threatened the Ndongo monopoly on trade and slave routes. In the course of these invasions, the Portuguese heard the word “Ngola” and mistook it as the name of the land, rather than the title of the ruler. They thus called the land by the name “Angola.”
Tradition holds that Njinga was born against this backdrop of Portuguese incursion with the umbilical cord still wrapped around her neck. This was taken as a sign that this daughter would grow into a proud and haughty woman. In deference to this omen, she was named Njinga after the Kimbundu verb “kujinga” meaning “to twist or turn.” These traits—though unfortunately viewed as negative ones in a woman—would serve Njinga well later in her life.
Though she recalls that she was her father’s favorite child, this favoritism altered neither the succession nor the cultural attitudes which kept women from the throne. In 1617, Njinga’s half-brother Mbande ascended the throne and immediately had all of his rivals (including Njinga’s son) assassinated. However, he had overlooked the most dangerous of these rivals: Njinga herself.
Njinga viewed herself as far more of a capable ruler than her brother, and as far more worthy of the throne. She recognized that she would need Portuguese support if she were to claim the throne for herself. Thus, she planned an ambassadorial visit to Luanda.
The official reason for this trip was to form a treaty with the Portuguese governor aimed at having a Portuguese fortress removed from Ndongo land, to have the Portuguese return certain individuals they had seized from Ndongo territory, and to force the Imbangala mercenary group to cease their constant raids into Ndongo land. She also showed the Portuguese goodwill by agreeing to allow Portuguese slavers and missionaries into Ndongo territory. Njinga’s efforts were successful, the only remaining point of disagreement being over whether or not Ndongo would accept the status of vassal.
However, her primary motivation for this meeting was to show the Portuguese governor, João Correia de Souza, that she would be a strong, dependable queen. To further push this agenda, she allowed herself to baptized. She took the Christian name Ana, and assumed the governor’s surname: de Souza. It was clear that at least, in the time of her meeting with de Souza, Njinga held the high ground.
Of this a famous story has emerged. According to this story, de Souza neglected to offer Njinga a chair when she arrived to their meeting. This deliberate action was intended to show Njinga that she was subordinate to the power represented by the governor. Understanding this and refusing to partake in de Souza’s charade, Njinga order one of her servants to get down on all fours. She conducted the meeting seated on the back of her servant, cementing her refusal to be anything but the governor’s equal.
“Queen Njinga of Ndongo Presented to the Portuguese Governor” engraving by Fortunato da Alemandini after a 1687 water color by Giovanni Cavazzi
However, once Njinga had returned to Ndongo it became clear that the Portuguese did not intend to honor the treaty. They did not remove the fortress, return the individuals, or restrain the Imbangala. In 1624, Njinga’s brother, the Ngola Mbande, was found dead under mysterious circumstances. Some believe that it was murder, and others that it was suicide caused by his continued loss of power to the Portuguese. Regardless of the truth of the matter, many believed that Njinga was responsible.
After his death, Nijnga assumed power as regent to Mbande’s son. Though she was technically a regent, both the Portuguese and the Mbundu understood that she had declared herself queen in all but name.
As previously noted, the idea of a female ruler violated Mbundu cultural norms. But it went deeper than that. In Mbundu political theory, legitimate rulers could only be descended from the previous ruler. The claim of a ruler’s sibling—assuming that that sibling had been born to the same parent as the ruler—was shaky at best. Njinga, as Ngola Mbande’s half sister by a consort of his father, had a claim to the throne illegitimate in the minds of the Mbundu people. Her chief support was among those involved in matters of state—the general Mbundu people most likely did not accept her as queen.
And neither did Portugal. In fact, the Portuguese intentionally spread rumors claiming that Njinga had murdered her brother in order to further de-legitimize her rule. The Portuguese then went even further and selected a rival claimant to the throne as the recipient of their support. This person had lineage which met Portuguese approval, and had demonstrated that they would prove amenable to Portuguese colonial interests.
In response to this betrayal, Njinga renounced her Christianity, ceased to pretend that she was simply acting in the stead of her nephew, and formally asserted herself as queen.