A diplomat and resilient leader, Queen Nzinga is revered for leading a successful resistance while offering sanctuary to runaway slaves and defector soldiers and defending her kingdom against Portuguese rule for almost 40 years. She also transformed her kingdom into a formidable commercial state on equal footing with the Portuguese colonies.
Nzinga was born to Ndambi Kiluanji, ruler of the Mbundo and Ndongo people and his second wife Kangela, in 1582. At birth, a wise woman predicted that she will one day become queen, which was uncommon since women were not traditionally known to be rulers in these times. This prophecy was based on Nzinga's umbilical cord being wrapped around her neck during birth.
Nzinga displayed a natural ability to lead at a young age. Growing up, she participated in training as a warrior, typically designated for men. She was educated in the fields of hunting and archery, and in diplomacy and trade. She also learned to speak and write fluently in Portuguese, which would serve her well later in her life as a special emissary that negotiated peace treaties with the Portuguese.
Her intelligence and strength in uniting former rival states, including the Dutch to help her defend her country, garnered respect from Portugal, South America, and throughout Europe. A statue of Queen Nzinga was placed in Kinaxixi, Luanda, Angola in 2002 to honor her during the celebration of the 27th anniversary of Angola's independence.
In July of 2013, the movie Nzinga, Queen of Angola premiered in Luanda, Angola. The movie provided a visualization of her life as a warrior, including her achievements in bridging a cease-fire and a new peace treaty in 1635 during the massive expansion of the Portuguese slave trade.
“A famous story says that in her meeting with the Portuguese governor, he did not offer a chair to sit on during the negotiations, and, instead, had placed a floor mat for her to sit, which in Mbundu custom was appropriate only for subordinates. Not willing to accept this degradation she ordered one of her servants to get down on the ground and sat on the servant's back during negotiations. By doing this, she asserted her status was equal to the governor, proving her worth as a brave and confident individual.”
(As with many powerful historical women her story is a mixture of fact and fiction, with the two difficult to separate. That she met with the Portuguese and that she sat on her servant’s back is generally agreed by historians to be accurate. Furthermore, there is no doubt that she was a thorn in the side of the Portuguese, that she founded a new nation, or that she was a great leader.)
Learn more about Queen Nzinga via the following sources:
- Chronicles of Harriet
- Blackpast.org: Remembered and Retained
- African Heritage: A blog about African history, and heritage, through audio and video files.
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art
During our celebration of Black History Month, I will introduce you to archived historical achievements from our culture. As other countries around the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom, also devote a month to celebrating black history, I look to extol the rich culture and beauty of our diaspora that predates the watershed events in African-American history.