Princess Njinga was born in 1582 to the ngola (ruler) of Ndongo, a kingdom whose existence was under threat from the Portuguese. Along with invasions, aggressive slave-raids between 1575 and 1590 saw over 50,000 citizens of Ndongo exported as slaves to Brazil.
The death of her father in 1617 caused political chaos and resulted in Njinga’s brother, Mbande, becoming ngola. Ngola Mbande murdered all whom he saw as political rivals, including Njinga’s son. Unsatisfied and paranoid, reports suggest that he then attempted to sterilise his three sisters by arranging for boiling oils to be poured over their stomachs. None of the sisters would ever give birth to another child.
As an infertile woman, Njinga’s life was spared. She fled and joined the Imbangalas, male-dominated marauding bands of warriors. There she led guerrilla raids on the Portuguese, while she waited for the opportune moment to re-enter the Ndongo political scene.
This moment came in 1622, when she was asked by her brother to negotiate a peace treaty with the Portuguese Governor. Njinga came prepared: she knew that the Portuguese would make her sit on the floor. This was a common exercise in humiliation for visiting African emissaries. Njinga, however, was to be the exception. Entering the Governor’s chamber, she indicated to a handmaid, who immediately dropped to her knees, creating a seat on which Njinga sat for the entirety of the negotiations.
Njinga’s canny political diplomacy was demonstrated by her agreement to be baptised a Catholic, taking the name Ana de Sousa in honour of the Governor’s wife. Njinga had many names in her lifetime, adopting and discarding them as it suited her need.
Njinga became Ngola Kiluanje (Queen of Angola) when her brother died in 1625. As ruler, she created trouble for the Portuguese by encouraging the Ndongo noblemen to revolt, ensuring that the Portuguese could not collect their usual monetary tribute. In retaliation, the Governor declared that her gender meant she had no right to rule. This ‘illegitimacy’ was used to start a ‘just war’ against her and, once again, Njinga fled.
She was Ngola Njinga Ngombe e Nga (Queen Njinga, Master of Arms and Great Warrior) whilst in exile. For the second time she led the Imbangalas in acts of resistance, conquering the kingdom of Matamba in 1631 and aligning it with the remainder of independent Ndongo. She not only led her forces into battle herself (at 49 years of age), but she also accepted escaped slaves. The purse of the Portuguese empire was humiliated by Njinga’s resolute war efforts. Between 1630 and 1633 Portuguese slave exports decreased from 13,000 to 0.
A Jesuit missionary from the Kongo noted that “[she] lived an unmarried life just like the queen of the Amazons [and] she governed the army [like] a female warrior.”
Njinga’s gender continued to detract from her achievements. So, she started dressing as a man and took male and female concubines, insisting all wore female garments and slept alongside each other. If the men touched her handmaids sexually, the men would be killed.
There were 29 Portuguese invasions into Ndongo-Matamba between 1648 and 1650 alone. This insecurity, along with the capture of her sister, Barbara, led to another round of peace negotiations with the Portuguese. These concluded successfully in 1656. Njinga secured her sister’s release and refused to concede tribute: “…having been born to rule my kingdom, I should not obey nor recognise another sovereign…”
At nearly 80 years of age, Queen Njinga was no less active in military activities. A Capuchin monk at her court witnessed her perform at a military parade in 1662. Commenting upon her impressive performance, the Queen begged his pardon for her display, saying: “Excuse me, Father, for I am old, but when I was young I yielded nothing in agility or ability… and I was not afraid to face twenty-five armed men.”
Njinga died in 1663 as Queen Doña Ana, a last political maneuver. She had decided that religious alignment with Christian Portugal was the only means to secure her kingdom’s survival, and tirelessly wrote letters to the Pope urging him to acknowledge her Christian revolution. Under the rule of a Christian monarch, her sister Barbara, she believed Ndongo-Matamba would be safe from the Portuguese after her death.
Njinga paved the way for a succession of female rulers in Ndongo-Matamba. Ahead of almost all the Western world, she set a precedent for the acceptance of women in the highest position of power. In the 104 years following her death, women ruled for at least 80 years.
She ruled the second largest kingdom in central Africa for over 40 years, defying gender norms and colonialisation to become a leader grudgingly respected by the Portuguese Empire and the Vatican – two of the then greatest world powers.
African writer Georgina Herrera wrote a tribute to her entitled ‘Song of Love and Respect for Doña Ana de Souza’ which celebrated her incredible life, but acknowledges the suppression of her story: “Oh! Doña Ana, grandmother of anger and kindness […] never prisoner […] your grave is the entire land of Angola, with no flowers, nor tombstones or signs.”