Forgotten women: Queen Njinga of Ndongo and Matamba

April Bates looks back at the role of Queen Njinga Mbandi in the struggle for Angolan independence

After the death of her brother in 1624, Njinga Mbandi became queen of Ndongo, an area of modern day Angola. Her reign was a period of turbulence, with colonial powers having vied for control of the area for decades. Her state on the central African coast was particularly vulnerable to Portuguese colonisers, who wished to kidnap and enslave Njinga’s citizens to use as forced labour in plantations in Brazil. Throughout her childhood, she experienced the violence of the Portugese colonisers, and watched her father King Mbandi Ngola Kiluani attempt to orchestrate a resistance.

Njinga Mbandi was given her first taste of political responsibility in 1622, when she was sent as an envoy to negotiate a peace treaty with Portuguese Governor Dom João Correia se Sousa. When she arrived, the governor had laid a mat on the floor for her to sit on during negotiations, a symbol of lower status. Angry, Njinga ordered one of her servants to crouch on the floor, so she could sit on his back, making it clear that she would proceed the negotiations with him on an equal footing. Njinga’s reign was characterised by skilful diplomacy that allowed her to protect her borders and people from open combat where possible. She agreed to be christened and had learnt Portuguese in order to improve diplomatic relations.

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The peace treaty that Njinga had formed with the Portuguese governor was broken in 1623. Around this time Njinga’s brother died, and she became her his successor. Njinga lost land to the Portuguese between 1626 and 1628, but took over the neighbouring kingdom of Matamba. In the 1640s, Njinga formed an alliance with the Dutch which consolidated her power. In the battle of Senga in 1646, Njinga’s army, with Njinga herself at its head, fought off 20,000 Portuguese soldiers. She regularly sent spies to the Portuguese stronghold of Luanda so she could familiarise her army with Portuguese ways of fighting. In 1648, Njinga won the Battle of Ilamba, which allowed her to renegotiate a deal with the Portuguese. By the time of her death in 1663, Njinga had ruled successfully for more than 50 years, holding back invading forces that had devastated huge areas around Njinga’s territories.

Her fight for sovereignty was an inspiration for activists in their struggle for Angolan independence in the 20th century.

Illustration by April Bates

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