By Caroline Colebrook
QUEEN Ana de Sousa Nzinga is famous as a 17th century African warrior queen in the region now known as Angola who fought against the colonisation of her homeland by the Portuguese and the slave trade, making a stand where her father and brother had been unable to do so. She was renowned for her strategic military tactics and political and diplomatic intelligence.
Nzinga was born to King Kiluanji in 1583. According to tradition, she was named Nzinga because her umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck (the Kimbundu verb kujinga means to twist or turn). It was said to be an indication that the person who had this characteristic would be proud and haughty, and a wise woman told her mother that Nzinga would become queen one day.
According to her recollections later in life, she was greatly favoured by her father, who allowed her to witness as he governed his kingdom, and who carried her with him to war. She also had a brother, Mbandi, and two sisters, Kifunji and Mukambu. She lived during a period when the Atlantic slave trade and the consolidation of power by the Portuguese in the region were growing rapidly.
In the 16th century, the Portuguese position in the slave trade was threatened by England and France. As a result, the Portuguese shifted their slave-trading activities to the Congo and South West Africa
Mistaking the title of the ruler, ngola, for the name of the country, the Portuguese called the land of the Mbundu people "Angola" — the name by which it is still known today.
Nzinga resisted Portuguese colonial occupation of the region for over four decades but officially she ruled Ndongo only from 1624-1626 and 1657-1663.
Prior to Nzinga's birth, the Portuguese had settled along the southern part of the Congo River and began moving up the Kwanza River Valley in search of slaves and gold. According to historical reports, the Imbangala in the 17th century mostly comprised bands of pillaging warriors native to this region, founders of the kingdom of Kasanje. They aided the Portuguese colonial campaigns as early as those of Luis Mendes de Vasconcelos in 1618.
The first European records concerning Nzinga was of her acting as an embassy on behalf of her brother, who was king at the time, at a 1622 peace conference with the Portuguese Luanda governor João Correia de Sousa. Luanda is an Atlantic coastal city, the largest city in Angola and the country's capital.
The immediate purpose of her embassy was her brother's attempt to get the Portuguese to withdraw the fortress of Ambaca that had been built on his land in 1618 by the Governor Mendes de Vasconcelos, to have some of his subjects in Kimbundu and sometimes called slaves in Portuguese who had been taken captive during Governor Mendes de Vasconcelos' campaigns (1617–21) returned and to persuade the governor to stop the marauding of the Imbangala.
Nzinga's efforts were successful. The governor, João Correia de Sousa, never gained the advantage at the meeting and agreed to her terms, which resulted in a treaty on equal terms.
One important point of disagreement was the question of whether Ndongo surrendered to Portugal and accepted vassalage status.
A famous story says that in her meeting with the Portuguese governor, João Correia de Sousa 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. The scene was imaginatively reconstructed by the Italian priest Cavazzi and printed as an engraving in his book of 1687.
Though a treaty was signed with the Portuguese at this peace conference, they never honoured it. They did not withdraw from Ambaca, nor did they release the slaves. And they soon hired the Imbangala to fight against the Ndongo Kingdom as they pushed to capture more slaves.
Nzinga's brother committed suicide following this diplomatic impasse, convinced that he would never have been able to recover what he had lost in the war.
The Mbundu tradition prohibited women rulers. After her brother’s death Nzinga's became regent to his son Kiza. She soon convinced the Portuguese to support her bid to the throne. In 1622, she was baptised and took the Christian name Ana, the surname of the Luanda governor de Sousa and the Portuguese title Dona. So Princess Nzinga became known as Dona Ana de Sousa in a political move to help secure her succession to the Ndongo Kingdom throne.
The Portuguese began negotiating directly with Nzinga. The arrival of Fernão de Sousa in 1624 started with discussions with her, but because she was not submissive to the Portuguese, they ended with her being ousted from Kidonga.
That same year she is reported to refer to herself as "Rainha de Andongo" (Queen of Andongo). After she was ousted by the Portuguese, Nzinga continued fighting against them while in exile. She fled east but reclaimed the title in 1627. She was again driven out by the Portuguese in 1629, the year her sister was captured by their military forces.
By 1641 Nzinga had entered among the earliest African-European alliance against a European nation when she entered into negotiations with the Dutch. In 1646 her army defeated the Portuguese at Davanga, but her other sister was captured.
By 1647 her alliance with the Dutch was fruitful in the seizure of Masangano from the Portuguese. In 1648 her army retreated to Matamba, a pre-colonial African Kingdom located in what is now the Baixa de Cassange region of Malanje Province of modern day Angola.
In a 1657 speech, Queen Nzinga reportedly said to her army that an alliance with the Imbangala was then a necessary evil in the military war against the Portuguese. But in the same year she signed a peace treaty with the Portuguese.
She had fought against their colonial and slave raiding attacks for decades. Queen Nzinga died on 17th December 1663 at the age of 80. Unfortunately her death accelerated Portuguese colonial occupation, as well as their Atlanta slave trade activities in South-West Africa.