Nzinga, the nemesis of European slave traders in Africa

In the 17th century, lived this Angolan Queen of an infinite greatness, an absolute legend who fiercely fought the Europeans for 40 years.

Nzinga (an illustration of Achille Deveria in 1830)

At the end of the 15th century, the Portuguese arrived in Africa, sent by the Vatican, to commence the European slave trade. By their terrorist actions, they started the destruction of the prestigious Kongo Empire, allowing its vassal kingdoms including the Ndongo Kingdom to attain independence.
In 1560, the Portuguese sailed towards the south with missionaries and entered the mouth of River Kwanza, then arrived in Ndongo where Ngola (King) Kiluanji kia Ndambi was ruling. Suspicious, Kiluanji kia Ndambi, yet, granted them hospitality. The Portuguese leverage those years to study the functioning of the kingdom, identify its resources before coming back later on with an army to destroy it.
Luanda Island, a locality in Ndongo from where cowrie shells were collected to serve as currency to the Kongo empire, became an important port from which Africans were deported to a world of extermination in America. On the land, massive killing survivors during raids were chained, walked for days, committed suicide with their children on the slightest occasion. Those who arrived alive were brought down with tears and depression. They were piled up in boat slips to go and produce – in an unspeakable violence unknown to Africans – sugar, coffee, cotton which enriched the re-emergent Europe.
It is in the midst of such chaos that Nzinga was born in 1581. Daughter of Ngola Mbandi Kiluanji, she witnessed the fight led by her father and his army. Faced with the powerful European weapons, the Mbundu people and their Ndongo kingdom relentlessly retreated. Mbandi Kiluanji spotted leadership in his beloved daughter and trained her for the kingdom’s management and defense. As a teenager, the Princess was already going to the battlefields along with her father.

Nzinga and her father Mbandi Kiluanji
Illustration by Pat Masioni for the UNESCO

At the king’s death, Prince Mbandi, the only son among four children, took over Ndongo. He decided as well to carry on the offensive. Nzinga found his decision hasty. As he was jealous of his sister’s influence, Mbandi had her son killed fearing him to take over the throne one day. Devastated, the Princess went into exile.
Mbandi undertook a series of assaults against the Portuguese and was systematically defeated. The three quarters of his soldiers – 15,000 – died on the battlefield. The enemies even succeeded in killing his wife. In 1618, 94 of his officers were executed by the Portuguese. The Council of Elders convinced him to save what was left and negotiate a peace treaty with the enemy.
Under the elite pressure, Mbandi apologized for the predicament inflicted to his sister and assigned Nzinga, well-known for her strong character, to meet the Portuguese. In 1622, when she was 41, Nzinga travelled to Luanda and started her legendary adventure. The brilliant African-Caribbean historian Sylvia Serbin narrated the Angolan Princess’s voyage:
 “Carried on a bedding by a brigade of swift servants, Zingha, accompanied by an escort of courtiers and an armed detachment, made the trip within a few days. Luanda! What transformations on this territory snatched from the kingdom of her fathers! With its European city look and its churches, the first of which was built in 1505, it was dotted with imposing wooden mansions housing the new colonial elites, and slave hangars facing the Atlantic.
A twenty-one-run of cannon shots thundered, saluting the arrival of the delegation at the city’s doorstep. The convoy then appeared and triggered enthusiasm clamor among the African crowd restrained by two columns of Portuguese militia.
Zingha was dressed in a thin velvet raffia loincloth. A bright colored stole placed as a scarf on her shoulders barely covered her chest. Her massive gold crown set with precious stones and surmounted by a tuft of multicolored feathers formed a small helmet on her head. Everything about her reflected the pride of a great lineage woman.”
The princess met the Portuguese governor. To belittle her during the negotiations, a rug was placed in front of the governor sitting in a chair, and Nzinga was invited to sit down on the rug. Refusing such humiliation, she casted an authoritative glance at one of her maids, who got on all fours for the Princess to sit on her back. The Portuguese were astonished.

Illustration of the meeting between Nzinga and the Portuguese in 1622

Nzinga stood up to the Europeans, obtained their retreat from Ambaca town. Ndongo was exempted from taxes to be paid to the settlers. The Princess took advantage of the situation to study the Portuguese and their organization and she was baptized and renamed Ana.
A few months later, the new governor refused to comply with the agreements and launched an attack. King Mbandi was defeated and fled. Nzinga’s men found him and forced him to commit suicide by poisoning. Nzinga had never forgiven her son’s death. In the year 5859 of the African era – ie 1623 AD – the daughter of Mbandi Kiluanji fully took over the power and became the Queen of Ndongo under the name Ngola Mbandi Nzinga Bandi Kia Ngola (the queen whose arrow always hits the target). She was 42 years old.
As a skillful warrior, she led her own troops and harassed the Portuguese armies with guerrilla methods. As a charismatic leader, she galvanized her soldiers, conquered the kingdom of Matamba where she established the capital city. Taking advantage of a wide network of intelligence, she infiltrated the Portuguese army through her men, who brought her weapons, information and enriched her art of war.

Nzinga, leading her troops
Source: the destruction of Black civilizations, Chancelor Williams

She went so far as to call slaves the Africans enlisted in the Portuguese army and called upon their African consciousness to join her. She bonded with some neighboring kingdoms to fight the Europeans and put an end to her people’s enslavement. Her sister Kifunji was captured and beheaded by the Portuguese, her body thrown into a river.
At the age of 66, Nzinga led her troops and faced 20,000 Portuguese at the Battle of Senga. The missionaries, who thought they had converted her to Christianity and tamed her years ago, acknowledged their failure. As she noticed the conflicting relations between the Dutch and the Portuguese for the control of the slave trade, the Ngola strategically united with the Dutch, with the ulterior motive to attack them too later. Dutch battalions passed under her command. Her coalition seized the port of Luanda which was later taken over by the Portuguese from Brazil. At the age of 67, she defeated the Portuguese at the Battle of Ilamba.
When she was 73, with her rifle in hand, she continued to roam the forests and savannas. She also convinced the African soldiers of the Portuguese army to join her, by offering them plots of land. She chose to attack during seasons spreading malaria which the Portuguese were not accustomed to.
As the Portuguese were tired of decades of war against the Ngola, they finally chose to negotiate and recognized the independence of Matamba and the part of Ndongo under Nzinga’s control. The Queen was 76.
Ngola Mbandi Nzinga Bandi kia Ngola died in 1663 at age 82, after a life dedicated to the fight for the liberation of the Angolan people. Ndongo was completely conquered 8 years after her death. The enslavement of the Angolans by the Portuguese continued until 1975, year of the country’s independence after a very long struggle. The Queen is considered in Angola as the mother of the country.

Colossal statue of Nzinga Mbandi in Luanda, the capital city of Angola

In Africa, the fight against slave trade was very spread across and began as soon as the Europeans arrived. In the 16th and 17th centuries especially, wars of resistance were led everywhere by Kings, with an incredible braveness: Mamvuru or Mutapa Mukombwe in Zimbabwe, the Mfalme of the Swahili civilization of which one died beheaded, The Kongo Kings including Antonio who died beheaded, Badu Bonsu of Ghana who died beheaded, Igbo Kings, King Almamy of Senegambia, Mbandi brother of Nzinga etc.
But almost all those glorious Kings were defeated by the enemy because of the latter’s technological supremacy. What makes Nzinga stands out is not only the extraordinary longevity of her fight but also the fact that she succeeded in mitigating the apocalypse which fell on the Continent.
Nzinga is therefore the greatest figure of resistance in Africa against the European slave trade. She is the second greatest African woman of all time after Kandake Amanirenas, and she is simply one of the most august African leaders in history.


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