Influential Women #18: (Ana) Nzinga Mbande

This post is going to be a little different from the other ones in the series, because this woman is a little different from the other ones in the series, in the sense that she’s not at at all unknown. NZinga Mbande (16th/17th c.) was the queen of the region that is now known as Angola. I have to admit that I hadn’t heard of her before, but queen Nzinga Mbande is one of the biggest figures in Angolan history. When I was reading up on her, I encountered tons of very positive articles, depicting her as a warrior queen, fighting colonisation and slavery, who was always supported by her people. When digging deeper, though, I found something closer to the truth.

In Atlas Obscura, Afrika News and Rejected Princesses, a completely different picture is painted of Queen Nzinga. She is described as blood-thirsty and ruthless. It is said that she supposedly killed her brother and his son in order to take the throne. During her time of reign, rumours were going around saying she had a harem of men (whom she killed after they shared the bed with her) and that she killed servants after using them as chairs “because she never used the same chair twice”. On top of that she was rumoured to be a massive slave trader herself, selling people into slavery in order to keep her own people safe.

What’s influential about brutal murder and ruthless ruling, you might ask? Well, note how I consequently said words like “rumour” and “supposedly”. When Queen Nzinga came to power in Ndongo, her birth region, in the 16th century, her tribe was not in favour of it. They did not think a woman should be in any position of power, let alone being queen. I do not have any sources to support this theory, nor do historians, given not that much was written about Nzinga Mbande – but, it’s not all that hard to imagine these rumours were spread to undermine Nzinga’s power – and to some extent, it worked.

It seems that, eventually, the rumours took on: people (read: men) in power in Ndongo did not consider Nzinga’s reign legit because she was believed to have killed her brother and his son. She was forced to flee to Matamba, a neighbouring region yet a big rival of Ndongo. She somehow managed to get the support of the local people, and replaced the local queen. (The details of how exactly she replaced the local queen remain unclear, but again rumours were spread that Nzinga killed her. Seems unlikely to me, though – I take it it was more of a forced political deal.) A period of Nzinga struggling to establish her power follows, and eventually she wins – she merged Ndongo and Matamba to a region which is now known as Angola.

Despite the rumours that were spread by her own people as well as by the Portugese (like using her servant as a chair – which is probably historically correct – and then killing her servant – which is quite likely historically incorrect), Nzinga Mbande managed to fight the local slave traders and keep the slave trade out of Angola until the end of her reign. She did what she could to protect her people as she considered this as her duty. She reigned relatively peacefully after this all, until she died of old age somewhere around her 82nd birthday.

There aren’t all that many scientific/historical sources about queen Nzinga Mbande. Most of the stories that are now told are really just largely based on legend. Which rumours are true and which aren’t remain a mystery to this day, but it cannot be denied that Queen Nzinga managed to rise above them. There are several statues of her all over Angola today, and she is remembered as a nationalist hero – not the brother/nephew-killing monster the undermining powerhungry men of her time tried to make her out to be.

  • L. Parole
The more glorifying sources are: Amazing Women in History, Plural Editores, Afrika News (kind of falls in between), Black Past, Geni and Angola Market.
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