Anne Thériault | Longreads | October 2019 | 23 minutes (5,741 words)
From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on world-historical women of centuries past.
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Late into the 16th century, Kengela ka Nkombe gave birth to her second child. Her first had been a son, and she had dutifully named him after his father, Mbande, the future king of Ndongo. This one was a girl. The birth was difficult; the baby was breech, her face was upturned, and the umbilical cord was wrapped firmly around her neck. Royal attendants were able to safely guide the baby out of her mother’s body, but everyone present agreed that the birth foretold an unusual life. Mbande, who openly doted on Kengela as his favourite concubine, was immediately smitten with his newest child. He named her Njinga, from the Kimbundu verb kujinga, which means to twist or turn — ostensibly a reference to the cord wrapped around her neck. But perhaps as he held his daughter for the first time, he caught a brief glimpse of her future: how she would twist and turn to outwit her enemies, gain the throne, and, ultimately, fight for her country’s freedom.
The kingdom of Ndongo was an early-modern African state located in present-day Angola, and, at the time of Njinga’s birth, a rancid combination of white people, colonialism, and the Atlantic slave trade were tearing it apart. The Portuguese had shown up in Ndongo in the late 15th century and had quickly realized that they could exploit the rich coastal lands for the glory (read: financial gain) of their empire. Of course, they claimed to be doing it in the name of bringing Jesus to the locals and saving their souls, but their definition of salvation included the transportation of millions of people across the Atlantic, where they forced them to work in brutal, degrading, and deadly conditions. The first direct slave voyage from Africa to the Americas happened by the early 1520s; by the time the first ship carrying enslaved Africans arrived in North America in 1619, the Atlantic slave trade was already in full swing in South America. The enormous scale of the operation is hard to wrap one’s mind around; tens of thousands of enslaved people were sent from Angola to Brazil between 1575 and 1595, a number that would climb into the millions before the practice was abolished in Portugal a few centuries later.
Because this type of discussion always generates some version of “but the Africans also enslaved each other,” allow me just to state up front that, yes, the people of Ndongo had a system of free and unfree individuals. People who were unfree fell into two categories: kijikos, similar to the serfs that had existed in Western Europe before the socio-economic upheaval of the Black Death, and mubikas, enslaved people who could be sold as property, most of whom had been captured in battles with other kingdoms. Of course any theft of human freedom is horrific, and the complexities of pre-colonial slavery in what would later become Angola are worth discussing within their own context. There is still a vast, vast difference between the system that existed before colonization and the operation the Portuguese created. Any comparison between the two in the year of our lord 2019 is made in bad faith.
The Portuguese presence in West Central Africa was limited at first to their trading posts and missions, but in 1571, Sebastian of Portugal — a pouty blond with firm calves — ordered the conquest and subjugation of all of Ndongo. All in Jesus’s name, no doubt. By the time Njinga’s father became king in 1593, her country had been at war for over a decade.
Much of Njinga’s legacy in the West has been rooted in racist, sexist propaganda created by white people; it’s only recently that a more accurate depiction of her life has begun to gain traction outside of her homeland. The credit for this shift goes to scholars like Linda M. Heywood, who have meticulously stitched together academic sources, contemporary documents, and details passed down through oral traditions to create a fully fleshed-out portrait of Njinga and her accomplishments. Heywood’s book Njinga of Angola is considered to be one of the most authoritative biographies of the queen and is the source for most of the facts in this piece.
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Njinga was her father’s clear favorite throughout her childhood. She was 10 when Mbande became the ngola, or king, of Ngondo (“Angola” comes from the Portuguese misunderstanding the meaning of ngola and thinking it was the name of the kingdom). He often involved her in his official duties: she attended many of the legal councils that her father oversaw, received military training, and participated in the ritual activities that were so vital to their culture. The fact that she was a girl and not even the child of his principal wife made all of this very unusual, but then again maybe this explains why Mbande a Ngola felt comfortable to display his preference so publicly. It would have been unheard of to lavish that kind of individual attention on any of his sons; to do so meant risking jealousy not only among them, but also among their mothers, many of whom came from powerful families. A daughter, though, was different — for one thing, no one really viewed her as direct competition. Besides, everyone agreed that Njinga was special. She outperformed her brothers in every capacity, including with the battle axe, which was the royal weapon of choice.
NJINGA: they’re such simple creatures
NJINGA: so thirsty for their father’s affections
NJINGA: so easy to humiliate
NJINGA: it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, if all the fish also had serious daddy issues
Even as Njinga was living large and serving up slices of emasculation pie to her brothers, Ndongo was deeply embroiled in conflict. The Imbangala, a militarized nomadic society of young people living in war camps, had long been harassing Ndongo on their own; now they joined up with the Portuguese. The Imbangala wanted the Ndongo territory, and the Portuguese wanted to destabilize the kingdom and enslave the refugees created by the Imbangala invasion. It was a powerful alliance, and one that Njinga’s father struggled to counter with the men or arms at his disposal.
The king tried everything — open warfare, diplomacy, negotiation — but the forces he was facing were implacable. To make matters worse, many regional Ndongo leaders began defecting to the Portuguese once they saw which way the tide was turning. This shocking betrayal gutted Mbande a Ngola. Not only had those regional leaders been contributing manpower to the fight, their annual tributes to the king had underpinned the financial and administrative cohesion of Ndongo. With these tributes going to the Portuguese instead, the kingdom began to crumble in earnest. By the time his own men ambushed and murdered Mbande a Ngola in 1617, he held just a fraction of the territory his father had passed on to him. What was left of Ndongo soon fell into a succession crisis.
Her game was a universe unto itself, expanding ever outwards and snickering cosmically at anything that might cross its path.
The king-making system in Ndongo was complex. Claimants to the throne had to be of noble lineage, which made for a large pool of candidates, as kings tended to have many children by both wives and concubines. They also had to be elected into the position by specially-designated court officials. Having a multi-level qualification process typically resulted in a peaceful transfer of power, but the chaos following Mbande a Ngola’s death meant that business was not proceeding as usual. Njinga’s older brother Ngola Mbande, with whom she shared both parents, decided to make his move. Normally a concubine’s son would have had a weak claim to the throne, but he worked the political turmoil following his father’s death to his advantage and staged a coup in the capital before the traditional electors could assemble. He consolidated his power by making sure that he had no male relatives who might interfere with his accession, swiftly killing off his half-brother (who, as the son of Mbande a Ngola’s chief wife, represented his main competition), the rest of his half-brother’s family, and many prominent members of the court. Then he came for his sisters.
First, Ngola Mbande murdered Njinga’s newborn son, her first and only child. Next, he purportedly ordered the sterilization of Njinga and their sisters, Kambu and Funji, with herbs and boiling oils. Satisfied that none of his full-blood siblings would be able to produce a male heir, he let them live.
NJINGA: obviously I’m glad I wasn’t killed
NJINGA: but, objectively, it wasn’t a very smart move on his part
NJINGA: a lot of assumptions going on there
NJINGA: that women aren’t a threat unless they have sons
NJINGA: that they won’t seek revenge
NJINGA: just a whole lot of assumptions
Ngola Mbande may have thought he was playing the long game, but Njinga was on a different level entirely. Her game was a universe unto itself, expanding ever outwards and snickering cosmically at anything that might cross its path.
* * *
Njinga plotted and bided for so long that eventually Ngola Mbande just assumed things were cool between them again. That time he murdered her only child? Water under the bridge, probably! Women get so emotional about these things but you’ve just got to give them time to calm down. Things in fact seemed so chill to the king that he decided to turn to his sister for help. You know how it is when you’ve poured boiling oil on a person’s reproductive organs but then, haha oh man awkward, you need to ask them to do you a solid.
By 1621, Ngola Mbande’s rule was in a precarious position. The Portuguese were pressuring him on all sides, with increased violence, an expansion in the Atlantic slave trade, and the kidnapping of several highly-placed members of the royal family. Njinga was 39 years old at this point, estranged from her brother and living to the east of Ndongo in the kingdom of Matamba; in the years since her brother’s attack, she had spent her time honing her reputation for leadership both on and off the battlefield. When a new governor of Portuguese Angola was appointed, the king sensed that the moment for negotiating was ripe, and asked his sister to be his ambassador to the Portuguese Angolan capital of Luanda. Njinga, amazingly, did not immediately respond with FUCK YOU FOR KILLING MY KID, but instead agreed. In early 1622, she entered Luanda with an impressive retinue. It must have seemed like she’d been training for this moment her whole life. After all those years of learning at her father’s feet, of honing her skills, of pushing through her degradation and pain, she was finally going to show the Portuguese that the Ndongo people were a force to be reckoned with. The fact that she would also publicly humiliate her brother by outshining him once again was just icing on the cake.
Caught in a Jesus snare of their own making, the Portuguese didn’t have much choice but to agree to Njinga’s conditions.
Njinga arrived in Luanda dressed in traditional clothing, which was unusual given her station. Most dignitaries from Ndongo would wear opulent Portuguese fashions when meeting with them as a way of sartorially placing themselves on the same level, but Njinga felt that would be a tacit acknowledgement that the people of Ndongo were inferior to the colonizers. Witnesses describe her as being draped in expensive fabrics, dripping with priceless jewels, colorful feathers bedecking her elaborate hairstyles. During the negotiations, Governor João Correia de Sousa tried to humiliate her by having her sit on the floor while he perched on a velvet chair, but Njinga was equal to this: she ordered a female attendant to get on her hands and knees and sat on her the entire time. It was a dense lasagna of power moves, with layers targeting not just the governor, but also her own people, especially those who might doubt her abilities. The message was: none of you had better step the fuck out of line.
She flattered the Portuguese and acceded to many of their requests, promising them that her brother would cease military operations if they did the same. The only issue on which she remained unbending was the governor’s demand that Ngola Mbande pay an annual tribute to the Portuguese king. This, she said, would have been fair if they were a conquered state, but her brother was not a vassal. He was a sovereign king negotiating with an equal. When the governor expressed suspicion at the idea that Ngola Mbande actually wanted peace, Njinga played her trump card: if the Portuguese agreed to her brother’s terms, she would agree to study the Christian catechism and to be baptized. After all, hadn’t the Portuguese invaded Africa in order to save souls? And here was a royal soul fresh for the picking. Were the Portuguese implying that her soul was worth less than an earthly tribute? Caught in a Jesus snare of their own making, the Portuguese didn’t have much choice but to agree to Njinga’s conditions.
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Njinga seemed to embrace her new religion, studying its rituals with enthusiasm. She took the baptismal name Ana de Sousa after her godparents, Ana da Silva (whose family she stayed with during the negotiations) and Governor de Sousa. The government officials came to greatly respect Njinga, and she later said that this was a time of great happiness in her life. It was also a diplomatic success; by the time she left Luanda, Njinga had secured a promise for a peace treaty.
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In spite of Njinga’s ingenious politicking, the promise of peace did not last. An alliance that Ngola Mbande had made with the Imbangala collapsed and the Ndongo court was driven out of their capital of Kabasa. The Portuguese wouldn’t put the treaty into action while the king was in exile and unbaptized, and Njinga, in turn, was pressuring her brother into refusing the latter of these terms. In the wake of his sister’s success in Luanda, Ngola Mbande had come to rely heavily on her counsel. Now he listened attentively as she swore that it would be humiliating for the King of Ndongo to submit to a foreign power, and would amount to a betrayal of their customs. A conversion, Njinga said, would cause all of his supporters to abandon him. If this seems a little much coming from the person who had just gone through a strategic baptism, it might be worth considering Njinga’s private desire to undermine her brother. Of course, every word she said was completely true! But also: she had a slow revenge to wreak.
NJINGA: the Portuguese betrayed us in the end
NJINGA: in case you haven’t quite caught the theme of colonialism yet
NJINGA: as it turns out, their promises are worth less than shit
NJINGA: shit is useful for fertilizing, at least
NJINGA: anyway, my brother died by poisoning two years after my trip to Luanda, a broken man
NJINGA: some said the poison was self-administered
NJINGA: some said that I did it
NJINGA: but, truly, secret killings are not my style at all
Ngola Mbande had made it clear in his last years that he wanted Njinga to succeed him, and after his death she worked quickly to secure her position. She organized a lavish funeral for her brother and preserved some of his remains in a traditional reliquary called a misete so she could consult him as an ancestor, thus establishing herself as the spiritual heir of Ndongo. She hurriedly assembled the court officials necessary to vote herself into power. Although records aren’t clear on whether her title at this point was queen or “Lady of Angola,” what is certain is that she was the leader of the people of Ndongo who still refused to submit to colonial rule.
Njinga’s first order of business as queen was apparently a chilled bowl full of revenge. She accomplished this by seducing and marrying a much younger Imbangala leader named Kasa, to whom Ngola Mbande had entrusted his oldest son’s care during a brief alliance. According to some reports, after the wedding Njinga immediately murdered her nephew and several other family members, saying that she had finally avenged her own son’s death.
NJINGA: I will neither confirm nor deny whether this is true
NJINGA: I just have three words for you
Njinga tried to engage diplomatically with the Portuguese once again, but it did not go very well. Another governor had been appointed in Luanda, and he was sharp enough to know that the new leader of Ndongo was someone who could inflict some serious damage on the colony. Eventually the Portuguese refused to recognize the queen’s rule and set up a puppet regime. Njinga, with the support of her people, moved into full rebellion. She wasn’t the kind of ruler who plotted military tactics from the safety of a desk, either; the Portuguese often spotted her just behind the front line, rallying and directing her troops under a hail of arrows and mustketballs. She did her best to rout the Portuguese in other ways, too, cutting supply lines and limiting their access to slave markets. She also encouraged those enslaved by the Portuguese to escape, offering them refuge and protection if they joined her.
Njinga’s first order of business as queen was apparently a chilled bowl full of revenge.
Given all these tactics that she was deploying against the Portuguese slave trade, it’s tempting to view Njinga as a grand crusader against slavery, but the truth is much thornier. Njinga had grown up in a culture where slavery was commonly practiced. Her family had always owned enslaved people and she personally continued to do so throughout her life. She had given enslaved people as gifts to the Portuguese while making diplomatic overtures, and during treaty negotiations her power to re-open slave markets was always in the background. But — and this is an important but — it is also true that she spent considerable time and resources on thwarting the Portuguese slave trade. Historical records show that the number of enslaved people departing Luanda for the Americas dropped in 1623 just as Njinga was beginning to consolidate her power; this number would fluctuate over the coming years as the balance of power shifted between the Queen of Ndongo and the Portuguese, finally falling to zero in 1642 and staying low for the rest of Njinga’s life. It’s possible that her claim of supporting the Portuguese slave trade was all part of her statecraft, an empty show of alliance that distracted them while she worked to circumvent them. We can only guess at what her actual intentions were, but the numbers tell a compelling story.
In spite of Njinga’s prowess on the battlefield, she encountered the same problems as her father and brother: they just couldn’t match the numbers or firepower of the Portuguese and their allies. By 1626, the queen was struggling. The Portuguese kept coming, and her troops were reduced to employing guerilla tactics as they retreated. Worse, some of her early supporters were now deserting her and pledging loyalty to her enemies. After enduring heavy losses that year, the Queen of Ndongo found herself cornered on an island in the Kwanza river. All might have seemed lost to a lesser leader, but Njinga was determined to keep fighting at any cost. She decided to use her brother’s relics, partaking in a ritual where his spirit possessed a priest to communicate with the living. Through this priest, Ngola Mbande told his sister that she must refuse to become a vassal to the Portuguese at any cost, and that it was better to “retain one’s liberty through flight” than submit to the enemy.
NGOLA MBANDE: I’m just doing my best to be a good ghost-sibling
NJINGA: you’re a great ghost-sibling!
NGOLA MBANDE: I just want to be supportive, you know?
NJINGA: I like you way, way better as a ghost than as a human
NJINGA: leaving this realm has really matured you
NGOLA MBANDE: I’m not sure if that’s meant to be a compliment but I’m just going to take it as one
With the assumed approval of their ancestors, Njinga convinced her remaining followers to escape under the cover of darkness, somehow avoiding the detection of the Portuguese troops surrounding the island. After taking some time to regroup and shore up support in the eastern part of her kingdom, Njinga came back stronger than ever. She spent the next three years harassing and striking the Portuguese, who became increasingly alarmed over the fact that this woman just would not go away.
Then, in 1629, the queen was dealt a crushing blow: her camp was invaded by the enemy, and while she was able to escape by rappelling down a cliff into a ravine, her sisters, Kambu and Funji, were captured. This was a devastating loss: they were the closest thing she had to social peers, and the only people she fully trusted. After learning that Portuguese troops had dragged the royal sisters to Luanda and forced them to convert to Christianity, Njinga swore that she wouldn’t rest until she freed them.
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This latest attack had left Njinga with greatly depleted troops and a considerably smaller territory. She sent a messenger to Kasanje, the leader of a powerful Imbangala war camp, begging him to shelter her from the Portuguese. He agreed, but only on certain conditions: that Njinga submit to him as his wife, that she dispose of her lunga (a large bell symbolically carried by military leaders during times of war), and that she live by his traditions. Surprisingly, she agreed. Now entering her late 40s, the Queen of Ndongo began the intensive training necessary to become an Imbangala warrior. She had spent her entire life besting those around her and had used her grit and resilience to rise from favorite daughter to brilliant negotiator to queen of the battlefield. Now she realized that, somehow, she had to find it within her to be even better than her best. Humility is a bitter pill, but it was one Njinga was willing to swallow in order to be reborn once again.
Njinga thrived in Kasanje’s camp. She learned the exhaustive set of rules and traditions that guided the Imbangala. Many of these reflected their belief that hierarchies should be based on merit instead of bloodlines; one of the ways this was reinforced was by strictly forbidding childbirth within the camp. This meant that even the children of the Imbangala elite could only enter the camp as young adults and had to endure the same initiation ordeals as anyone else. Njinga, of course, managed to work this to her advantage, throwing herself body and soul into her new life. Much like at her father’s court, she displayed great prowess and athleticism during her physical training. After a few years, she was skilled enough to become an Imbangala leader in her own right, establishing a new war camp and taking the name Ngola Njinga Ngombe e Nga (Queen Njinga, Master of Arms and Great Warrior). From there, she invaded the nearby kingdom of Matamba, and, after a brief and victorious battle, declared herself its queen. Now the undisputed ruler of an established territory, Njinga finally had a secure base from which to attack the Portuguese, free Ndongo, and rescue her sisters.
NJINGA: thought I forgot about them, didn’t you?
NJINGA: as the kids might say, I would never
NJINGA: everything, literally everything I do, is a means to an end
Njinga immediately began negotiations with the Portuguese to release her sisters. Throughout the 1630s she kept pushing back at her enemies from every angle, leaning on both diplomacy and military actions. When the Dutch arrived in central Africa in 1641, Njinga immediately sensed an opportunity to forge an alliance and get rid of the Portuguese once and for all. She managed to contact her sister Funji, who became Njinga’s spy. Between this bit of luck and a decent working relationship with the Dutch (who had a beef with Spain and Portugal that they imported all the way from Europe), there were a few years where it seemed like Njinga was finally about to triumph. Then, in 1647, the queen received terrible news: Funji’s cover had been blown and the Portuguese had drowned her in retaliation. Another piece of terrible news swiftly followed: the Dutch, sensing that they couldn’t defeat the Portuguese, had betrayed Njinga and made a treaty with her greatest enemies.
Humility is a bitter pill, but it was one Njinga was willing to swallow in order to be reborn once again.
By the time of the Dutch betrayal in 1648, Njinga was in her mid-60s. She had been queen for two and a half decades and had spent most of that time fighting for her nation’s independence, and now she once again had to find an entirely new strategy to rid her land of the colonizers and reunite what was left of her family. It was at this point that two men appeared on the scene: a pair of captured Spanish Capuchin friars who ended up shaping the rest of Njinga’s life.
The Capuchins were the first missionaries Njinga had met who weren’t also actively promoting Portuguese interests. And even though their relationship got off to a bit of a rocky start (the Capuchins came to the queen as plunder from a battle in nearby Kongo), pretty soon things were going along swimmingly: the missionaries were plotting conversion, and Njinga was thinking big picture. Thanks to the arrival of the Capuchins, she conceived of a bold new plan — to develop her own relationship with Rome and convince the Pope to recognize her as a bonafide Christian ruler. After all, if she had the support of the almighty Vatican, surely the Portuguese could no longer challenge her right to the throne. And so began Njinga’s strategic re-conversion to Christianity in order to beat the colonizing Catholics at their own game.
NJINGA: and, again, going back to the issue of my sister Kambu
NJINGA: now living an exemplary Christian life under the name Barbara
NJINGA: I got the church to pressure the Portuguese into releasing her
NJINGA: you know, to teach me the ways of Christ
NJINGA: not to brag, but … genius, no?
On October 12, 1656, 27 years after the capture of her sisters, the 74-year-old queen finally reunited with her last surviving sibling. As soon as she saw her, Njinga collapsed to the ground and began rubbing soil on herself, the custom for someone paying homage to their superior or receiving a favor. Then the queen approached her sister and, after kissing her hands and kneeling before her, dropped her head to the ground again. After that, the two held and kissed each other wordlessly, too overcome with emotion to speak.
* * *
Barbara arrived with a retinue of Portuguese diplomats who were ready to sign a peace treaty. Njinga agreed to all the terms, including a formal reconciliation with the Catholic church and a promise to baptize all children born after the treaty was signed. The next few days were given over to celebrations that lasted late into the night, much to the chagrin of the queen’s new spiritual directors.
Of course, not all of Njinga’s people were thrilled about the Christianization of Ngondo. Had she really spent so many years fighting the colonizers only to now submit to their religion? Traditional Ndongo priests were especially alarmed. So, just like she had done so many years before when she had to justify her retreat from the Portuguese, Njinga used the relics of her brother and several other ancestors to receive supernatural support. In a carefully staged rite, Njinga asked them if they approved of her obeying Christian law and giving up their traditional beliefs. The spirit of Ngola Mbande told her that he would prefer that she follow the ancient ways of their people, but if Christianizing their nation was what it took to bring about peace and prosperity, then he would accept it. The rest of the ancestors agreed. Satisfied, Njinga began the process of conversion in earnest.
NJINGA: I’m officially a Christian!
NJINGA: again, lol
CHURCH: ok, but there are a few things you’re going to need to change about your life…
NJINGA: like what?
CHURCH: uhhhh your many concubines, for one thing
NJINGA: what about them?
CHURCH: you’ll have to give them up and get married in a Christian ceremony
NJINGA: ok, well
NJINGA: for my Christian husband, I have chosen a beautiful youth many decades younger than me
NJINGA: this is my Christian marriage, take it or leave it
CHURCH: fine, as long as it happens in a church
Njinga also redoubled her efforts to have the church recognize her reign, sending letter after letter to the Vatican. Finally, in 1660, the Pope responded to her personally, calling her his daughter in Christ and saying that he would pray for her country to be prosperous and virtuous. Finally, Njinga had received recognition of her queenhood from an authority that the Portuguese would have to respect.
By the time of her death at the age of 81, Njinga had managed to achieve what she’d always longed for: a stable, independent nation no longer living under the threat of the Portuguese.
With this letter in hand, the queen set about her mission of converting her country with as much zeal as she had used for everything else in her life. She erected an enormous, European-style church in her new capital in Matamba, importing materials from across the country. She did her best to keep her promise to baptize the babies of Ndongo and Matamba, even though it was an uphill endeavor; in spite of Njinga’s new enthusiasm for Christianity, most of her subjects were (rightfully) wary of it. She also dedicated herself to learning the specifics of Catholic rites and lore. While some of this might seem as staged as her final ritual invoking her brother — especially given her former stated desire of preserving traditional Ndongo spiritual practices — her sincerity convinced many eyewitnesses, including Catholic priests.
By the time of her death at the age of 81, Njinga had managed to achieve what she’d always longed for: a stable, independent nation no longer living under the threat of the Portuguese. Shortly before she died in late 1663, she communicated exactly what she wanted to happen after her death: a Christian burial in a plain Capuchin habit with none of the traditional Ndongo funerary rites. She appointed an interim viceroy and pronounced her sister Barbara to be her successor. She had been queen for nearly four decades; she had been fighting for her nation’s sovereignty for even longer.
After she died, Njinga’s body was carefully washed by her attendants, who annointed it with herbs, perfume, and powders. Her hair was styled with corals, pearls, and feathers, and her crown was placed on her head. Her limbs were loaded down with jewellery and arrangements of elephant hair, a symbol of royalty. Her body was wrapped in two richly wrought brocade cloths, and velvet slippers were placed on her feet. Then, mindful of her instructions, her attendants replaced all of this with a habit, a crucifix, and a rosary (although they left her hair and crown as they were). This ceremonial dressing and re-dressing represented a middle ground between the two traditions Njinga had spent decades navigating.
News of Njinga’s death didn’t become public right away; her councillors worried that it would invoke mass panic. Njinga had ruled for so long and her fate seemed so tied up with that of Ndongo that most people couldn’t imagine a nation without her. When court officials finally did disclose the truth about her death, after they had first crowned Barbara to demonstrate their commitment to a peaceful transition of power, Njinga’s body was carried through the streets in a funeral procession. The crowds wailed and fell to the ground as she passed by, symbolically rubbing soil on themselves to show submission to their queen.
There are few monarchs in recorded history who are Njinga’s peers when it comes to longevity, skill, or achievement, yet she’s rarely included in Western lists of great kings and queens.
Njinga’s subjects were so adamant in their desire to partake in customary Ndongo funeral rites — the rites that they had grown up with and that they associated with sovereignty in the face of the Portuguese — that eventually Barbara and Njinga’s chief Capuchin priest gave in (on the condition that there be no “immodest” dances). Twenty thousand people showed up and had to be housed in a temporary village constructed in the city centre. The rites included a lengthy performance in which every aspect of the queen’s life was re-enacted, from her military triumphs to her renowned debating ability to humorous sketches about her strong personality. Many of the scenes ended with shouts of “Long live the queen, I am ready to give my life to defend her from her enemies!” The celebration of Njinga’s rule concluded with an opulent meal served by the new queen, Barbara.
There are few monarchs in recorded history who are Njinga’s peers when it comes to longevity, skill, or achievement, yet she’s rarely included in Western lists of great kings and queens. While she was able to enchant — or at least grudgingly impress — many people during her life, racism and misogyny soon began to distort her legacy in Europe. Father Cavazzi, an Italian priest who lived at her court, wrote a scathing biography of her that included some choice lines about her sexuality (“She was a sea of lust and had more concubines than the three most famous concubines in the world had lovers.”) Over the years, various white chroniclers wrote works about her that strayed further and further from the truth, describing her as a depraved, bloodthirsty despot who ate the hearts of her enemies. Even Njinga’s quick wits were considered suspect, too “masculine” to belong to a proper queen.
The Angolans kept the memory of Njinga’s brilliance alive, and in the tempestuous years that followed her death they passed her story from one generation to another. She was remembered as a great ruler, someone whose resilience, determination, and sheer genius had led her to succeed against all possible odds. By the time Angola wrested its independence from Portugal in 1975 — just over 400 years after Sebastian gave the order for its conquest — Njinga had become firmly entrenched as a symbol of independence and the Angolans referred to her as the Mother of the Nation. In 2002, a massive statue of her was unveiled in a public square in Luanda; it was later moved to the Museum of Armed Forces, where it still stands today. While it was still in public, the statue became a popular gathering spot, and newlyweds often posed for pictures in front of it, as they might with their actual parents. As in life, Njinga’s monument overshadows everything around it, her feet planted firmly and her face raised and defiant, ready to take on whatever comes next.
Long live the fucking queen!
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Queens of Infamy: Zenobia
Queens of Infamy: The Rise of Catherine de’ Medici
Queens of Infamy: The Reign of Catherine de’ Medici
Queens of Infamy: Joanna of Naples
Queens of Infamy: Anne Boleyn
Queens of Infamy: Eleanor of Aquitaine
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For further reading on Njinga:
Linda M. Heywood, Njinga of Angola: Africa’s Warrior Queen
Linda M. Heywood and John K. Thornton, Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585–1660
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Anne Thériault is a is a Toronto-based writer whose bylines can be found all over the internet, including at the Guardian, the London Review of Books and, obviously, Longreads. She truly believes that your favourite Tudor wife says more about you than your astrological sign. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats. You can find her on Twitter @anne_theriault.