Nzinga Mbande, Mother of Angola (1583-1663)

Here’s another one of my favorite Rejected Princesses – Nzinga Mbande, 17th-century queen of what is now Angola. 

She began her political life as her nation of Ndongo was fighting off a Portuguese invasion. Her brother, a by-all-accounts wimp, seemingly could not bend over backwards far enough for the Portuguese, and once he ascended to the throne, the Portuguese just tossed him in jail and took over. Nzinga approached the Portuguese and demanded her brother’s return and that they leave Ndongo. At their meeting, in a sign of disrespect, the Portuguese offered her no chair to sit in, instead providing merely a floor mat fit for servants.

In response, Nzinga ordered one of her servants to get on all fours, sitting on her as she would a chair. After the negotiations concluded, according to some accounts (more on that later), she slit her throat in full view of everyone, and informed them that the Queen of Ndongo does not use the same chair twice. Shortly thereafter, the Portuguese agreed to let her brother go.

With her brother now safely back home, she is said (again, more on that later) to have murdered him in his sleep, killed her brother’s son, and assumed the throne herself - because if you’re going to do something right, you better do it yourself. From there, she moved south, started a new country, conquered the infamous ruthless cannibal tribe known as the Jaga, began offering sanctuary to runaway slaves and defector soldiers, and waged war on the Portuguese for THIRTY FIVE YEARS. 

Now, you may have noticed that I have repeatedly used words like “supposedly” and “according to some accounts.” As with many powerful historical women (as you’ll come to see as you read more of these entries), her story is a mixture of fact and fiction, with the two difficult to separate. That she met with the Portuguese and that she sat on her servant’s back is generally agreed by historians to be accurate. Furthermore, there is no doubt that she was a thorn in the side of the Portuguese, that she founded a new nation, or that she was a great leader.

Where it begins to fall to suspicion is in the more salacious rumors. While some report that she murdered her brother, others report that her brother committed suicide. Her slitting the servant girl’s neck and proclaiming her need for one-use chairs is likely hyperbole. Other outlandish rumors, to be taken with a brick of salt, include:

  • After killing her brother’s family, she ate their hearts to absorb their courage.
  • As a pre-battle ritual, she decapitated slaves and drank their blood.
  • She maintained a 60-man-strong harem throughout her life – this one, best I can tell, is more regarded as true than most of the others.
  • The men in her harem would fight each other to the death for the right to share her bed for the night. This one is more doubtful.
  • She also apparently dressed some of them like women.
  • Conversely, she staffed her army with a large number of women warriors.

It is difficult to determine how much of this is fact and how much fiction – it is entirely possible that she stirred up some of this as her own PR in the war against Portugal, and it is entirely possible some of it was a smear campaign by her enemies. Based off my (ongoing) research, a lot seems to stem from a book called Zingha, Reine d'Angola by Jean-Louis Castilhon. The book is in French, though, and I haven’t been able to find much English-language information on it yet.

Anyways, after decades of killing the Portuguese (both militarily and economically, cutting off their trade routes), they eventually threw their hands up and negotiated a peace treaty. She died several years afterwards, at the ripe old age of eighty-one. There are statues of her all over Angola to this day.


Many people have (rightfully) been clamoring for citations on some of the more outlandish rumors here. I’ve wanted to hold off until I got to the actual origin of some of them, but I’ll release now what I have.

  • The at-the-time rumors about her seem to have largely stemmed from a Dutch captain named Fuller, who claimed he saw her dance wildly, stick a feather in her nose, decapitate a sacrificial victim, and drink “a great draught of his blood.” He nevertheless respected her greatly and described her as “generously valiant.” An excerpt from his notes can be found in Battle Cries and Lullabies: Women in War from Prehistory to the Present by Linda Grant de Pauw.
  • The rumors that she killed her brother, nephew, had a great harem, dressed them like women, and practiced cannibalism can be found in A Military History of Africa by Timothy J Stapleton (as well as many other books).
  • The rumors of her killing the slave whom she had used as a chair, proclaiming that she never used the same chair twice, that she killed her kin and ate them, and that she killed members of her harem can be found in Women Warriors by Rosalind Miles and Robin Cross.
  • I reached out to Robin Cross and Rosalind Miles for help in further research – as I don’t have physical access to Women Warriors, and I can’t check its bibliography online. Mr. Cross wrote me back suggesting I look up Portuguese Africa by Ronald Chilcote (1959).
  • I tracked down Portuguese Africa, and it has no reference to the slitting-throat legend (although the sitting-on-servant one is represented). I reached out to Mr. Cross again, but have yet to hear back.
  • In the meanwhile, I picked up another book by Cross and Miles, Hell Hath No Fury: True Profiles of Women at War from Antiquity to Iraq, which repeats the throat-slitting legend, but provides no bibliography other than Chilcote's Portuguese Africa.
  • I’ve also found the throat-slitting legend repeated in Antonia Fraser’s The Warrior Queens, but with no specific source. At this point, worrying this is something I won’t be able to get to the bottom of.
  • I have also reached out to a scholar who is currently writing a book on Nzinga for help in uncovering additional sources of the rumors about her.
  • I will continue to update this entry as I am able to uncover more reliable information about her.

Art notes:

  • Her outfit and axe are derived directly from one of the statues around Angola.
  • The servant she used as a chair was female, not male. I realized this after the fact. Eep!
  • She’s wiping a bit of something red from her mouth as a reference to the blood-ingesting legends.

Differential Gender Expression and the Life of Colonial Resistance Leader, Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba (1581-1663)

[Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba, Image via Stream Africa]

In the spirit of Black History Month, I find it crucial to not only acknowledge the history of African resistance against white domination, but to also challenge heterosexist narratives of our resistance fighters. When we think of our resistance leaders, it is almost always through a Western lens that assumes Western notions of a gender binary and sexuality. We forget the rich history of our African societies, which were host to countless precolonial understandings of sexualities and gender- and this is a part of our history that has been deliberately erased through long centuries of colonization. Looking at some of the stories of our leaders throughout history can allow us to break out of this colonial mold and reclaim the rich history of gender and sexuality on the African continent.

The Story of Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba

The Mbundu, like many other precolonial African societies, were matrilineal, so Nzinga’s position as ngola (king) was not unusual. After becoming ngola, she organized a guerrilla army which successfully fought the Portuguese for almost 4 decades. 

[Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba negotiating with the Portuguese governor, Correa de Sousa. 1687 engraving by Fortunato da Alemandini after a water color by Giovanni Cavazzi. Image via Qualia Folk]

One example which may surprise some is the story of Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba. Nzinga is a renowned figure in the history of African resistance against European colonization. Nzinga was born in the 16th century in the Ndongo kingdom of the Mbundu in modern-day Angola. The kingdom was facing an existential threat at the time, as Portuguese incursion into their lands increased and they demanded that the Ndongo capitulate and accept vassal status. In a famous story about her life, when meeting with the Portuguese governor, Nzinga was refused a chair and given a  floor mat to sit on during negotiations. Refusing to be degraded in that way, she ordered one of her servants to get on the floor and she sat on the servant’s back during negotiations- see above (x). 

After the suicide of her brother, the ngola (king), she became ngola herself and rumored to have ordered the murder of his son to prevent him from claiming his father’s title. 

It’s also important to note that her people, the Mbundu, like many other precolonial African societies, were matrilineal, so Nzinga’s position as ngola was not unusual. After becoming ngola, she organized a guerrilla army which successfully fought the Portuguese for almost 4 decades. She fought the Portuguese well into her 60s, and is still remembered and commemorated in modern-day Angola to this day.

Nzinga was a “King” and not a “Queen”

As ngola, Nzinga was not “queen” but “king” of her people. She ruled dressed as a man, surrounded by a harem of young men who dressed as women and were her “wives.” (Boy Wives and Female Husbands, 1)

[A portrait drawing of Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba. This portrait emphasizes a gentle femininty for Nzinga, which other historical accounts of her gender expression dispute. Image via Wiki]

Despite the modern day conception of Nzinga as a “Queen” of her people, she was not “queen” but ngola. Her title as ngola is likely more accurately described as “king” and not “queen,” as shown in accounts below.

As described by Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe in Boy Wives and Female Husbands:

In the late 1640s, a Dutch military attache observed firsthand what must have struck him as the strange organization of her court. As ngola, Nzinga was not “queen” but “king” of her people. She ruled dressed as a man, surrounded by a harem of young men who dressed as women and were her “wives.” ( Boy Wives and Female Husbands, 1)

And Nzinga’s behavior “was not some personal idiosyncrasy but was based on beliefs that recognized gender as situational and symbolic as much as a personal, innate characteristic of the individual” ( Boy Wives and Female Husbands, 2). Effectively, as ngola, or “king,” Nzinga’s gender expression reflected that position in her society, and this was not unusual since gender was also seen as situational and symbolic. 

Alternative Gender Roles, Sexualities and Expression in the Region were not Unusual

In 1625, a Jesuit priest in the Luanda region (within Nzinga’s kingdom) described the presence of “Men attyred like Women, and behave themselves womanly, ashamed to be called men; are also married to men, and esteeme that unnatural damnation an honor”

[A modern portrait of Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba. Image via Queen Nzinga]

In addition to Nzinga’s gender expression which befuddled contemporary western observers, at the time among groups in the Kongo and Ndonga kingdoms (within which her kindgom lay) there is documented evidence of at least one alternative gender role. Andrew Battle, an English prisoner of the Portuguese in the 1580s, spoke about the presence of “men in women’s apparel, whom they keep among their wives” among indigenous people of the Dombe area (qtd. in Boy Wives and Female Husbands, 2). Battle was utterly disgusted by this alternative gender role and described the people of the Dombe area as “beastly in their living” for having it. 

In 1625 Portuguese Jesuit João dos Santos would echo the reports of Battle about an alternative gender role expressed in the region. Reporting from the area of Luanda, within Nzinga’s kingdom, he described the presence of “Men attyred like Women, and behave themselves womanly, ashamed to be called men; are also married to men, and esteeme that unnatural damnation an honor” (qtd. in Boy Wives and Females Husbands, 147). 

A 1680 account from another priest, Cardonega, would state that “sodomy is rampant among the people of Angola,” and that  “they pursue their impudent and filthy practices dressed as women.” Moreover some of these people were regarded as “powerful wizards, who are most esteemed by most Angolans.” (qtd. in Boy Wives and Females Husbands, 147). Numerous other accounts from the time echo these reports as well. 

[A statue commemorating Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba today in Angola. Image via Miss Zeee]

These accounts show just how common, widespread and varied these alternative gender roles, forms of gender expression and ideas of sexuality were in Nzinga’s region at the time. When you take a step back and take stock of this incredible diversity, suddenly Nzinga’s position as ngola wearing “men’s clothing” and with a harem composed of young men dressed as women, does not seem so unusual after all. Moreover beyond Nzinga’s life and kingdom, there are well over a dozen documented African societies which did not adhere to Western heterosexist notions of gender and sexuality (Boy Wives and Female Husbands, xix). 

Nzinga’s story is therefore not only remarkable for her incredible courage and valor in her fight for her people against European domination, but also for how it illustrates just how different precolonial African conceptions of gender and sexuality were in so many cultures. And on the first day of Black History Month, we must not only give homage to our storied history of resistance as a people, but also to the incredible wealth of our cultures’ understandings of gender and sexuality.  For these individuals not only challenged white colonial domination, but continue to challenge our current Western perspectives on gender and sexuality as well. 

Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamb was a 17th century queen of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms of the Mbundu people in southwestern Africa.

A legendary figure in history, Nzinga was born with her umbilical cord around her neck and survived. It was a belief that these children would grow up to be proud, haughty, and headstrong individuals. It was predicted by a wise woman that Nzinga would one day become a queen. She was favored by her father and he would let her observe the workings of his kingdom and how to govern his people. He would bring her along into battle to learn war, politics, and defense first hand. 

Once she had come to power she met face-to-face with European invaders and worked tirelessly to stop the slave trades in her kingdom and was successful on some occasions. Being such a bold and no-nonsense “heathen” woman, she struck fear into the hearts of her enemies at the time. 

One of the most famous stories involves a Portuguese governor insisting she sit on a mat at his feet rather than in a chair to discuss a treaty. She would not tolerate being treated like a subordinate, so she ordered one of her servants to get down on all fours so she could sit down on his back and be eye-to-eye, thus equal to the governor. 

This story led to more stories of her owning a large male harem, watching the men fight to the death to spend the night with her, only to have the winner killed the next morning. Lastly, she supposedly indulged in cannibalism to intimidate neighboring tribes and potential enemies.

As she fell from power without an heir to her throne, she still worked to resettle former slaves and give women back the right to bear children. Though many had attempted to dethrone her, she died peacefully at age 80 and her legacy still lives on.

Today, she is remembered in Angola for her political and diplomatic acumen, great wit and intelligence, as well as her brilliant military tactics. In time, Portugal and most of Europe would come to respect her. A major street in Luanda is named after her, and a statue of her was placed in Kinaxixi on an impressive square. Angolan women are often married near the statue, especially on Thursdays and Fridays.

Queen Nzinga, or Jinga, was the main leader of the resistance against the portuguese presence in Angola in the XVIIth century. Besides sheltering hundreds of runaway slaves, she stopped fairs and disorganized tax collection. If you wantknow more, check Mariana Bracks Fonsecas’s dissertation (in portuguese).

[image text]: “Nzinga Mbandi, by taking control of the Jagas, showed that women were capable of carrying weapons and going to the battlefield, therefore promoting a new social place for women in that society”.

If you are interested in prints, mail me at
#africa #angola #nzingambandi #nzinga #africanqueen #women

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One of the great women rulers of Africa, Queen Anna Nzinga of Angola fought against the slave trade and European influence in the seventeenth century.Known for being an astute diplomat and visionary military leader, she resisted Portuguese invasion and slave raids for 30 years. Nzingha was of Angolan descent and is known as a symbol of inspiration for people everywhere.  She was a member of the ethnic Jagas a militant group that formed a human shield against the Portuguese slave traders. As a visionary political leader, competent, and self sacrificing she was completely devoted to the resistance movement. She formed alliances with other foreign powers pitting them against one another to free Angola of European influence. She possessed both masculine hardness and feminine charm and used them both depending on the situation. She even used religion as a political tool when it suited her. Her death on December 17, 1663 helped open the door for the massive Portuguese slave trade. Yet her struggle helped awaken others that followed her and forced them to mount offensives against the invaders. These include Madame Tinubu of Nigeria; Nandi, the mother of the great Zulu warrior Chaka; Kaipkire of the Herero people of South West Africa; and the female army that followed the Dahomian King, Behanzin Bowelle.

McKissack, P, C. (2000)  Nzingha: Warrior Queen of Matamba, Angola, Africa, 1595. Scholastic Inc.


Njinga, queen of Angola.

Finally, a film about Africans that is focused on a historical, powerful female ruler, rather than just about the horrors of slavery.

The Nzinga Effect, (is) a digital platform and annual gathering to celebrate African women’s stories. Named after Nzinga Mbandi, a 17th-century queen in what is now Angola, who managed to escape the “warrior queen” box that African women leaders in history are traditionally put in. Here was a woman who was fierce, yes, but she was also multilingual, a strategist and a diplomat. Reading Nzinga’s story inspired me and I began to wonder: how would the narrative about Africa and its place in the world change if we knew more Nzingas? How would knowing our stories change us as women? We’ll soon find out – the site goes live in June.

A queen regnant  is a female monarch who reigns in her own right, in contrast to a queen consort, who is the wife of a reigning king, or a queen regent, who is the guardian of a child monarch reigning temporarily in their stead. An empress regnant is a female monarch who reigns in her own right over an empire.

Twosret: Pharaoh of Egypt from 1191 BC – 1189 BC

Artemisia II: Satrap of Caria from 353 BC - 351 BC

Wu-Zetian: Empress of China from 690 - 705

Nzinga: Queen of Ndongo and Matamba from 1624 - 1663

Maria Theresa: Ruler of the Habsburg Dominions from 1740 - 1780

Ranavalona I: Queen of Madagascar from 1828 - 1861

Isabella II: Queen of Spain from 1833 - 1868

Wilhelmina: Queen of the Netherlands from 1890 - 1948

Zewditu: Empress of Ethiopia from 1916 - 1930

Elizabeth II: Queen of the United Kingdom from 1952 - Present

30 Days of Women in History II (no-Europeans)

Day 13. A female de-facto leader you admire (regents or otherwise)
Queen Njinga Mbande

A famous heroine of the Mbande people (Angola), she became an inspiration for other African women who fought against the slave traders.  She is still known for her confidence, wit and intelligence. Helping former slaves resettle and build a new life, she is also known for her kindness. Her death in 1663 marked the beginning of more intense slave-raiding.


Recently, an article about the history of Nzinga, woman ruler of Angola, has surfaced and is circulating around Facebook.

Now, while I am happy to see Nzinga recognized, every time I see it I cringe.


Because, the posters of that article scream “The mighty Queen Nzinga!” or “Warrior-Queen Nzinga!” or“Another great African Queen: Nzinga!” or, simply“Queen Nzinga!”


Nzinga was never a queen people!

No African woman ever was.

That’s right. I said it. Now, read on!

via NO QUEENS IN AFRIKA: Women Rulers in Sword & Soul and other African-Inspired Fantasy

Queen Nzinga

I recently mentioned my love for the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast. While listening to a new episode this week, I learned about a really amazing person, who I wanted to share with all of you.

She is a little out of our time period (born in around 1583), but she is a kick-ass female ruler.

Nzinga Mbande was born in what is now Angola, but was then Ndongo. Her father was a king and her mother was a slave.

Portugal was trying to maintain its hold on the slave trade as it jockeyed with France and England. As such, the Portuguese tried to make a deal with the Ndongo people – essentially a “give us slaves or we’ll make you slaves” sort of deal.

As an adult Nzinga, on behalf of her brother the king, met with the Portugues several times, trying to broker treaties. Nzinga and her brother’s ultimate goal was to have the Portuguese leave their kingdom.

In 1622, Nzinga met with the Portuguese envoy, to once again discuss a peace treaty. Hoping to gain the upper hand, the Portuguese governor did not provide a chair for her; he intended to humiliate her by having her sit on the floor. Nzinga realized what was going on and ordered one of her servants on her hands and knees. Nzinga then conducted business while sitting on her human chair.

The talks, however, seemed successful. Nzinga even converted to Christianity to help seal the deal, naming herself Anna (also Ana and Ann) after the governor’s wife. Unfortunately, the Portuguese did not keep their end of the deal, which was to leave and return the people they had taken as slaves.

In 1626, her brother died (my internet sources say suicide, the podcast said “mysterious circumstances”). She first took control as regent for her nephew, but ultimately took control for herself, becoming queen. In the meantime, she raised an army and conquered the kingdom of Matamba. She allied herself with the Dutch, playing them off the Portuguese. Nzinga and the Dutch defeated the Portuguese in 1647, but were then defeated the following year. She immediately got to work on a resistance movement.

She often led her warriors herself, wearing a sword around her neck. Her sisters fought as well, as did other women. On the podcast, the hosts mentioned that she kept a male harem and used the title “king,” not “queen.”

In 1657, she finally signed another treaty with the Portuguese, partly so that she could restore her kingdom. She died at age eighty in 1663.