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.



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.

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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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.

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

18 Phenomenal African Feminists to Know and Celebrate

What is African Feminism? Many feminists from around the world have contested the idea of whether modern conceptions of feminism are African or un-African. Indeed, feminism has existed in Africa since the times of Queen Nzinga of what is now Mozambique and Yaa Asantewaa of Ghana. 

These women have inspired contemporary African feminists, who have contributed significantly to feminism in various ways—whether it be through art, music, writing, policy. They have been committed to bringing the voices of African women into the spaces that they work within, and they are indeed change-makers—not only on the African continent, but also throughout the African Diaspora. As Women’s History Month comes to a close, we must take the time to celebrate the African Feminists you should know.”

See the full list here

Seee more African feminism posts:

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.

Nzinga Of Ndongo And Matamba was born in what is now Angola in 1583. By the time her father died in 1618, the Portuguese were slave-trading their way all over Africa. Nzinga’s brother took over as leader, but he gave the invaders everything they wanted. When the Portuguese started ripping people from their homes and sending them to be worked to death in Brazil, the Mbundu tribe turned to Nzinga to save them. So she did what a kickass lady needed to do: She had her brother killed and took over. Then she started fighting back. This was insane, since Portugal was one of the world’s biggest powers, but she led her armies in guerrilla warfare and held them off for 40 years.”

-Kathy Benjamin for