The slave trade. European kidnapping and murder of millions of Africans over hundreds of years. But one woman fought to save her people from such a fate.
Queen Nzingha of Ndongo.
She was a member of the Mbundu, an ancient ethnic group that lived in modern-day Angola. The Mbundu were made up of clans descended from bloodlines traced through the mother’s side of the family.
Nzingha was born in 1582. Her father was Ndambi Kiluanji, the ngola, or king, of the Ndongo tribe and territories. Her mother was Kiluanji, one of several of the king’s wives.
Nzingha grew up to be a great athlete and highly intelligent. The only problem is that she was a female and that her mother Kiluanji had been brought to the king as a slave, and therefore did not have royal blood. In a matrilineal society, one’s mother’s history mattered, and for Nzingha, her mother’s past as a slave was a hindrance to her chances to rule. But nevertheless, she was educated in the fields of hunting and archery and in the skills of diplomacy and trade.
The Portuguese slave traders tried to destroy the Mbundu culture. In the 1400s, Portuguese traders set up ports along the African coast, such as Luanda, a city meant solely as a center of the slave trade. The Portuguese goal for centuries was to capture Mbundu people to sell and ship off to the New World. Starting in the 15th century, the Portuguese set out to capture and enslave as many Mbundu people as they could. Some Mbundu tribes made deals and alliances with the Portuguese, but Nzingha’s father Kiluanji refused to make such a bargain. He wanted to protect his people. And because of this, the Portuguese advanced into Ndongo territory. Thousands of the Ndongo people were captured, and Kiluanji led his people into war with the foreigners.
Nzingha’s brother Mbandi rose to power at the death of their father and proved to be a useless king. With the Ndongo now essentially leaderless, the Portuguese attacked the Mbundu’s main city of Kabasa and burned it to the ground. Nzingha fled to the mountains with her people and organized an army to fight back.
In 1624, 42-year-old Nzingha led her people back to take control of their homeland. Nzingha was declared Ngola Kiluanji — leader of the Mbundu of Ndongo. The Mbundu had never had a female in charge of their government, but Nzingha proved more than capable.
For forty years, Nzingha led her people into battles against the Portuguese from the slopes of the mountainous Matamba region. Her sisters were captured during a battle, but with the help of slaves in the port of Luanda, they escaped from slavery.
Nzingha was never able to return to the ruins of Kabasa, and many remember her as the “Queen of Matamba,” because she ruled from the Matamba mountains and countryside, never from the Ndongo territory.
When she died in 1663 at age 82, her sister Mukambu took over leadership of the Mbundu people. Nzingha was laid to rest in leopard skins and with her bow over her shoulder and arrows in her hand.
Her death created a vacuum of leadership, and opened the door for the massive Portuguese slave trade in the region of modern-day Angola. But for forty years, she and her people fought back — fought back against oppression and kidnapping and the terrors of the slave trade. She should be remembered for her efforts, for the lives she saved, and for the hope she gave to her people.