Between 1623 and 1663, Nzinga Mbandi, the Muhongo Matamba of what is modern-day Angola, led her people in major revolts against the Portuguese and served alternately as a valuable ally and a fearsome enemy to neighboring kingdoms. Nzinga, who was also known as Jinga, Singa, and Zhinga, was an excellent military strategist.
Her sisters served as commanding officers in Nzinga’s army, which also included a number of other women warriors. Several women also served in Nzinga’s cabinet. Above all, Nzinga was a pragmatist who knew when to attack and when to ally herself with stronger forces.
The Muhongo Matamba was fiercely protective of her own territory, but she was also willing to suspend battling with neighboring monarchs over disputed territory when she deemed it necessary to join forces.
Despite her loyalty to her own people, Nzinga had no compunctions in advancing the slave trade by selling other Africans from remote areas. Nzinga unsuccessfully joined forces with the Dutch to try to oust the Portuguese from southern Africa.
In 1576, the Portuguese invaded Luanda, a remote but strategically important area of southern Africa, and began extending their reach into surrounding areas. Initially the Ngondo people repelled the Portuguese advance but were ultimately overwhelmed by brutal Imbangala warriors who attacked from the rear.
The Imbangala, like the Portuguese, viewed the Ngondo as an obstacle to establishing of a trade route on the coast and to the wealth generated by foreign trade. Over the following century, the Mdongo continued to lose ground, but the rise of Queen Nzinga in 1663 proved to be a turning point in the history of the area.
Using her gift for military strategizing that had been fostered by observing the military advances of her neighbors and the guns and gunpowder procured through her trading partners, Nzinga retreated from the contested area and traveled inland, where she laid claim to Matamba, which was in a vulnerable state after the death of its sovereign.
In Matamba, Nzinga founded a new state and extended her territory into nearby Luanda in the Kongo. She subsequently announced ownership of ngola a kiluanji, but the right to rule both this area and Luanda continued to be hotly contested.
Nzinga developed Matamba as a major trading center, focused on long-distance slave trading. To cut down on competition, she also blocked the trading route that had developed in Kasanji in Luanda.
In the past, Queen Nzinga had paid tribute to the Kongo kingdom in exchange for European goods. By the end of the 16th century, however, Nzinga broke all ties with the Kongo and began exchanging gifts with ngola a kiluanji out of her desire to establish a more direct slave-trading route to the coast.
At the same time, Nzinga gave the kambole, her chief consort, permission to launch a series of campaigns that broadened the reach of her kingdom. In response to a new conflict between Luanda and ngola a kiluanji, the ever-practical Nzinga chose to support ngola a kiluanji.
Her support included dispatching her considerable forces to Mbaka, where they succeeded in routing the Portuguese. By 1591, Nzinga and ngola a kiluanji had strengthened their position against the Portuguese by joining forces with Caculo, a neighboring warlord.
However, as the war progressed, Nzinga determined that her interests were better served by selling slaves directly to the Portuguese via the chiefdom of Ndembu. By 1641, Nzinga was exporting 12,000–13,000 slaves a year. She also became extremely adept at siphoning off slaves bound for other trading routes.
Dutch and Portuguese Deals
In 1641, Nzinga joined forces with Garcia II, who had declared himself the king of Luanda, and with other neighboring kingdoms to repel a Dutch invasion. Over the course of the next year, however, Garcia decided that the Portuguese constituted a greater threat to independence and determined to oust them by allying himself with the invaders.
Ultimately, however, the Dutch undercut Garcia and his African allies by negotiating a treaty with Portugal. This treaty fell apart after several local revolts broke out, but the Dutch continued to seek cooperation with Portugal, which controlled essential access to slave trading routes.
As long as the Dutch had controlled Luanda, Nzinga’s slave-trading route had been blocked, despite repeated efforts to establish trading relations with the Europeans. Consequently, Nzinga again allied herself with Garcia, even though both claimed ownership of Matamba and ngola a kiluanji. In fall 1643, in an effort to bypass the Portuguese blockade of her slave trade, Nzinga led a troop of some 80,000 bowmen into the Kongo kingdom along the upper Dande.
With the aid of the Ndembu and 100 Dutch troops, Nzinga overwhelmed the Kiteshi Kandambi, who attempted to stop her. Aghast at her encroachment, Garcia lobbied the Dutch for help in preventing Nzinga from laying claim to additional territory. Ultimately, however, he came to believe that Nzinga’s goodwill was more important than that of the Dutch, who had signed a new treaty with the Portuguese.
In 1645, Nzinga’s forces were defeated by the Portuguese, who followed up their triumph by invading Luanda. Queen Nzinga subsequently announced that she was old and tired of making war. She set out to rescue Barbara, her sister and heir, who had been imprisoned in Luanda. Nzinga’s efforts to negotiate her sister’s release were unsuccessful, and she threatened to settle the issue by military force.
Instead, a shaky alliance was negotiated. Twice over the next few years, Nzinga further extended her territory by invading neighboring kingdoms and enslaving their inhabitants. She died three years later at the age of 83.