According to Dr Iyabode Omolara Akewo Daniel, international scholar of the English language and Associate Professor of English, African women have been historically viewed as powerful and politically relevant. Furthermore, she has argued that African women have been more powerful and politically relevant than their western counterparts. What has changed over the past few centuries that resulted in the displacement of African female power? What factors contributed to African women becoming disempowered, needing to fight for empowerment alongside western women?
This article profile is part of a series relating to African queens, rulers or important female figures in both ancient and contemporary times, in order open up a discussion of women empowerment in Africa.
Ruthless, cunning and powerful. Words not commonly used to describe female rulers, who in general are praised more for their diplomatic abilities. However, there are no better words to describe Angola’s legendary warrior Queen, Nzinga.
Born circa 1583 to Ndambi Kiluanji, Ngola (King) of the Mbundu and Ndongo people and his second wife Kangela, Nzinga grew up in a kingdom under constant threat from Portuguese attempts at colonization. However, it seems that Nzinga was fated since birth to make her mark in the country’s history. In accordance with tradition, Nzinga received her name as her umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck at birth. This may be concerning to many new parents. However, in pre-colonial Angola, it was seen as an indication of someone who is wise and proud.
Following this, a wise woman prophesied that Nzinga would become queen one day. At the time this prediction may have seemed scarcely credible, as her brother, Mbandi, was expected to be the next Ngola. Regardless, accounts of her life claim that Nzinga was favoured by her father, who groomed her to be a true politician. Growing up the daughter of a King, Nzinga was trained as a warrior, and educated in fields of diplomacy, archery, hunting and trade.
The skills and education acquired by Nzinga would prove to be of utmost importance for the future of the country. While the Portuguese were the first pioneers of the Atlantic slave trade, their position was slowly being threatened by the growing powers of England and France. In order to consolidate their position of power, the Portuguese sought to shift their slave trading activities to the Congo and Angola. However, as is the norm with colonial history, the Portuguese fort and settlement in Luanda encroached upon the territory Angolan kingdom resulting in growing tension between the two.
As expected, Nzinga’s brother, Mbandi, was named successor of the throne while Nzinga served as Ndongo’s chief diplomat. As Ngola, Mbandi attempted an unsuccessful revolt against the Portuguese. Following this defeat, Mbandi sent his sister to Luanda as an emissary in a peace treaty meeting with the Portuguese Governor, Joao Corria de Sousa.
This meeting proved to be significant for various reasons. Firstly, it is the first time Nzinga is referred to in the historical records (or rather western historical records). Secondly, the interaction between the governor and Nzinga reveals the dynamics and interactions of race, power and gender at the time. Not only is Nzinga African, but she is also a woman. Regardless of her position of power in her own kingdom, she still needed to establish her equality with the Portuguese governor in order to be taken seriously.
As the story goes, Nzinga surprised the delegates who were taken aback by her confidence and self-assurance. This was not how civilised (European) women were expected to act. During the meeting, the governor attempted to undermine her power, by seating himself on a chair and providing her with a floor mat to sit on (in Mbundu custom this form of seating was only appropriate for subordinates). Unperturbed and unwilling to be degraded as such, Nzinga ordered her servant to get on the ground so that she may sit on their back during the negotiations.
The meeting resulted in a treaty on equal terms and Nzinga made further accommodations to the Portuguese by converting to Christianity. However, many were sceptical of Nzinga’s conversion to Christianity. Certainly, Nzinga did not take up the behaviour of a demure and devout Christian woman, and her affairs with both men and women were considered indecent by the colonial settlers. Regardless, the truce between the two parties would not last very long.
In 1626 Nzinga was named as queen after the death of her brother. The Portuguese took advantage of the momentary weakness following the regime change by attacking the capital of the Mbundu kingdom. As a result, Nzinga was forced to retreat to the mountains with her people. Despite the setback, Nzinga refused to allow the Portuguese to control her kingdom. What follows next sounds like the premise of an African game of thrones.
In her exile, Nzinga joined the Imbangala, a violent warrior belief system that worshipped death, mayhem and war. During this time, Nzinga proved her worth as a leader and a warrior by strengthening her army, exploiting European rivalries by aligning herself with the Dutch and creating a network of allies in order to revolt against the Portuguese, initiating a 30 year war against them. Even in her 60s, Nzinga continued to lead her troops into battle and orchestrated guerrilla attacks on the Portuguese forces. These attacks continued long after her death and inspired the 20th century resistance against the Portuguese which resulted in the independence of Angola in 1975.
The legacy of Nzinga is not without controversy. However, it is undeniable that she was one of the most multifaceted rulers in history, with military prowess and political cunning that could rival well known western female rulers such as Catherine the great and Elizabeth I. Why is it then that this 17th century power figure is largely unknown in the western world? Historically speaking, European women of power were the expectation rather than the rule and modern feminists praise these women for their accomplishments. Yet, the tales of women like Nzinga are excluded from the narratives of female empowerment.
The few western accounts depicting the life of Nzinga paint her as an exceptional figure, who managed to break gender norms in a world where ‘women were subjugated by men’. However, according to Daniel (2016) we need to be more critical of western narratives regarding the oppressed African woman. Was Nzinga an exception of the female gender roles in Africa, or was she a representation of it? Could it be that western accounts of Nzinga view her as an exception to other African women the same way women such as Catherine the great were regarded as exceptions of European woman?
Certainly, the accounts of her life characterise her as strong and independent, and her relationships with both men and women hint toward the fluid nature of sexuality in pre-colonial Africa. While western education concerning African queens may be limited, in modern Angola, Nzinga is celebrated as a national heroine, and her complex legacy continues to live on in the collective memory of the Afro-Atlantic world.
Reference: Iyabode Omolara Akewo Daniel. (2016). How Did We Get Here? A Historical Profile of the African Woman. Gender & Behaviour 14(3), 7693-7710.