During her lifetime, Njinga’s notoriety spread to Europe through the books of the Catholic Brothers who came from Rome to minister to her and her people. After her death, her life and actions were remembered in both the official written accounts of the Portuguese and the oral traditions and rituals of Angolans.
Njinga’s history also survived in the Americas among the descendants of the slaves she sent there. As folk culture in Brazil spread from the Northeast (Bahia, Recife and Pernambuco, where the majority of Africans were settled during Njinga’s day) to Rio, Minas Gerais and other regions, Njinga’s name surfaced. Today there is not a Brazilian community that does not celebrate popular folk festivals originating from the descendants of Angolan captives.
Every year Brazilians in these communities elect a King of Kongo and a Queen Njinga. She remains the only named African ruler identified in these popular and elaborate folk dramas. Her presence as a cultural symbol is national. Groups continue to dedicate floats and sing praises to Queen Njinga during the Rio Carnival.
In 2013 the Angolan government commemorated the 350th anniversary of Njinga’s death. Angolans consider Njinga a national hero for her staunchly independent spirit and leadership in the 17th century. The events the Ministry of Culture put on included book launches, museum exhibits, the premiere of the film Njinga: Rainha de Angola (Njinga: Queen of Angola) and two international symposia. UNESCO supported the symposia as well as celebrations in Brazil.
The story of Njinga, immortalized even before her death, and her bold and courageous struggle against oppression and conquest shows her to be a truly global ruler whose legacy, like that of her near-contemporary Queen Elizabeth I of England, continues to impact society and culture today.
Linda Heywood is a professor of history and African-American studies at Boston University. She has authored and co-authored several works on Africans in Angola and the Americas. She has just completed the only modern historical biography of Queen Njinga.