For centuries, black Brazilians and Portuguese descendants of Africa around the globe have danced and sung in celebration of a woman known as Queen Njinga. Their Angolan ancestors carried her name from the African colony of Angola, where today she is revered as one of the 25 most important women in the history of the continent.
The Angolan government, 350 years after Queen Njinga’s death, is commemorating her life and her legacy as a revered freedom fighter of the 17th century. And the world will finally hear the story of this extraordinary woman who stood up in the face of European colonization.
Born in early 1582 to Mbandi a Ngola Kiluanji, the king of Ndongo, in Angola, Njinga was the second of four children by Kiluanji’s favorite concubine. Her birth occurred a mere seven years after Portuguese invaders had begun their conquest of her grandfather’s kingdom.
In fact, the very year she was born, Portuguese troops arrived at the royal capital, and the entire royal household had to flee to one of the several capitals. Njinga spent her childhood and teenage years watching Portuguese invaders devastate her homeland. As a young woman, she joined the resistance and fought alongside her nation’s troops.
Meanwhile, the Portuguese had enslaved hundreds of thousands of royal serfs and free villagers who labored in Portuguese Angola, working in the homes, convents and farms that Portuguese priests and settlers built along the fertile banks of the major rivers. Ndongo’s subjects not lucky enough to toil in slavery inside Portugal’s sphere of influence were sent across the Atlantic to work in the New World.
In 1622, at the age of 40, Njinga appeared in Luanda to negotiate a peace treaty. She traveled 70 miles from the capital of Ndongo to Luanda, which the Portuguese had carved out from Ndongo territory and made their capital. Njinga headed a diplomatic mission on behalf of her brother, who was then king, even though she envied him and harbored an intense and violent sibling rivalry. In Luanda she was bent on promoting her own cause.
At the first meeting with the Portuguese governor, she entered the audience hall dressed in African robes, followed by a train of servants. Rejecting the governor’s offer of a carpet that had been placed on the floor, as was the custom when dealing with conquered Africans, Njinga simply ignored him. Instead she commanded one of the servants to kneel on all fours, and throughout the long and ultimately successful negotiations, she used the servant as a human chair.
Njinga’s public defiance stemmed from her desire to restore Ndongo to its former dominance and autonomy. In 1627, three years after she became queen, a Portuguese official exasperatedly wrote. “This valorous king as they called her, and Queen because she is a woman, wanted to finish us off, send against us those who loved and respected her as their God.”
From 1624 until her death in 1663, Njinga outmaneuvered 10 Portuguese governors. She sold some 200,000 slaves to the Portuguese, many of whom were captured in her wars with neighbors. Njinga’s slave trading made her little different from her European and African counterparts.
Her sexuality set her apart from them. The Portuguese regarded her as a bisexual woman long before that term ever entered the languages of the Europeans with whom she had trade and diplomatic relations. She scandalized them with the male and female concubines she kept openly, married many husbands, dressed as a man and insisted on being addressed as “king” and not “queen.” Yet when she died on Dec. 17, 1663, at age 81, she was a devout Christian and was already a legend among her people.
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.