Ngola Njinga of Ndongo and Matamba pt. 2: Gender, Performance, and Power in the Atlantic World

Though she now knew the Portuguese to be her enemies, Njinga was shrewd enough to understand that Europeans and their perception of her were as important to her hold on the throne as Mbundu perceptions.

She was always aware of the fact–in the eyes of both the Europeans and the Mbundu–that her power was undermined by her gender. To offset these attitudes, Njinga refused to be addressed as queen, answering only to the title of king. She required her male consorts to present themselves as women, and she trained her ladies-in-waiting as warriors.

This subversion of gender norms did not extend to her wardrobe. Though she understood that some presentation of maleness would help to secure her rule, she also realized that she had to present herself to the Europeans in a manner with which they were comfortable in order to gain their respect. Thus, she often dressed in the high style of Baroque Europe, employing a team of seamstresses to keep her wardrobe in-line with European fashions. She was fluent in spoken and written Portuguese, and wore a crown similar to those worn by European monarchs.

As she constructed a self which would appear worthy of respect to both the Europeans and the Mbundu, she also constructed an army. This army was composed of fugitive slaves, marginalized members of court, and the Imbangala mercenary groups who had once spread terror throughout Ndongo. With her army, Njinga began her campaign against the Portuguese, making particular use of guerrilla tactics. Her training of her ladies-in-waiting was not simply for show: Njinga often personally led battles and raids against the Portuguese.

Statue of Njinga standing in Kinaxixi Square in Luanda, the Angolan capital; photo courtesy of Erik Cleves Kristensen on flickr

After claiming the city of Kavanga as her new capital, Njinga quickly established a base for slave trade in order to strengthen her economy and used the city as a center from which to conduct her operations against the Portuguese. In 1631, she integrated Matamba into her lands. There, she resettled thousands of people who had fled from the Portuguese. With the Matamba territory under her rule, and with thousands of subjects behind her, Njinga began to expand into Portuguese held Ndongo.

Her victories against the Portuguese continued as the years went on, and it seemed as though she had a permanent victory when the Dutch occupied the former Portuguese island of Luanda. The Dutch supported Njinga’s campaign because they needed access to the slave market in order to support their own colonies.

However, her luck ran out in 1648 when the Portuguese expelled the Dutch and re-asserted their authority over the land they now called “Angola.” Njinga returned to Christianity in an attempt to placate the Portuguese, and in 1656 she signed a treaty allowing Portuguese missionaries, traders, and government officials to reside in her capital. She had hoped that, with these people in her power, she would be able to control Portuguese military operations against her.

Njinga shielded the interior of Southern Africa from the full brunt of the Portuguese for almost 40 years. She remained active and vigorous—even remarrying in 1658—until her death in 1663 at the age of 81. She single-handedly altered Mbundu attitudes towards female rulers, leading to the rule of several queens after her death, albeit queens who were the puppets of Portuguese governors and missionaries.

She was a brilliant ruler who defied and continues to defy the simplistic labels of “hero,” “liberator,” and “traitor,” like so many of the powerful women navigating the fraught waters of the Atlantic World.

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