Queen Nzinga: Angola's answer to Queen Elizabeth I
March 7, 2015 9:40 AM   Subscribe

Nzinga Mbande (1581-1663) was a powerful queen and guerrilla commander in what is now modern day Angola. She is best remembered for a story about her first meeting with Portuguese leaders, who slighted her by providing her no chair upon which to sit. Famously, she ordered one of her maids to kneel on all fours and sat upon the maid's back while she conducted negotiations. However, the focus on this story belies Nzinga's accomplishments as a canny politician who successfully consolidated an effective power base despite starting from a very unstable position.

Like Elizabeth, Nzinga started with an uncertain claim to the throne of Ndongo. She was a younger daughter of Ndongo's ruler, but her brother Ngola Mbandi was the clear original heir. In addition, the traditions of Ndongo prohibited female rulers. However, when her brother died early in his rule, Nzinga successfully managed to secure a position as the ruler of Ndongo. She successfully staved off Portuguese control of her kingdom for decades by playing other European powers in the area as well as neighboring local tribes against each other. Nzinga was a formidable military strategist who at various times, particularly during a period when the Portuguese had managed to depose her, enjoyed great military success against Portuguese forces despite having fewer numbers and less sophisticated equipment. She also eventually conquered and united her own kingdom of Ndongo with the neighboring kingdom of Matamba during this period, further consolidating her power base.

After her death, the combined kingdoms of Matamba and Ndongo managed to evade Portuguese rule for a further eighty years, and inflicted heavy damage on Portuguese forces in the process. There are many stories additionally of Nzinga's ruthlessness at home and to her enemies, some of which have rather dubious origins. Her page on Rejected Princesses (previously) does a pretty good job of discussing the author's attempts to find original sources and discuss the origin of some of these stories.
posted by sciatrix (7 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Nzinga is a major figure in our house because I picked this book up at a thrift store and her badassery shone through even in a dumbed-down-for-little-kids version of her story.
posted by padraigin at 10:58 AM on March 7, 2015

I'm trying to decide if this would make a better Disney/Pixar kids movie, or gritty HBO miniseries.
posted by mrjohnmuller at 11:15 AM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

When in doubt, always go for "gritty HBO miniseries."

Although I'd personally root for such a telling of Nzinga Mbande's rule because it would be an uncommon (but thoroughly needed) representation of Africans and the African continent on Western television. Being able to watch 16th-century Angolan political intrigue unfold would be FASCINATING.
posted by Ashen at 11:35 AM on March 7, 2015 [9 favorites]

Or a fucking awesome setting and narrative device for an RPG campaign.

"Nzinga turns to you, her back straight despite her years, her eye steady with the familiarity of command.

'Who among you, then, will accept my commission? You are a strange band of bedfellows, I will admit, but a leader must work with the tools she has to hand. Who will undertake this mission for me?'

She gestures toward the ground. Do you kneel and take up her cause, or stand, and face the consequences of refusal?"

Something like that, anyway...
posted by howfar at 11:52 AM on March 7, 2015

I mean, her rule actually spanned forty years, and she came to the throne as an adult (she first took power in 1624, when she would have been forty-three). So I don't know you could take her whole reign and make a miniseries out of it. You could probably make one out of several periods of her life, though--her ascendancy to power in the first place and her early alliance with Portugal, Portugal's betrayal of her and the four years she spend in Ngongo trying to get her throne back, her alliance with the Jaga (and her marriage to a Jaga leader!) and how it wound up foundering, her conquest of Matamba and the frankly brilliant tactical move to encourage runaway slaves to view her forces as a safe haven. There's just so much happening, and the really busy span of her life wound up being about twenty years.

She lived such an interesting life, I was actually kind of mad I'd never heard of her before I tripped over her story in a podcast. There was so much going on!
posted by sciatrix at 11:55 AM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Multiple miniseries? Yes please!

Amazing history about which I was until now completely ignorant. Thank you!
posted by Lexica at 6:49 PM on March 7, 2015

I once made a necklace in her honour and wrote a short story about her, too, called The Sport of Queens. In our house, she is always referred to as the Mighty Queen Nzinga. She was just an awesome Queen...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 10:16 AM on March 8, 2015

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