Nzinga

Muchino Nzinga Mbande (1582-1663 CE, also known as Jinga, Njinga, Xinga, Ginga, and Rainha Ana de Sousa) was the ruler of Matamba and Ndongo in what is now coastal Angola in southwest Africa. She is remembered for her resistance against Portuguese colonialism, her wisdom as a ruler, and her tactical skills as a military commander. Nzinga is also an LGBTQ icon who utilized differently gendered identities in her presentation of self. She is portrayed in legend and history as a woman who dressed as a man, fought alongside her troops, insisted that she be addressed as “king” and not “queen,” and had a harem of men who dressed as women.

"Queen Njinga of Ndongo (1582-1663) Smoking, engraving by Fortunato da Alemandini after a water color by Giovanni Cavazzi, 1687" (whro.org/jamestown2007/imagegalleries/africans/album/slides/Queen%20Njinga%20of%20Ndongo%20-%20Smoking.html, June 2012)

History

Nzinga became the primary ngola (ruler) of her people when her brother killed himself after being defeated by Portuguese invaders. Initially, Nzinga proclaimed herself “king” (muchino in Kimbundo) but changed her title to “queen” (rainha in Portuguese), converted to Christianity, and took the Portuguese name “Ana de Sousa” to discredit rumors that she was a demon-worshipping (that is, non-Christian) cannibal. In correspondences, she would also refer to herself as “Ginga.”

Nzinga (http://www.africafederation.net/Ndongo_History.htm, April 2012)

Stories of her masculine status describe how she wore men’s clothing, led her armies into battle, and kept a harem of men dressed as women who were her wives. Her image as a strong king was a dramatic contrast with her feminine Christian name and Portuguese title as “rainha” rather than “muchino.” In many ways, the politically-motivated gendered identities resemble those of a much earlier African woman-king, the Egyptian Pharaoh Hatshepsut.

Nzinga’s political career reflects identity-maneuvers in which she would take on different personae to strengthen her position as ruler. To the Portuguese, she was Christian and feminine. To her own people, she was a masculine king who favored traditional religion and folkways over Portuguese-imposed forms. Through astute negotiations, military prowess, and refusal to acknowledge the supremacy of any political authority other than her own, Nzinga managed to rule over the regions of Matanga and Ndongo until her death at the age of eighty.

Nzinga as Legend

Europeans of the time were fascinated by Nzinga, and her name became legend among Central African and African Brazilian populations.

"Queen Njinga of Ndongo(1582-1663) Presented to the Portuguese Governor, engraving by Fortunato da Alemandini after a water color by Giovanni Cavazzi, 1687" (whro.org/jamestown2007/imagegalleries/africans/album/slides/Queen%20Njinga%20of%20Ndongo.html, June 2012)

There is an account of her first meeting with the Portuguese Governor Correa de Sousa (his wife would eventually become Nzinga’s godmother). When Nzinga entered the governor’s audience room, there was no chair on which she could sit, a clear sign of her inferior status since she would be forced to stand in the Governor’s presence. Nzinga summoned one of her ladies-in-waiting to act as a human seat on which Nzinga would carry on negotiations. On another occasion, the governor asked for the return of Portuguese prisoners. Nzinga agreed, so long as all the slaves taken from her country to Brazil were returned. Since such a concession was impossible, she managed to get a treaty with the Portuguese that recognized her right to rule, and the withdrawal of its army from her territories. The historical record shows, however, that Nzinga was not categorically against the slave trade.

Nzinga is said to have converted to Christianity after consulting mediums from whom the voices of her ancestors spoke, giving her their approval.

Nzinga in Brazil and Beyond

In Brazil, Nzinga (known as “Jinga” and “Xinga”) became a symbol of African pride among its slave population, a status she is still accorded today. She is remembered as a warrior-queen, and shown carrying the double cowbell (agogo or moqueque), a musical instrument that carries religious significance in African Brazilian Houses of Candomblé and Umbanda.

Filhas de Ginga/Nzinga: capoeira mestra, Edna Lima (mandingueira.com/category/female-mestres/page/2, June 2012)

The basic step for the Brazilian-Angolan martial arts form capoeira is the xinga or jinga, and some sources attribute the name to her (Alternatively, the Portuguese word “gingar” is considered a source, since it means “to roll or sway,” while “xingar” means “to scold, curse, or swear”). There are also records of carnaval festivals among Brazil’s African population that would feature the King of Congo and Queen Xinga.

A play called Njinga the Queen King dramatically portrayed elements of her legend. Published in 1993 by Ione, with music by Pauline Oliveros, the play featured drama, pageantry, dance, martial arts, drumming, electronic music, and chant.

Ione (ionedreams.us/site/node/20, June 2012)

Njinga in Luanda

In Luanda, Angola, Nzinga is commemorated with a street in her name, Rua Rainha Jinga (Queen Jinga Street). There is also a statue of her in Kinaxixi Square. She wears a dress, a twined cloth across her chest, her hair wrapped in cloth, and carries a small single-headed axe. Her name appears thus on the high pedestal under her image: Mwene Njinga Mbande.

Statue of Dona Ana de Sousa, Ngola Ana Nzinga Mbande, rainha de Ndongo e Matamba in Luanda, Angola (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nzingambande.jpg, June 2012)

– Mickey Weems
QEGF Authors and Articles
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Further reading:

Landers, Jane. Slaves, Subjects, and Subversives: Blacks in Colonial Latin America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 2006.

Reynolds, Jonathan and Erik Gilbert. Africa in World History. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Educational, 2004.

Sweetman, David. Women Leaders in African History. London: Heinemann, 1984.