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Mariana Bracks Fonseca

Njinga Mbande was a sovereign of the Ndongo and Matamba kingdoms in the 17th century. She is remembered as a strong leader who challenged the Portuguese conquest of Angola. As heir to the Ndongo kingdom, she negotiated peace agreements with the Portuguese administration and was baptized. But diplomacy was not enough to guarantee the peace, security, and integrity of the Ndongo state. Military resistance was necessary to resist Portuguese advances and guarantee her political survival. Njinga Mbande defied the Portuguese armies and became the leader of a group of nomadic warriors called Jagas. Leading powerful battalions, she retreated inland and conquered the Matamba kingdom, which was ruled by women. The military superiority of Njinga’s army and her ability to build alliances made her the most feared figure in the Angolan wars in the 17th century. With great bravery and wisdom, she effectively defended her state and resisted Portuguese expansion in the region. For more than thirty years, Njinga resisted her enemies, defeating and deceiving them many times. She died when she was more than eighty years old without ever being captured or subjected. In the 20th century, Njinga Mbande’s public memory was transformed to represent nationalist resistance to earlier colonialism in Angola. She became known as the Angolan Queen, a national heroine in independent Angola, and is also remembered in the folk traditions of peoples of African descent in the Americas. It is important to stress, however, that she was the ruler of two states, and she never ruled the entire territory of what is now Angola.

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Njinga a Mbande (1582–1663) is the most famous and controversial historical figure in the history of the West-Central Africa region during the 17th century, the region of present-day Angola. Her political trajectory contributes to the understanding of the troubled context of the Portuguese expansion in the region and the establishment of the Atlantic slave trade. The Ndongo state was at the very core of this struggle, a state mainly comprised of the Mbundu peoples. It was also the Queen’s original birthplace and a major area in the dispute for ensuring control of the trade routes between the inland and coastal regions. The Portuguese arrived in the region in 1575, and settled on the coast. Luanda was the first area of the Portuguese occupation. From there the Portuguese waged wars of conquest, moving toward the sertão (hinterland). On the Portuguese side, the action unfolded in the constant attempt to control the sobas, the local authorities, the construction of fortresses in the Mbundu territory, and the wars that were initially meant to obtain captives and form an African Army (Guerra Preta). The army would later serve Portuguese interests in controlling the routes and fairs (i.e., the hubs, or centers, of slave trade). On the Mbundu authorities’ side, even before the queen’s reign, and later on at her command, the struggles took many forms: the deterrence of the fairs’ functioning; the disorganization of the “tax” system, in which the Portuguese charged the sobas; and the welcoming of hundreds of escaped slaves, as well as other central actions such as wars and diplomatic negotiations. Njinga a Mbande took on the title Ngola (1624), the position of greatest authority and prestige in the Ndongo. In 1626, after a major campaign by Portuguese settlers, she was expelled from her territory. But by 1631 she re-emerged as a leader, now in another region, Matamba, an important base for her attacks on the areas controlled by the Portuguese. From this region, she made a peace agreement, governing until her natural death at the age of 82. In the 21st century, historiographical questions abound: how was the leadership of this female figure viewed in terms of legitimacy and gender identity within the power structures of the Ndongo, how was her image publicly projected throughout the region, how did she rise in prominence in European reports, and what was her fundamental impact on the oral tradition of different peoples of West-Central Africa. The presence of Queen Njinga crossed the Atlantic and figures in the imagery of popular and mythical narratives in the Americas.