Kiss of the Black Widow Princess
A night with Nzinga Mbande could be blissful, but it was often fatal.
Mbande was the ultimate femme fatale among her admirers the Marquis de Sade who knew a thing or two about pleasure and pain. According to the Marquis book, “Philosophy of the Bedroom,” she kept a harem of 60 of her top soldiers and “immolated her lovers.” These soldiers would fight to the death to spend the night with their queen, but it led to their demise. Mbande wasn’t big on pillow talk, but she knew how to keep her men and her enemies in line.
Our heroine used sex, but it was well timed diplomacy and violence that enabled her to retain power and plant the seeds for the future of Angola. Her flair for the dramatic, her well-honed negotiating skills and her ability to fool the Portuguese into thinking she wanted to become one of them, allowed her to keep her kingdom out of the hands of the slave traders in the 1600s.
Africa’s early colonial era found European powers carving up the continent primarily to feed the slave trade. Most African kings buckled under the Portuguese, Dutch and English, but Mbande negotiated and fought to keep most of her people off the slave ships docked in Luanda’s harbor bound for Brazil.
She was smart enough not to wield power gratuitously. When she used violence it was to make a point with men who had superior weaponry. When necessary she would resort to cannibalism to impress rival tribes. She had a hunger for power, but also justice. She took in runaway slaves and defecting European soldiers incorporating them into her army.
Our queen knew how to instill terror as well. Perhaps the best example of her cutthroat badass attitude came in 1622 when Mbande went to the Portuguese governor’s mansion to negotiate the taking down of a Portuguese fort on Ndongo land. Governor Joao de Sousa did not offer her a place to sit down; instead a floor mat was placed for her. She knew if she sat on the floor it signified her inferiority. To gain the governor’s attention she called for a male subordinate who kneeled on the floor on all fours. Mbande sat on his back and when the meeting was concluded, Mbande slashed his throat in front of the horrified Portuguese. She said something to the effect that she never sits on the same chair twice. From that day forward Nzinga Mbande had a seat at the negotiating table.
Daddy’s Little Girl Off to War
Born in 1583 to King Kiluanji, Nzinga entered a conflict-filled world that suited her physical skills as well as her haughty, cunning personality. If invading Euros and historical tribal rivalries weren’t enough to overcome, she was in the middle of a bloody Shakespearean sibling rivalry.
The Mbundu ethnic group comprised seven different tribes including the Ndongo that Kiluanji ruled with a strident spear. The Ndongo’s inland empire was under siege not only from the Portuguese but assorted European mercenaries roaming the southwest Atlantic coast of the continent. As a prince, Kiluanji was in love with Kangela, a captive from another tribe who was brought to Kabasa, the Ndongo capital. Kiluanji’s mother, the power behind the throne, forced him to marry a more suitable royal blood lines woman and they had a son Mbandi. Kiluanji later took Kangela as his second wife and with her Kiluanji had three daughters including Nzinga. For her entire life Nzinga was fueled by hatred for being treated like the underclass by her grandmother. She overcame her lack of full royal blood lines with a 100 percent badass attitude that made her the toughest person in the room or on the battlefield.
From the outset Nzinga and her half-brother Mbandi were rivals. The king favored Nzinga who was an athlete and who enjoyed hunting and learning how her father ran the kingdom. Historians describe Mbandi as fat- lazy-entitled, a bad combo in any age, but especially then. While he was eating and whining, Nzinga was learning how to stalk and poison game. Whenever she had the chance, Nzinga would beat the hell out of Mbandi, embarrassing him before the King’s court. When Kiluanji went to war he took his first daughter, Nzinga not his elder son.
After their father was killed in battle in 1617, Mbandi ascended to the throne and went on a purge to avenge earlier slights. Nzinga had married as a teenager to royal prince Azeze from an allied tribe and was next in line. She knew she had the chops to lead the Ndongo and her brother didn’t. Her husband Azeze died in battle leaving her a widow with a son. Soon after Mbandi was king he had Nzinga’s son and mother killed. This purge was said to be orchestrated by Mbandi’s uncles. Nzinga was patient and plotted her revenge.
By 1626 Nzinga was ready to strike and had the support of the Ndongo. Mbandi could not keep the Portuguese in check and often sent Nzinga to negotiate in his stead. Some historians say Nzinga poisoned her brother and his son, while others take a less dire view saying that Mbandi committed suicide because of the lands lost to the Portuguese. I’d put all my Kwanzas (Angolan currency) on Nzinga knocking off her brother to avenge her son and mother’s death and to honor her father’s legacy as a warrior/leader.
At first Nzinga tried to appease the Portuguese, becoming baptized and changing her name to Queen Ana de Sousa Nzinga Mbande to make favor with the Portuguese governor of the same De Sousa name. It didn’t work. The Portuguese didn’t consider her the legitimate queen because they believed she killed her brother. The Portuguese invaded Kabasa and burned it to the ground forcing Nzinga to decamp to the Mitumba Mountains where she ruled for several decades. When the Dutch entered Angola, Nzinga made a lasting alliance with them and together they kept the Portuguese from consolidating power. With Nzinga’s help, the Dutch ended Portuguese rule along Angola’s Atlantic seacoast for eight years.
Nzinga and her two sisters would wage war on the Portuguese from the mountains and would remain independent. She retook Kabasa in a battle she led, but she preferred the mountains where she strategically kept her people safe. She led her troops into battle well into her 60s.
For the first time in Ndongo history, an all-female led government ruled and when Nzinga died at 82 her sister succeeded her. Nzinga was buried with her leopard battle skins and her bow. Nzinga was a warrior from childhood to the grave.
Today in Luanda, the Portuguese capital, a street is named after Nzinga and a prominent statue attests to the lasting impact she has on Angola. During her life the Portuguese feared and hated her but in the end they yielded their respect. Her diplomatic and battlefield acumen couldn’t be denied.
Many Angolan women choose to be married adjacent to her statue. They hope Nzinga’s unvanquished spirit will lift them to victory as well.