Ngungunyane, the king against Portuguese occupation | African Roots | DW | 08.06.2018
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Ngungunyane, the king against Portuguese occupation

He was the last king of Gaza. And he resisted Portuguese occupation. A century after his death, Ngungunyane came to symbolize Mozambican resistance. But he remains a controversial figure.

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Ngungunyane, the king against Portuguese occupation

When and where did Ngungunyane live?

Ngungunyane — also known as Mudungazi — was born around 1850 in the territory of the southeast African Gaza Empire. His grandfather Manukosi ruled over a vast territory. At its peak it stretched from the Incomati river in the south and the Indian Ocean in the east to the Zambezi and Save rivers in the north, covering much of what is today Mozambican territory, as well as parts of neighboring countries. Ngungunyane would become the last Gaza king before the empire was defeated by the Portuguese. He died December 23rd, 1906, while in exile on Terceira Island.

How did Ngungunyane rise to power?

After the death of Ngungunyane's grandfather, Manukosi, in 1858, a war between his two heirs was ultimately won by his son Muzila, with the support of Portuguese authorities. But deciding his successor was problematic. As the son of Muzila and his favourite wife, Yosio, Mdungazwe — as he was then known — ordered the killing of one of his half-brothers who also had a claim to the throne and rose to power in 1884. He changed his name to Ngungunyane, meaning "the terrible" or "the invincible". For 11 years he ruled with absolute power and used excessive force in the handling of vassal peoples.

How did Ngungunyane relate to the Europeans?

Ngungunyane took power a few months before the Berlin Conference (1884-85) was held, where European nations divided Africa among themselves, often viewed today as the formalization of the so-called 'Scramble for Africa.' In the face of Great Britain and Germany's growing interest in the Mozambican territories, Portugal felt increasing pressure to impose its power on the region and suppress the Gaza Empire. Recognizing the rivalries between the European countries, Ngungunyane attempted to take advantage of the situation and spent years playing diplomatic games with different powers, particularly Great Britain and Portugal.

How was Ngungunyane defeated?

Early in 1895, the High Commissioner in Mozambique ordered a military offensive against Ngungunyane. By now, Ngungunyane had already lost the loyalty of many of his subjects. His empire was overrun in bloody clashes. After battles in Coolela and Mandlakasi, Ngungunyane fled to Chaimite, the holy place where his grandfather was buried. On December 28th 1895, he was imprisoned by Mouzinho de Albuquerque, the Portuguese governor of the Gaza military district. Deported to the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, Ngungunyane and his entourage were exposed to popular curiosity. They crossed the city in a cage before being exhibited in Belem Botanical Garden.

Ngungunyane lived out the rest of his life in exile on Terceira Island in the Azores. He was taught to read and write and was forced to convert to Christianity, baptised with the name of Reinaldo Frederico Gungunhana. The "Lion of Gaza", as he was nicknamed, died of a cerebral haemorrhage on December 23rd 1906.

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Ngungunyane, a symbol of resistance

How did Ngungunyane become a hero of the anti-colonial struggle?

Following a request from Samora Machel, the first President of Mozambique, small portion of land from the cemetery in the Azores — symbolizing the remains of Ngungunyane — was brought to Maputo in 1985 for the tenth anniversary of the independence of Mozambique.

For the Mozambique Liberation Front, FRELIMO, who fought for independence and supported the ruling party following independence in 1975, Ngungunyane was always seen as a hero and a source of inspiration during the liberation war and then during the civil war. Many prominent figures of Mozambican politics came from from Ngungunyane's Gaza province inlcuding Eduardo Mondlane, the co-founder and first president of FRELIMO and Samora Machel and Joaquim Chissano, the first and second Presidents of Mozambique.

Is Ngungunyane a controversial figure?

The memory of Ngungunyane was supposed to educate new generations to support Mozambique and promote national unity. But this plan was not successful: A century after his defeat, Ngungunyane's resistance against colonialism was still marred by the violent oppression of many of his subjects. In 1995, in celebration of 100 years of the Gaza Empire's resistance, former President Joaquim Chissano inaugurated a bust of Ngungunyane in Mandlakazi, in Gaza province. However, it was vandalized by locals only a few days later. The event highlighted the controversy of Ngungunyane's legacy. To this day, he remains a figure who is beloved by some and hated by others.

Gloria Sousa, Romeu da Silva and Gwendolin Hilse contributed to this package.

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