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Queen Njinga Mbande: The diplomat warrior

February 16, 2018

Njinga Mbande was a diplomat and a military chief from the 17th century in the territory which is now known as Angola. She fought the Portuguese through military actions and diplomacy until her death at 82.

African Roots Njinga Mbande
Image: Comic Republic

Queen Njinga Mbande: The diplomat warrior

When did Njinga Mbande live?

She lived in what is now Angola. Njinga Mbande was born circa 1583 in the Ndongo region and died 17 December 1663 in the Matamba region.

What is Njinga Mbande remembered for?

Njinga Mbande fought the nascent Portuguese colonial administration all her life using both her diplomatic acumen and her military skills.

What is Njinga Mbande criticized for?

She was said to have a ruthless character. It is documented that she killed her nephew in order to obtain the reign of Ndongo. Critics also point out that she facilitated the slave trade in her territory, striking deals on the delivery of slaves in her negotiations with the Portuguese and Dutch. Furthermore, she was accused of cannibalism, adopting the habits of her allies, the Imbangala.

Njinga Mbande, on eye level with the colonizers

Tell me about Njinga the insubordinate.

In 1622, then ruler Ngola Mbande, Njinga ’s brother sent her to Luanda to negotiate a peace treaty for the Ndongo region with the Portuguese governor. She was given a rug instead of a chair to sit on, which meant she was regarded as a subordinate. Njinga ordered one of her servants to kneel on the ground and serve as a human chair. She continued the negotiations as an equal.

What can you tell me about Njinga the educated?

She could speak several native languages as well as Portuguese. She was also literate, writing her correspondence for the negotiations with the colonial rulers herself. Her early contact with missionaries and Portuguese merchants contributed to this. She had a great sensibility for diplomatic and military issues which came to her advantage when dealing with the Portuguese and the Dutch.

What can you tell me about Njinga the fighter?

Njinga was introduced to warfare on behalf of her father, king Kiluanji. In her reign, she fought as a soldier in front of her army as proof of her masculinity. According to some historians, Njinga later refused the title of Queen. Instead, she assumed herself as a king, socially becoming a man and having a male harem with several male concubines dressed as women. 

Carla Fernandes and Gwendolin Hilse contributed to this package. It is part of DW's special series "African Roots", dedicated to African history, a cooperation with the Gerda Henkel Foundation.