In central west Africa in 1580, in the kingdom of Ndongo, was born an extraordinary woman, a genuine warrior queen, whose struggle for independence against one of the most powerful European forces of the time would become a legend. Her name has come to symbolize freedom from oppression and in the People's Republic of Angola, she is a national heroine. She was the daughter of a king - called the Ngola, in her native dialect. She had many names - among them Nzinga, Singa and Zhinga - but her tribe, and later both friends and enemies, would call her Jinga Mbandi.
The Portuguese had begun the conquest of Ndongo a few years prior to Jinga's birth, sending in friendly missionaries to convert the so-called heathen to Catholicism - a typical exploit of this conquering nation. The geographical location of the kingdom made it an ideal base for the burgeoning Portuguese slave trade, and in 1576, Luanda was founded and given a Portuguese governor.
In the beginning of the 17th century, the Angola slave markets had expanded to the point that 10,000 slaves were being exported from Luanda annually. The African chiefs did not scruple to sell members of hostile or rival tribes for a good price, although this was just one part of a process that allowed the Portuguese to build up a huge and lucrative trade in human cargo. Greedy Brazilian plantation and mine owners craved slaves for cheap labor and the Portuguese made an obscene profit satisfying this demand.
Although the Africans cooperated with the Portuguese, conflicts began when they wanted this cooperation to be on their terms. They also wanted to retain their independence. Faced with the possibility of losing a portion of their immensely profitable trade, the Governor of Luanda - Joao Mendes de Vasconcelos - promptly exiled the Ngola of Ndongo to the Kwanza Islands.
Jinga went to the governor in order to negotiate on behalf of her brother, the new Ngola, in the early 1620's. Her task was to preserve the independence of Ndongo from the Portuguese while at the same time enlisting their assistance in expelling the encroaching Imbangalas from her brother's kingdom. By all accounts (David Birmingham and C.R. Boxer are the main sources of her life and times) Jinga conducted these negotiations with skill and cunning, even going so far as to allow the Portuguese to baptize her as an entry into their favor. She was given the name of Anna de Sousa (in honor of the incoming Governor Correira de Sousa) and her sisters (Kifunji and Mukumbu) were christened the Ladies Grace and Barbara.
In 1624, Jinga's brother died under mysterious circumstances, although his demise is generally credited to Jinga herself. Legend also credits Jinga with the murder of her nephew and the subsequent consumption of his heart, but this apocryphal tale did not seem to harm her in this upward climb to the throne. She now assumed absolute power - casting off her Christian name, for her conversion had never been more than a cunning sham - she became Queen Jinga, called a "redoutable Amazon" by C.R. Boxer.
To the outside world, Angola was nothing more than a pawn in a much greater game being played between two European powers - the Portuguese and the Dutch - to supply the slave demand to both South America and the New World colonies. Jinga did not even glance at the big picture - she wanted the Portuguese gone from her corner of Africa and would do anything to see this wish fulfilled, not withstanding the fact that one of her sisters, Kifunji, was a prisoner of the hated enemy. Despite her captive status, Kifunji would supply Jinga with intelligence for years.
Reluctantly, the Portuguese declared war on Queen Jinga. A peaceful alliance between trading partners was more in their interests, which was to keep the steady stream of slaves arriving from the interior at all costs, but business had to be protected by whatever means necessary. Jinga was driven off her throne and puppet kings, loyal to the Portuguese, were put in her place. But the Mbandi people scorned these pretenders on two fronts - one, they were the sons of slaves, and two... they were inadequate rainmakers! The ousted Queen kept busy, however, and in 1630 made an alliance with the neighboring Kasanje kingdom, which effectively closed vital slave routes and flummoxed the Portuguese.
The loyal Mbandi followed Jinga further east to the kingdom of Matamba, where she conquered the Jaga tribe. The Jagas have been described as fierce cannibals who practiced not only ritual human sacrifice but infantcide as well. According to an eyewitness account - that of a Dutch captain named Fuller who would, in the 1640's, command sixty men in the Queen's service for years - Jinga indulged in human sacrifice in a very public manner, not only striking iron bells in celebration but decaptitating the victim and drinking his blood.
Also according to Fuller, Jinga kept a harem of fifty or sixty young men whom she treated almost as wives, going so far as to have them dress in women's clothing while she was herself transformed by men's costume. These men were permitted to marry other women, with the proviso that any children of such unions were to be executed. Death was the only punishment for failure to this ruthless Queen.
Captain Fuller's final verdict is thus: he described Jinga as "a cunning and prudent Virago, so much addicted to arms that she hardly uses other exercises; and withal so generously valiant that she never hurt a Portuguese after quarter given, and commanded all her slaves and soldiers alike."
Jinga's tactical withdrawal to the interior forced the Portuguese to penetrate too far from their home base in search of slave material. At this point, the Queen made allies of the Dutch and set up camp on the Dande River; her actions were indirectly responsible for the Dutch conquest of Luanda in 1641. From this vantage point on the river she could sell caravans of war captives to the Dutch at Luanda and conduct short campaigns of her own, principally against the puppet king of Ndongo, Ngola Ari, and his Portuguese sponsors.
The Queen's forces routed the Portuguese outside Mbaka in 1643 and there were further victories in 1646 and 1648. In October 1647, her sister Kifunji was drowned by the enemy as they retreated, either in retaliation or in fear of the woman's successful spying techniques.
Unfortunately, a defeat at the hands of Jinga's foes resulted in the capture of Jinga's sister, Mukumbu. On August 10, 1648, she suffered another stunning defeat when Luanda was retaken by Portuguese forces, under the command of a Brazilian landowner named Salvador de Sa. She was directly responsible for this reversal, as keeping two hundred Dutch soldiers at her side had the effect of fatally weakening the garrison, thus leaving Luanda wide open for attack. Licking her wounds, Jinga retreated to the Matamba heartlands and laid low for a few years.
The Portuguese did not seek retribution. Concerned only with reopening the slave trade routes, they allowed an unofficial peace to prevail while they soaked up more profit.
In October 1656, Queen Jinga agreed to parlay with the Portuguese for the return of her surviving sister, Mukumbu. One hundred and thirty slaves had to be exchanged; in addition, "trade fairs" were to be established along the Portuguese borders, and a Christian missionary was to be introduced into Matamba. In return, Jinga - who was now in her seventies - would receive military aid if required. Last, the Jagas were to abandon their savage practices, particularly those of infantcide. The Queen agreed to their terms and peace settled over the troubled land.
She died in 1663; her corpse, richly dressed in royal robes encrusted with gems, clutching a bow and arrow in her hand, was viewed by her subjects with a mixture of awe, apprehension and sorrow. Her kingdom of Matamba benefitted from the trade and the missions, not suffering direct European authority - unlike Ndongo, which suffered a slide in fortunes and was eliminated as an independent entity in 1671.
In the People's Republic of Angola (established in 1975), Queen Jinga is remembered as a national heroine, a warrior queen who gloriously but vainly attempted to oust the Portuguese. "She tried to unite the different peoples in the struggle against the foreign threat... After a few years of effort she succeeded in her aims, which were to unite the people of Ndongo, Matamba, Congo, Casnje, Dembos, Kissama and the Central Planalto. This was the greatest alliance ever formed to fight against the foreign colonialists... Her great dream did not disappear. Her idea of a union of the Angolan people in its struggle against colonialism is today realized." This quote is from a history book used in elementary schools in Luanda in 1987.
Finally, one more piece of Jinga's legend remains to be told. This is perhaps the most enduring tale in a vast repetoire that surrounds this African Queen's legacy, and portrays Jinga in all her ruthless, calculating, cunning glory.
It takes place during the visit of Jinga to the Portuguese Governor Correira de Sousa in the early 1620s, when her public career was just beginning and she had not yet named herself Queen. De Sousa was seated upon his throne for this interview while Jinga was required to stand - a symbol of the governor's authority meant to put the young woman in her "proper" place. In a bold gesture, Jinga ordered one of her slaves to kneel on all fours and serve as her seat, thus putting de Sousa's efforts to impress her at naught and showing him that she acknowledged his mastery not one whit. In one version of the tale, the slave was executed at Jinga's order after the interview was over, as she had no further use for him - another gesture meant to put one up the nose of the officious governor and keep her pride intact.
Proud and scheming, bold as brass - courageous and cunning to her people, devious and deviant to her enemies - Queen Jinga Mbandi was truly "a cunning virago" whose example of Amazon spirit has shined down through the centuries to inspire the people of Angola in their struggle for freedom and independence.