The History You Didn't Learn: Queen Nzinga

Courtney Taylor, IUP

I don’t know about you but I have been learning about the French Revolution in history classes going back to the fifth grade, well one class was European History so that doesn’t really count. But the curriculums of these history classes have left me with one nagging question, “What about African History?” Even in world history the most I have learned about Africa is you guessed it, Egypt. Though some believe that Egypt isn’t in Africa, but that’s neither here nor there. 

But this is a greater issue that all people of color in the United States Education System face, not having our history taught in school. Not once have I learned about Genghis Khan and the Mongolians, the great empires of Africa, or the academic advances of the Middle East that we all benefit from today. Much like in the entertainment industry, the historical representation of people of color matters, except Don Lemon he doesn’t count.

But seriously how important did you feel after watching Hidden Figures and knowing that black women helped put men on the Moon? Seeing Viola Davis win an Oscar and say that her favorite thing about being black was simply everything. And just knowing that Black Panther is going to Bitch slap every other Marvel movie like no one’s business.

And I know what some of you are thinking, “But Courtney, we learn enough about black people during Black History Month.” Oh really, who invented the traffic light? Though Black History Month is a time to learn about the contributions of Black Americans, as well as the being shortest month of the year, you only really learn Dr. King, Harriet Tubman, and if you’re lucky Madame C.J. Walker. Which is why most people, including our president, don’t know how important the contributions of black Americans have been to our history, it was Garret Morgan by the way.

So today I would like to take the time to familiarize you with one of the baddest and bougiest of all time, Queen Nzinga of the Mbundu people in the Kingdom of Ndongo. Apart of present day Angola, Ndongo was created from the Kingdom of Kongo estimated around the late 15th century.

Born in the first half of the 1580s, Nzinga was the daughter of Ngola (king/ruler) Kiluanji Kia Samba who had fought Portuguese raids on his land. Portugal had plans to expand their trade of African slaves in the region. The trade of slaves for guns was quite common and was done so between the Kongo Kingdom and the Portuguese. In 1617 a Portuguese settlement was established a in the city of Luanda, Angola, which infringed on Mbundu land. That same year Ngola Mbande, Nzinga’s brother and then current ruler, was forced to abdicate by the Portuguese.

In 1622 a peace conference was held in Luanda by the Portuguese to put a stop to hostilities between the two groups. Mbande sent his sister in his place to meet with the Portuguese Governor, Joao Corria de Sousa. Nzinga, known for being a renowned negotiator, understood the importance of this diplomatic visit. She knew that the Portuguese could be a powerful ally but did at the detriment of her nation.

During her first meeting with Governor Corria Nzinga was only given a mat to sit on while the only chair in the room was for Corria. To establish equal footing between the two parties, Nzinga motioned to one of her assistants who quickly dropped to her hands and knees and acted as a chair for her. Amazing right, someone needs to start selling t-shirts.

When the negotiations were over Mbande’s rule was restored, Nzinga was baptized Catholic and had adopted the name Dona Anna de Souza in honor of the Governor and his wife. Though Mbande was reluctant to force his people to convert to Catholicism, it was a demand of the Portuguese. But Mbande’s rule did not last long, in 1626 he committed suicide causing his sister to become the new Ngola.

That same year Portuguese forces began to attack Ndongo again, causing Nzinga and her people to flee inland, west of Ndongo. The state of Matamba was founded and from here Nzinga fought the Portuguese in a war that would last three decades. She coordinated guerilla attacks against the enemy as well as riding into battle with her soldiers well into her sixties. Seriously, get this girl a t-shirt.

Using European rivalries to her benefit Nzinga allied the Mbundu with the Dutch.  The combined forces were strong enough to drive the Portuguese out of Luanda in 1641. Unfortunately the Portuguese returned in 1642, driving out Dutch forces and pushing Nzinga back to Matamba.

After this military defeat Nzinga focused on establishing Matamba as a commercial trading power due to it being a gateway to Central Africa, which she achieved becoming an equal trade partner with the Portuguese. The Portuguese tried to capture or kill Nzinga throughout, yet she died peacefully in her eighties in 1663.

Though the Portuguese colonized the country of Angola Nzinga signifies something much greater. She is a part of the history that has been kept from us, that the education system has tried to convince us does not exist. While yes, black female leadership is nothing new, many are challenged by it or even threatened by its existence. Take for example, rotting jar of mayonnaise, Bill O’Reilly’s comments about Maxine Water’s hair this past week. Much like Nzinga meeting with the Portuguese governor, Mrs. Waters did not back down in the face of a mediocre mans attempt to diminish her authority. Both of these women deserve recognition because they both said fuck the patriarchy, and did what they had to do, and this is why we salute you. 

While it is still being made black history did not begin with us in chains on ships crossing the Atlantic, but in some of the most powerful empires the world has seen. It is not the fault of Black Americans that we did not learn this history, but we can change that for younger generations as well as for ourselves.