Nzinga was born in central West Africa around 1583 to Ngola (King) Kilombo of Ndongo and Kengela ka Nkombe. Legend says her name results from difficult child labor, where Nzinga's umbilical cord wrapped around her neck at birth. People believed that royal children who survived challenging deliveries possessed spiritual gifts and would become very powerful. Nzinga's father favored her and showed her a lot of attention. She received military training, participated in many duties at her father's side, and visited Portuguese missionaries to become literate in Portuguese.
Rising conflicts between the Portuguese and the kingdom of Ndongo were rife during Nzinga's younger years. Arriving in Ndongo in 1575, the Portuguese built a trading post in Luanda with assistance from the Ndongo kingdom's rivals, the kingdom of Kongo. As a result, the Ndongo faced military pressure from the Portuguese and Kongo, including losing many of the kingdom's territories to seizure. When her father took over the throne in 1593, the situation in the domain had reached devastation. It worsened when tribal mercenaries called the Imbangala, backed by the Portuguese, invaded the area in 1607.
Following Nzinga's father's death, her brother, Ngola Mbandi, assumed power and embarked on a mission to remove many of the rivals to the throne in his family. Nzinga fled to the Kingdom of Matamba. Mbandi's ineptitude militarily made him reach out to Nzinga in a bid to fight the Portuguese. He offered her the position to be his emissary. In contrast to her brother's hostile nature, her diplomatic decorum was a tool she used in her bid to create peace between the kingdom and the Portuguese. She allowed Portuguese slave traders inside the kingdom in return for demands of her own. She went as far as being publicly baptized to affirm her commitment to peace, adopting the name 'Donna Anna de Sousa.' Both parties ultimately established a peace treaty.
More violence befell the kingdom at the hands of the Imbangala, who drove the royal family out of Kibasa. Mbandi succeeded in reconquering Kibasa, and by 1624, Nzinga had taken over many of his duties. After her brother's death, she assumed the throne, facing judgment from male candidates who believed she was not a rightful heir to it, among many other criticisms.
Tension and mistrust between Nzinga and the Portuguese increased, and the Portuguese declared war on Nzinga in 1626. She was defeated and retreated into eastern Ndongo. She returned to offer peace to the Portuguese, which they refused, demanding that she renounces her position in the Ndongo Kingdom. In 1631, she invaded Matamba, deposed the queen, Mwongo Matamba, and went on an extensive campaign against the Portuguese.
She formed a coalition with the Dutch around 1641, strengthening her army. A series of battles ensued against the Portuguese, and eventually, she was able to regain control of her old kingdom. After a war of nearly 25 years, another peace treaty was signed in 1956. Finally, Nzinga dedicated her final years to rebuilding her empire to pass it onto her sister, Kambu, who took the throne following her fatal illness.
Today, Nzinga is remembered as the Mother of Angola. She is honored as a great protector of her people and a fighter of negotiations. She is revered as a remarkable leader and symbolizes the fight against oppression. Her strength and refusal to cower to expectations that view women as less than provide a valuable lesson to all women today; her name will live on forever.
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