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Ruthless and conniving, Nzinga Mbande of the Ndongo and Matamba kingdoms of the Mbundu (modern Angola) would fight the Portuguese for 35 years. Salacious legends about her abound: that she murdered her brother to take the throne; that after killing her brother’s family, she ate their hearts to absorb their courage; that in a pre-battle ritual, she had slaves decapitated and drank their blood; that she maintained a 60-man harem, periodically killing some to replace them. While it is likely that Portuguese propaganda may have embellished some of these rumors, a kernel of truth underlay each.
Ana de Sousa Nzinga Mbande (named “Nzinga” because the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck at birth) was born a princess of the Mbundu c. 1583 AD. She first appears in historical records as an envoy for her brother Ngola at peace negotiations with the invading Portuguese in 1621. But Portugal didn’t honor the treaty, and Nzinga assumed the crown to fight them … either when Ngola committed suicide, or Nzinga poisoned him, or by killing Ngola’s heir immediately after the king’s death. After a brief alliance with the Portuguese in order for her to suppress internal and external threats from African tribes, in 1626 Portugal again invaded Ndongo. Fleeing, Nzinga assumed rule in the adjacent kingdom of Matamba by “supplanting” its queen Mwongo and merged the two.
To rebuild her armies, Nzinga offered sanctuary and incentives to runaway slaves and European-trained Africans for their service. She converted to Christianity to gain backing from other European colonial powers, and in 1641 she allied with the Dutch. With reinforcements from the Dutch and from nearby Kongo, she led her forces to rout a Portuguese army in 1647. Nzinga then laid siege to the Portuguese colonial capital of central Africa. Finally, in 1657, weary from the long struggle she signed a peace treaty with Portugal. She devoted herself to rebuilding her kingdom, to resettling former slaves and soldiers, to internal reforms, until her death in 1663.