Queen Njinga was born around 1583 as the daughter of Ngola Kiluanji Kia Samba, while her mother was of a Mbundu royal lineage, who passed their status through the matrilineal line and so she was doubly privileged. She would go on to rule the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms, in an area that is now known as Angola (which derives its name from ngola, the title of the ruler of Ndongo). She was born in a breech position, with the cord wrapped around her neck. Her name Njinga after the word kujinga, means “to twist, to turn, to wrap.”
During her childhood, she apparently already displayed her intellectual nature that distinguished her from her brother, while forming a special bond with her father. She spent the first decade of her life living through the many battles her country faced. Throughout this, she learned political and military lessons usually reserved for sons. She was often present when her father presided over councils. She was known for her skill with the battle-axe. In her household were a large number of female attendants and slaves and she is reported to have kept many male consorts and lovers, though she never had a principal husband. One man who commented on Njinga living freely like a man had his son murdered before his eyes, and he was then killed himself. Njinga would have absolute deference. Njinga had a son by one of her concubines who was murdered by her brother Mbande just days after his birth. Her brother then ordered her and some of her sisters to be sterilized and a mixture with herbs was thrown “while boiling onto the bellies of his sisters, so that, from the shock, fear & pain, they should forever be unable to give birth.” Njinga never did have another child.
Sometime during young adulthood, Njinga became active in the war effort against the Portuguese colonial power. Her brother Mbande became the ruler after their father, but Njinga became increasingly disappointed in his war efforts, and she began to build her own power base – proving herself to be a viable alternative to her brother. She publicly taunted him when he agreed to a public baptism to make peace with the Portuguese. He eventually indicated that she should rule after his death and when he died in 1624, she was first styled as “Lady of Angola”, and she may have also given her a chief male concubine, Kia Ituxi, a title.
To consolidate her power, her first order of business was to kill her brother’s seven-year-old son who had been sent to Imbangala Kasa for safekeeping. By 1625, Njinga convinced Kasa that she in love with him and wanted to marry him. The wedding ceremony wasn’t even over yet before Njinga seized her nephew and murdered him. She had gotten revenge for her own son. The Portuguese offered up a second candidate to the throne that seriously threatened Njinga’s reign. She was eventually forced to flee but returned just two years later to regain her throne. Her sisters were captured by the Portuguese, but Njinga remained on the run.
After asking for the help of Imbangala Kasanje, he demanded that she marry him and surprisingly, she accepted. During the year’s with him, she underwent several ceremonies to become a warrior, such as the cuia – a blood oath ceremony that required her to take a drink of human blood. To attain the status of an Imbangala leader, the first requirement was to kill one’s own child and to make an oil with which to anoint oneself. Since Njinga did not have any children of her own anymore, she took a child belonging to one of her female concubines, crushed him in the mortar and made oil from the tissue, which was then pasted on her body. She then took on a new name: Ngola Njinga Ngombe e Nga – Queen Njinga, Master of Arms and Great Warrior.” The year was probably 1631, and shortly after, she began assembling an army that would soon ravish the region. She captured Queen Muango of Matamba and her daughter – branding the Queen a common slave. However, their lives were spared.
Her conquest of Matamba gave her the new base she needed, and she could now set about reconquering Ndongo where her rival still reigned. She decided that she should be regarded as a man, not a woman. She married another man, Ngola Ntombo, and insisted that he dress as a woman. The number of her male concubines increased, and she ordered them to dress the same as the female bodyguards. Her transformation into the ultimate warrior was complete. She made a surprising alliance with the Dutch who had arrived to counter the Portuguese, and their combined forces were soon unstoppable until the Portuguese sent an armada – eventually forcing Njinga’s retreat.
By 1648, Njinga was in her mid-sixties and she no longer focussed on getting the Portuguese out entirely, but she wanted to ensure that they could do nothing without her. She had firm control over the areas that provided the primary source of slaves, forcing the Portuguese to have to deal with her. However, this did not stop Njinga from sometimes using her armies. During this time, one writer noted “I have seen Njinga dressed like a man, armed with a bow, arrows, and already old and of small stature. Her speech is very effeminate.” In 1657, she personally led a battle for the last time. With a newfound (if not returned) devotion to the Christian faith – Njinga saw the return of one of her captured sisters, Barbara, and planned to leave her her Kingdom. When she became ill, she invoked the name of the Virgin Mary as often as she could. She recovered a few days later.
There was one problem with Njinga becoming a Christian. The people refused to give up their concubines if the nobles did not do so, and the nobles pointed to Njinga, who still kept “more husbands and more lovers than we have wives.” During her years with the Imbangala, she would often publicly humiliate men and had them killed in ritual sacrifices. Was it a reaction to the fate of her son and her sterilization? In any case, she still yearned to have a son, despite her age. The missionaries saw an opportunity to propose a Christian marriage for her, telling her that she would have to give up her concubines if she wanted such a gift from God. Njinga then selected a young boy named Sebastiāo to be her husband. They were married on 4 February 1657, and he was given the title “husband of Njinga.” Her sister Barbara also married.
Her Kingdom transformed into a Christian society, and human sacrifice no longer had a place in war rituals. Njinga became devout in her final years and in 1660, she received Holy Communion for the first time. In March 1662, Njinga fell ill, and she remained in poor health throughout the year. By October 1663, Njinga was bedridden with a high fever. An abscess on her throat burst, leading to an infection in her lungs. She regretted that she “did not leave a son because she desired someone of her lineage inherit her Kingdom.”
She died in her sleep on 17 December 1663.1