Nzingha was born into the royal family of Ndongo in central West circa 1583. She was the daughter of Ngola Kilombo of Ndongo. Her mother was Kengela ka Nkombe, one of her father’s slave wives. Nzingha had two sisters and a brother, Kambu, Funji and Mbandi Kiluanji.
Her father was crowned the king of the Ndongo when she was 10 years. She received military training as a warrior, and she participated in many official and governance duties. Nzinga was also taught to read and write in Portuguese. She was also known by her christen name, Ann de Sousa when she was baptized. Her christen surname, de Souza, came from the governor of Angola, João Correia de Souza.
The Portuguese first came to Ndongo in 1575 when they established a trading post in Luanda with the help of the Kingdom of Kongo, Ndongo’s northern rival. Ndongo faced intense military pressure from Portugal and Kongo, which seized Ndongan territory. By the 1580s, large parts of Ndongo had fallen under Portuguese control. The Portuguese seized about 50,000 slaves during the conflict and built forts inside Ndongan territory to control the slave trade. Ndongo rallied against the Portuguese, defeating them at the Battle of Lucala in 1590, but not before the kingdom had lost much of its territory. By the time that Nzingha’s father became king in 1593, the area had been devastated by war and the power of the king greatly diminished. The king tried a variety of methods to handle the crisis, including diplomacy, negotiations, and open warfare, but he was unable to improve the situation.
In 1617, Ngola Mbandi Kiluanji died and Ngola Mbandi, came to power. He engaged in months of political bloodletting, killing many rival claimants to the throne, including his older half-brother and their family. Nzingha who was 35 was spared, but the new king ordered her young son killed while she and her two sisters were forcibly sterilized, ensuring that she would never have a child again. Nzinga fled to the Kingdom of Matamba fearing for her life.
Mbandi vowed to continue the war against the Portuguese. However, he lacked military skill, and while he was able to form an alliance with the Imbangala, the Portuguese made significant military gains. Nzingha departed the Ndongan capital with a large retinue and was received with considerable interest in Luanda. While Ndongo leaders typically met the Portuguese in Western clothing, she chose to wear opulent traditional clothing of the Ndongo people, in order to display that their culture was not inferior.
As ambassador, Nzingha’s main goal was to secure peace between her people and the Portuguese. She expressed a desire for cooperation between the two kingdoms, noting that they could support each other against their common enemies. She adopted the name Dona Anna de Sousa in honor of her godparents, Ana da Silva and Governor Joao Correia de Sousa. A peace treaty was subsequently agreed upon, and Nzingha returned to Kabasa in triumph in late 1622.
After a series of defeats, the Ndongo royalty were driven out of their court in Kabasa. The Portuguese wanted to proceed with the treaty, but refused to aid Ndongo against the Imbangala until the king had recaptured Kabasa and been baptized. By 1624, King Mbadi had fallen into a deep depression and was forced to cede many of his duties to Nzingha.
She later assumed power over the kingdoms after the death of her father and brother, who both served as kings. She ruled during a period of rapid growth in the African slave trade and encroachment of the Portuguese Empire into South West Africa, in attempts to control the slave trade. Nzinga fought for the Independence and stature of her kingdoms against the Portuguese in a reign that lasted 37 years.
During the 1650s after a period of serious illness in 1657, Nzingha grew concerned about her successor. Fearing for succession crisis, which would cause her Christian conversions to be undone, and spark renewed Portuguese aggression. To ensure the best transition, she appointed her sister Kambu as her heir.
In October 1663, Nzingha fell ill with infection in her throat and became bedridden. By December of that year the infection had spread to her lungs, and Nzingha died in her sleep on the morning of 17th December. She was buried with great aplomb in accordance with Catholic and Mbundu traditions. Ceremonies were held across Matamba and in Luanda, where both the Portuguese and Mbundu populations held services in her honor.
Following Nzingha’s death, her sister Kambu ascended the the throne.
Video credit: History Tea Time with Lindsay Holiday