In November 2020, Port Of Harlem will celebrate 25 years of publication. As we count down to our birthday, we will republish some of our most popular articles from our print issues. Thanks for subscribing and inviting others to join you in supporting our inclusive, diverse, pan-African publication - - now completely online. We originally published this article in the Aug - Oct 2008 print issue.
In the legends of the Mbundu people of southwestern Africa, no one looms larger than Njinga Mbandu, a 17th century ruler of the Ndongo and Matamba kingdoms in Angola. Born to the king of Matamba about 1582, she was named Njinga because her umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck. The elders predicted that she would be strong-willed and haughty. She entered the world at a time of great crises for her kingdom and that part of Africa. Portuguese forces had begun invading and occupying the area.
Written history first takes notice of Njinga in 1621. Her father, the king, died during her childhood. Her half-brother, who she considered weak and unfit to rule, had ascended to the throne. He ordered her to be his emissary at a meeting with the Portuguese governor to negotiate an end to the Portuguese slave raids and their evacuation of a local fort.
To her, the meeting was an encounter between equals. She was insulted and angry when the governor refused to offer her a chair and instead had a mat placed on the floor for her to sit on. Instead, she ordered one of her maid-servants to bend over and she sat on her back. Njinga successfully concluded the meeting but firmly refused offers to make her nation a vassal state of Portugal.
Ambitious and daring, Njinga, had long held a desire to rule her kingdom. She was confident that she could better protect her nation’s interests than anyone else. Mbundu tradition, however, barred women from the throne. But she vowed inwardly to seize the crown. Njinga turned to the Portuguese to help her achieve her ends. In an extraordinary step, she invited their missionaries to enter her lands and allowed herself to be baptized. The Portuguese renamed her “Dona Ana de Souza.” If they thought they had won a compliant lackey, time would prove them greatly mistaken.