In the early expansion of European colonisation, there were many great women who rose to the occasion and defended the honour of African people in the quest for freedom from slavery. In fact, in earlier African civilization, there were women who ruled Kingdoms of Africa and their worth was pertinent to society’s development.
Today, African descendents of those brought to the western hemisphere through European slavery celebrate 180 years of freedom from physical captivity. The local body which advocates for African awareness, the African Cultural and Development Association (ACDA), has suggested that in this time of reflection, Africans remember the contributions of these Great women.
Among the Queens, Empresses, Chief Daughters, philosophers and others being celebrated are Queen Nzingha of Angola and recently deceased American poet/writer/actress Maya Angelou. The organization also recognized local women; Maria Grant, Belinda Hopkinson, Catherine Thom, Molly Archer, Hanna Foster and African Jeanette who played an integral role in African awareness.
As customary, ACDA honours an African nation every Emancipation Day and this year, Angola is in focus. Queen Ana de Sousa Nzingha Mbande (1582-1663), familiarly referred to as Queen Nzingha was one of Angola’s greatest heroines and one of Africa’s bravest and greatest female freedom fighters. She is being recognized for her strength. She had the mind of a general, the strength of a warrior and, most importantly, the heart of a true African queen whose loyalty was to her fellow Africans. She successfully fought against the slave trade until her death at age 81 in Matamba.
Nzingha was born when slavery was just beginning to be a pandemic in Ndongo, now Angola. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, states on the Central African coast found their economic power and territorial control threatened by Portuguese attempts to establish a colony at Luanda (in present-day Angola). Many of these states had become regional powers through trade in African slaves.
It was the growing demand for this human labour in New World colonies, such as Brazil. This led Portugal to seek military and economic control of this region, and old trading partners came under military attack by Portuguese soldiers and indigenous African raiders in search of captives for the slave trade.
Nzingha was perhaps the first Black female Freedom Fighter and as well as Africa’s first Pan Africanist and Nationalist. One of her greatest acts as Queen occurred in 1624 when she declared all territory over which she had control to be free country. Any captured African who could reach her territory was free to remain there and be counted as free. She devoted her efforts to re-settling former slaves, and developing an economy of free men and women that could succeed without the slave trade.
Thousands of slaves deserted Portuguese held areas to head for “Zingha’s land”, strengthening her armies in the process. By opening her territory to anyone escaping slavery, she transcended all the various ethnic and cultural differences of the people in the Angolan region since the Africans now had a common enemy; the Portuguese.
One of the slave-trading chiefs was the King of Ndongo himself, Nzingha’s own brother. She had strongly opposed her brother’s participation in the slave trade. However, it was not until the Portuguese traders began to make heavier demands on the King for slaves, thereby reducing his own profit from the trade that he decided to resist and declare war.
The war between the Portuguese, and the Ndongo people lasted for several years until the Portuguese decided that a peace conference would be held for both sides to negotiate an end to the conflict. After the death of her brother, Nzingha became Queen and for the next forty years, she led her people into battle. Her sisters were captured during a battle, but with the help of slaves in Luanda, they escaped from slavery.
Nzingha was an incredibly strong and charismatic woman. A brave general, she was known to personally lead her troops into battle, and she forbade her subjects to call her “Queen” preferring the masculine title of King. Yet her aggressive traits were balanced by her charming and engaging personality, which she used to her own advantages when forming alliances with other kingdoms, including the Dutch, who she cleverly formed an alliance on arrival, against the Portuguese.
When called to the Portuguese city of Luanda, Nzingha led a party to make an alliance with the Portuguese, but refused a seat. To show the Portuguese governor her power and that she would not be below him, she sat on the back of one of her male servants and made him a human bench.
In 1659, after signing a peace treaty with Portugal, Nzingha attempted to reconstruct a nation that had been seriously damaged by years of conflict. Much of her efforts were directed to resettling former slaves and developing an economy not dependent on the slave trade.
Nzingha died in 1663 at the age of eighty one. The massive expansion of the Portuguese slave trade and eventual conquest of Angola followed her death, as none of her successors possessed her indomitable spirit.
Nzingha did not succeed in expelling the Portuguese from her country, but her historical legacy is of great importance as she awakened the spirit of nationalism and Black unity among her people in resistance to European domination and her legend would serve as an inspiration to the later resistance and anti-colonial movements that would occur throughout the West-Central African regions.
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