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Queen Nzingha was born to Ngola (King) Kiluanji and Kangela in 1583. According to tradition, she was named Nzingha because her umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck (the Kimbundu verb kujinga means to twist or turn). It was said to be an indication that the person who had this characteristic would be proud and haughty, and a wise woman told her mother that Nzingha will become queen one day.
According to the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Boudoir, Nzinga was a woman who “immolated her lovers.” De Sade’s reference for this comes from History of Zangua, Queen of Angola. It claims that after becoming queen, she obtained a large, all male harem at her disposal. Her men fought to the death in order to spend the night with her and, after a single night of lovemaking, were put to death. It is also said that Nzinga made her male servants dress as women.
A famous story says that in her meeting with the Portuguese governor, João Correia de Sousa did not offer a chair to sit on during the negotiations, and, instead, had placed a floor mat for her to sit, which in Mbundu custom was appropriate only for subordinates. The scene was imaginatively reconstructed by the Italian priest Cavazzi and printed as an engraving in his book of 1687. Not willing to accept this degradation she ordered one of her servants to get down on the ground and sat on the servant’s back during negotiations. By doing this, she asserted her status was equal to the governor, proving her worth as a brave and confident individual.
In 1657, weary from the long struggle, Nzinga signed a peace treaty with Portugal. After the wars with Portugal ended, she attempted to rebuild her nation, which had been seriously damaged by years of conflict and over-farming. She was anxious that Njinga Mona’s Imbangala not succeed her as ruler of the combined kingdom of Ndongo and Matamba, and inserted language in the treaty that bound Portugal to assist her family to retain power. Lacking a son to succeed her, she tried to vest power in the Ngola Kanini family and arranged for her sister to marry João Guterres Ngola Kanini and to succeed her. This marriage, however, was not allowed, as priests maintained that João had a wife in Ambaca. She returned to the Christian church to distance herself ideologically from the Imbangala, and took a Kongo priest Calisto Zelotes dos Reis Magros as her personal confessor.
She devoted her efforts to resettling former slaves and allowing women to bear children. Despite numerous efforts to dethrone her, especially by Kasanje, whose Imbangala band settled to her south, Nzinga would die a peaceful death at age eighty on 17 December 1663 in Matamba. Matamba went though a civil war in her absence, but Francisco Guterres Ngola Kanini eventually carried on the royal line in the kingdom. Her death accelerated the Portuguese occupation of the interior of South West Africa, fueled by the massive expansion of the Portuguese slave trade. Portugal would not have control of the interior until the 20th century. Today, she is remembered in Angola for her political and diplomatic acumen, great wit and intelligence, as well as her brilliant military tactics. In time, Portugal and most of Europe would come to respect her. A major street in Luanda is named after her, and a statue of her was placed in Kinaxixi on an impressive square. Angolan women are often married near the statue, especially on Thursdays and Fridays.