Born into the royal family of Ndongo in central West Africa, Nzinga Mbandi became Queen of the Mbundu people in in 1624, having served both as her brother’s envoy and as regent to his son following his death.
Born around 1582, Nzinga was the oldest daughter of Mbandi a Ngola Kiluanji, king of Ndongo. The word 'Ngola' referring to the title of the ruling chief, which later developed into the national name for the region, Angola.
Displaying extraordinary charisma and physical prowess at a young age, Ngola Kilajua groomed her for leadership, allowing her to sit in court sessions alongside him at a young age.
Throughout her childhood, Portuguese forces attempted to invade Ndongo and enslaved hundreds of thousands of its people. Those who were taken by the Portuguese either labored in Portuguese Angola or were absorbed into the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
When Mbandi a Ngola Kiluanji died (ca. 1617), his son Ngola Mbandi became king. Between 1619 and 1621, the kingdom of Ndongo faced increasing pressure as Portuguese-led forces attacked under the leadership of Governor Luis Mendes de Vasconcelos, forcing Ngola Mbandi to move his kingdom to the Kidonga Islands.
In 1622, Ngola Mbandi sent his sister Nzinga Mbandi to Luanda as his envoy to negotiate for peace with Dom João Correia de Sousa, the Portuguese Governor. Njinga proved to be an outstanding negotiator and diplomat.
Njinga and de Sousa negotiated a peace treaty in which the Portuguese agreed to withdraw their forces and assist Ndongo in pushing back mercenaries attacking the kingdom. During this trip, she agreed to be baptized, adopting the name Dona Anna de Sousa.
Njinga’s brother, the king Ngola Mbandi, committed suicide in 1622, leaving Njinga in charge as regent for his young son; she became queen of Ndongo in 1624. At that moment, the kingdom was under attack from both Portuguese as well as neighboring African aggressors.
She allied Ndongo with Portugal, simultaneously acquiring a partner in its fight against its African enemies and ending Portuguese slave raiding in the kingdom.
By 1626, however, Portugal had opposed Nzinga’s succession to the throne. She was ousted in a war waged against her and forced to flee with her people further west. Nzinga conquered the neighboring kingdom of Matamba in the mid-1630s and entered into a partnership with the Dutch West India Company following their occupation of Luanda in 1641, utilizing this alliance to fend off conflict with the Portuguese.
Nzinga developed Matamba as a major trading center, focused on long-distance slave trading. To cut down on competition, she also blocked the trading route that had developed in Kasanji in Luanda.
By 1641, Nzinga was exporting 12,000-13,000 slaves a year. She became extremely adept at siphoning off slaves bound for other trading routes.
She is known for her diplomatic and military strategies in defending her kingdoms against the Portuguese, transforming them into successful commercial states.