Female heroes are not an uncommon concept in Africa. Although the global perception is that leadership positions are male driven, and men achieve more while women are better suited to toil in at field level.
If anything, African soils produce pioneers of in various industries, where female leaders reside and thrive in. Take for example, Folorunsho Alajika, an oil tycoon and the richest black woman in the world. Even on a historical basis, we had Queen Nefertiti and Cleopatra, but one unrealized leader is Queen Nzinga, who in the 17th century, fought tooth and nail against the Portuguese’s quest to colonise her area, the Ndongo Kingdom, and enslave her people.
Although she became a queen due to her brother’s suicide, Queen Nzinga catapulted her kingdom from becoming prone to colonization and slave trade to becoming a well run economic ship that competed well with other colonized areas, eventually making her geographical area a gateway for trading power to the Central African interior.
It was in the late 16th century where her leadership talents were realized. The French and English threatened the Portuguese near monopolizing slave trade along the West African cost. The Portuguese then trekked downward to the Angolan region, establishing a trade relationship with Afonso I close to the Kongo Kingdom.
In 1617, the Portuguese established a fort and settlement in Luanda – and invited King Mbande to attend a peace conference to end hostilities occurring with the Mbundu tribe at the time. King Mbande then sent his sister, Nzinga to represent him in his place to meet with the Portuguese Governor Joao Corria de Sousa. Although she was not a queen, Nzinga was well aware of the strange political situation around her – she was well aware of the events in Kongo which led to Portuguese domination of the once independent state. She also knew that refusing to trade with the Portuguese will negatively actively affect her brother’s kingdom, as Portuguese were a major source of arms for the Ndongo Kingdom.
The series of meetings were not only about establishing peace, but also for Nzinga to seek equality with de Sousa, an example of this was through the famous (or infamous, however you look at it) approach of letting her assistant fall on her hands and knees serving as a chair for the then princess.
Nzinga made further attempts of accommodating the Portuguese community, through converting into Christianity and adopting the name Dona Anna de Souza. She was also baptized in the honour of the governor’s wife (who further became her godmother). Not so long after she further urged her brother to convert his people into Christianity.
It wasn’t so long after Portuguese disrupted the peace and breaking the treaty that was once agreed upon. In 1626, Nzinga became Queen of the Mbundu immediately after her brother committed suicide upon the rising Portuguese demands for slave trade concessions. Nzinga strongly refused to allow control over her nation, and turning her people into slaves. Through exploiting European rivalry, Nzinga formed alliances with the Dutch and other neighbouring tribes to lead an army against the Portuguese. The war lasted for three decades, and inevitably defeated the Portuguese army in 1647. The Dutch were ironically defeated by the Portuguese and in turn withdrew from Central Africa. Not only was she in war with the Portuguese against slave trade, Nzinga also created a sanctuary to runaway slaves and Portuguese trained African Soldiers, her alliances also garnered a thriving economical environment for her Kingdom, one on equal commercial footing with Portuguese colonies. Her kingdom’s economical footprint extended to a point where Matamba became an intense trading power to the Central African region.
Nzinga’s intelligence, leadership talents and strong will not only led her to a powerfully effective rule but she lived so long to see the fruits of her and her people’s toil. Even through the multiple