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From deep inside the slave trade, she resisted. And through her resistance, Nzinga became a symbol of freedom.
It was the 1570s, the beginning of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Portuguese soldiers and missionaries raided central Africa in search of slaves to send to the sugar plantations and gold mines of the New World. With firearms, they slaughtered Africans who resisted, cutting off their noses to present to the King of Portugal as tribute. They bribed African leaders with gold and guns to help them enslave their own people to feed an insatiable market.
The Kingdom of Ndongo, under the brave leadership of Ngola (king) Kasenda, refused to hand over its people to the Portuguese. As revenge, the Portuguese plundered Ndonga and kidnapped 50,000 villagers, killing many more. The invaders sacked the Ndongo capitol city, Kabasa, where King Kasenda lived, in 1584. He fled with his family just as slave traders prowled the streets of Kabasa in search of them. Among the royal refugees was an infant girl named Nzinga.
Nzinga came of age, therefore, in a kingdom shattered by the slave trade and its resulting wars. The arts of the struggle and of diplomacy so came to define her, that her older brother Mbande exiled her when he came to the throne. He was so threatened by her skills that he even killed her infant son as warning.
When the Portuguese invaded Ndonga again a year later, however, Mbande begged his sister to return to his side and help their people make peace before there was nothing left of them.
Knowing she could never defeat the Portuguese in war, Nzinga decided to awe them with the prestige of royalty instead. She arrived at the Portuguese base of Luanda dressed in jewels and satin robes, with a delegation of hundreds of servants. When the Portuguese tried to make her sit at the feet of their governor, one of her servants appeared with a chair so she could face him eye-to-eye. Daunted by the confidence of this African princess, the Portuguese agreed to cease their raids.
Having won a bit of time for her kingdom through diplomacy, Nzinga now set out to prepare for war. Then, in 1624, Mbande committed suicide. Nzinga became queen. Her first act was to close slave markets and encourage Ndongo slaves held by the Portuguese to escape and return home. Furious, the Portuguese declared that a woman could not be a queen and selected a pretender to replace her as Ngola of Ndongo.
When they came, Nzinga was ready. The Portuguese trapped her near the ruins of Kabasa just as she anticipated. She pretended to surrender, then fled into the jungle west of Kabasa to escape capture. Time and again, Nzinga outsmarted and outmaneuvered the Portuguese, fighting countless small battles to free slaves and establishing a new kingdom outside of their control.
In 1641, Nzinga's diplomatic skills served her again when she cleverly formed an alliance with the Dutch. This divided the Europeans slavers, pitting them against each other. With the Portuguese distracted, she advanced to the coast and defeated their army at Kombi, sending 3,000 slave traders to their graves. However, just as it appeared she might drive the Portuguese out of central Africa once and for all, the Dutch betrayed her, forcing into retreat.
Nzinga never achieved total victory over Africa's would-be enslavers, but her decades of resistance chipped away at the Portuguese slave trade, making it less profitable. Even in her sixties, Nzinga continued to lead her armies in the struggle against colonialism. Eventually, the Portuguese recognized her greatness: in 1657 they signed a treaty exempting Ndongo from providing tributes of slaves as was required by the other coastal African kingdoms. While the slave markets remained open, Nzinga remained a defiant queen who never bowed to a colonial power throughout her life.
Today in Luanda, the city where the Portuguese once ruled central Africa, stands a statue to Nzinga, the warrior queen.
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