Over the centuries the reputation of Njinga has been very mixed. Sade said she was the cruelist of women. Others said she was a noble lady. In Portugal in the twentieth-century she was typecast as a savage. Today, in Angola, the successor state to Ndongo, she is celebrated as an anti-imperialist freedom fighter. Heywood's biography is an attempt to give a balanced picture of a very fascinating woman.
Njinga died 350 years ago. During her life she challenged religious, gender and nationhood boundaries with immense courage. She never flinched from resisting Portuguese imperialism, yet in the end she betrayed her culture and subjects in order to survive.
Born into the Royal dynasty in 1582, she entered a world where the Portuguese had arrived some 20 years before. Relations between the native Mbundu and the Portuguese were deteriorating as a result of the latter seeking slaves to work in their Brazilian plantations. Heywood gives us a fascinating and detailed account of local practices such as polygamy, and politics. The latter was riddled with poisonings and murder. Njinga murdered a rival's young son and threw his body into the river.
In 1622, she had been sent to Luanda to negotiate a peace treaty with the Portuguese governor. She agreed to be baptised and be given the Christian name Ana but she refused to send an annual tribute of slaves to Luanda. In 1624, she rose to power and reigned for 39 years. Shortly after becoming monarch she started to encourage slaves to rebel. This led to war two years later. By 1629 things were going so badly she agreed to become the wife of the leader of a band of warriors.
Over the next ten years she began to act like a man, leading her forces into battle on several occasions. She adopted the title of King. In 1631 her forces conquered Maramba a nearby Kingdom and this was used as a base for guerrilla operations. Heywood explains how this eventually took on global dimensions. In 1641, she forged an alliance with the Dutch who occupied Luanda. Her sister was murdered, and in 1648 the Dutch were expelled. This led to her seeking peace with the Portuguese.
The peace negotiations are described in detail. In 1556 she renounced Mbundu customs and readopted Christianity. In return she was recognised as Queen of Ndongo. Her marriage was sealed in a Christian ceremony and letters were exchanged with Pope Alexander V111. Human sacrifice was banned and local religious icons were destroyed.
This is a very remarkable book and story. It is one of the most stimulating biographies I have read.