Kwasi Konadu

Gender and Power Relations during the Transatlantic Era

African History 360Kwasi KonaduComment

The invasion of “Angola” brought Njinga Mbande (ca. 1583 – December 17, 1663), ruler of the kingdom of Ndongo and Matamba, into the political picture. Born around 1582 in the Kingdom of Ndongo, Njinga was the eldest child of the kingdom’s ruler, Mbandi Ngola—“Ngola” became the source of the territory called “Angola.” In the Kingdom of Kôngo where political power was male-dominated, Kôngo women of noble stature exercised some power, but symbolically and through their roles as lineage heads and as mothers of key male political figures. Though some Kôngo women would come to exercise considerable political power after the period of civil war, none became rulers of the kingdom, as was the case in the Kingdom of Ndongo, starting with Njinga. After claiming the throne in the wake of her brother’s suicide in 1624, Njinga was Christianized (baptized as Ana de Sousa) and engaged in the process of transatlantic slaving. Njinga’s letters illustrate how African societies were being transformed because of transatlantic slaving by the mid-seventeenth century. At the time of her death in 1663, more captive Africans departed from the Kôngo-Angola region than the total volume for all other major slaving regions. For this region and others, the impact of a burgeoning transatlantic process would be enormous: transatlantic slaving would alter sex ratios and lead to depopulation, create social hierarchies and political fragmentation, introduce new forms of domestic enslavement, and encourage materialist values in societies that valued people above all. 


[In a letter dated 3 March 1625 to the Portuguese commander in eastern Angola, Njinga or her scribe wrote:]

. . . I will give you an account of how as I was sending some slaves to the market of Bumba Aquiçanzo, Aire came out with his army, and robbed me of thirty slaves of those I had sent I sought satisfaction against my vassal my army met with nine men who were with the Tiger [a Portuguese field commander] in the land, and putting upon these nine who went to meet my army outside of Pedra [a fortress] it pleased God that they were defeated by mine where I brought back six alive. . . . Your Grace, send me a hair net and four yards of gram for a cover, and a bedspread of montaria, and good wine, and a arroba[1] of wax from Vellas, and a half dozen Indian colored cloths and two or three table cloths of Rendas, some red, blue and wine-colored rubies, and a sun hat of blue velvet, or the one that you wear, and 100 folios of paper.

[In another letter dated 13 December 1655 to the Governor General of Angola, Njinga wrote, in the context of peace treaty negotiations beginning in 1626 with the Portuguese,]

I have complained so much to the past governors, who have always promised to return my sister [captured by the Portuguese in battle], to which end I have given infinite slaves and done thousands of banzos [trading goods], and she was never returned but after wars were made to disquiet me and make me always go about as Jaga [Imbangala; fierce warriors used as mercenaries by Njinga and the Portuguese], using tyrannies, some as not allowing children, this being the style of quilombo [military encampment], and other ceremonies, with I have completely given up….

. . . Concerning the two hundred slaves which Your Lordship asks for the ransom of my sister D. Barbora [Kijunji], it is a very rigorous price, I have given the slaves which Your Lordship already must know, to past governors and ambassadors, outside mimos and secretaries and servants of your house, and many residents, that already today I feel tricked. That which our Lordship wishes me to give would be 130 slaves, the 100 I will send when my sister [is] in Embaca [Mbaka, a town and fort belonging to the Portuguese colony of Angola, and a point through most captives from the deep interior left their homelands through Luanda….]

[Near the end of her life, Njinga wrote a letter dated 15 June 15, 1660 to Antonio de Oliveira de Cadornega, resident historian and slave dealer in Angola, about runaway captives and responded to the claim that she harbored them:]

The letter which your grace wrote to me concerning your runaway people which my people sold or stole, this is said by people who wish ill to the peace and Christianity, because if your grace could ask all the Pumbeiros [agents dispatched by merchants to acquired inland captives] of the whites who come to my Court with the goods of their masters to trade, your grace would know that the blacks of your grace are so backward that when we sell slaves to them, they inform us that the slaves were well watched over and captured; they say of them that they are villains they send free slaves to do your service to say to Your Grace that in this my banza [capital town] many old free women fled to me as the said people say; of the newer people:  If they were here they could make diligent [inquiries concerning the “slave” status of those offered for sale….]


Sources: Queen Njinga to Bento Banha Cardoso, 3 March 1625, quoted in Fernão de Sousa to Gonçalo de Sousa and his brothers (ca. 1630), in Beatrix Heintze, ed., Fontes para a história de Angola do século XVII, 2 vols. (Wiesbaden, Germany, 1985–88) 1: 244–45; António Brásio, Monumenta missionaria Africana (Lisbon: Agência Geral do Ultramar, Divisão de Publicações e Biblioteca, 1952-1988), 11: 524–28.

[1] arroba – a Portuguese and Spanish unit of weight equal to about 32 pounds