‘African Queens: Njinga’ Explained: Who Was Queen Njinga? How Did She Fight Against The Portuguese?


“African Queens” is a new docudrama series addition to Netflix, releasing during the same time as Black History Month is being celebrated in the USA. Although only one iteration of the show has been released, “African Queens” seems to be a series that would highlight women leaders from the African continent one after another. The first iteration focuses on Queen Njinga, the ruler of the Ndongo and Matamba kingdoms in Central Africa from 1624 to 1663. While the documentary and real sides of the story are rather intriguing and powerful, “African Queens: Njinga” stresses a lot more on dramatized scenes and retellings of the events of the time. These dramatized scenes, however, take away most of the charm from the show, making it nothing exceptional other than the extraordinary tale of the gritty Queen Njinga.

Who Was Queen Njinga, And What Was Her Legend?

The series has a set pattern for each of its episodes: Jada Pinkett Smith (who is also the executive producer of the show) narrates the context that we are about to watch; dramatized scenes of the times are shown; while distinguished historians and experts on the matter describe the events and how much of it has been proven to have actually happened. The presentation begins in 1617 in the region of Ndongo, which was being ruled by the local king, referred to as the “Ngola.” But times were already changing for the people of the region, as cruel and bloodthirsty oppressors from Europe had already arrived. The Portuguese, who ran the most successful colonization trade around the world at the time, had already settled in Ndongo over the last fifty years. The Ngola, therefore, was under duress around the years when our docuseries picks up, and he was training his eldest daughter Njinga to be a warrior in his absence.

The Portuguese, or any European imperialists for that matter, had always found comfort in the policy of divide and conquer, and they were doing the same here too. The second-most important role in administration and rulership in the African system of the monarchy at the time was that of the noblemen, called “sobas,” as their position was right under the kings or rulers. The invaders had targeted these sobas and paid some of them dearly to wage civil wars and uprisings in the kingdom of Ndongo. The Ngola of the time, Njinga’s father, had to thus solve two problems at hand—the uprising sobas and the Portuguese—and is shown to have taken advice from his council. Ultimately, he decided to deal with the revolting sobas first and left the capital city of Kabasa to travel, leaving behind his eldest daughter in charge, despite having two sons.

It was perhaps a lost cause for the Ngola anyway, as he was murdered by some of his own men, who had also been paid by some of the sobas. Along with grief and pain, there was also the matter of power, for the Ngola throne was now empty. Njinga had two brothers vying for the throne, for it was still not usual for a woman to be directly involved in leading a kingdom’s army, let alone be the queen. The eldest brother, Mbande, believed himself to be the rightful heir but suspected a doubt about it in others’ minds, for he was the son of the Ngola with a different woman and not the rightful queen.

Due to these doubts, Mbande did not want to take any chances and ordered the execution of his own people, all of whom could have potentially claimed the throne someday. This included the other brother and even Njinga’s young son, who was only a child. Njinga was unable to accept this unnecessary killing of her son and even grew vengeful against Mbande. However, the man was not just her brother but was also the king now, and Njinga would not go against the laws of her tribe. She, instead, decided to willingly leave the kingdom and go into exile and pursue other options to fight off the Portuguese from the land. The European invaders had been taking help from a local group or tribe of mercenaries known as the Imbangala. Njinga now approached one of the leaders of a tribe under the Imbangala and formed an alliance with a man named Kasa. The Portuguese rulers, on the other hand, had marked the settlement of Kabasa and its king, Mbande, as their enemies. Mbande’s already shaky influence gradually faded, both among outsiders and the people of his kingdom, and ultimately it was Njinga who took the throne as the Lady King of Ndongo.

Njinga always remained determined to drive out the Portuguese from her land and country, as she always saw them as evil as they were. The Portuguese settlers were making their way in Africa at the time primarily for two reasons: to “civilize” the tribal, dark-skinned people of the region, who were “savages” according to them, by propagating the Christian religion, and the other was to expand the Portuguese kingdom in the world and get hold of people as slaves to work on their many plantations in Latin America.

Throughout her entire reign over Ndongo and Matamba, Queen Njinga always ensured that the European slave trade was either stopped or made extremely difficult. Numerous times, the Portuguese and later the Dutch had to negotiate with Njinga over their horrid practice of slave trade because the queen had blocked off the trade routes from central parts of the land to the port city of Luanda. By the end, Njinga was able to protect her people from the Europeans, and she also became the only African woman king to be officially recognized by Europeans, as stated by one of the experts in the series. “African Queens: Njinga” portrays how the woman successfully did all this and showed moments from her life that ultimately went on to build her legacy.

How Did Njinga Fight Against The Portuguese Colonizers?

One of the most enjoyable points of the series is perhaps that Njinga’s character as a fierce leader with her own ambitions has been kept intact and has not been watered down as could have been in other styles of representation. Njinga was never without personal ambitions, and her desire to serve her people and her kingdom was a deep-rooted wish in her. It was also her father who supported this ambition, but she could not lay claim to the throne right after his death. Instead, brother Mbande had taken on the role rather forcefully, and he was not someone who could lead the kingdom properly. Ultimately Mbande lost reputation among his own people and was also depressed due to this. He was found dead with poison in his body, and although there is no solid proof of it, it is believed by most historians that it was Njinga who had killed him. If this was actually the case, then Njinga did so because her brother was too weak, mentally and intellectually, to continue serving the throne. But to ensure that she was the woman leader of the kingdom and not just the ceremonial queen, Njinga needed a king, and she once again sought the help of the Imbangala chief Kasa. But Njinga’s intention was very clear, and like Mbande earlier, she too did not want to keep any doubts over her position on the throne.

At the time, Njinga was basically serving as the acting queen until Mbande’s young son grew up to be an adult and took the throne. The passionate woman was obviously not fine with this, and she married Kasa, named him king and herself queen, and then mercilessly killed Mbande’s son to avoid any claims from him in the future. This also perhaps was an act of personal revenge, as Mbande had once killed her own young son, and now she had done just the same. Since the young boy was being trained by Kasa in his camp and had grown rather close to the chief, Kasa immediately broke off his marriage with Njinga, and she became the sole ruler of the kingdom.

Njinga used various other similar tactics against all her enemies without keeping any moral high ground about her actions. She always considered the Portuguese as her main enemies and used whatever means and support she could get to work against these colonizers. There were many attempts at diplomacy between the two sides as well, but Njinga was largely against the Portuguese practice of picking up people as slaves and sending them away from the continent as laborers.

Gradually, as all chances of diplomacy were gone and conflicts increased in number, the Portuguese, led by different governors at different times, directly attacked Njinga as well. She had two younger sisters, Kambu and Funji, both of whom were picked up by the Portuguese when they attacked the capital city of Kabasa and kept prisoners at their forts for many years. Queen Njinga kept fighting against them and tried her best to block slave trade routes, sometimes also freeing many slaves to join her in her fight. Since her relationship with Kasa had soured, she later decided to team up with the most fierce and notorious chief of the Imbangala, Kasanje. She agreed to marry Kasanje and be his queen, but to continue her role as a fighter and also to give up her own tribal customs and take on those of the Imbangala tribe. With Kasanje’s help, Njinga captured the kingdom of Matamba as well, and she expanded her rule to create more pressure on the Portuguese.

Njinga also did not shy away from using Europeans as allies when the chance came, and it is perhaps suggested through her portrayal in the series that she did not have restrictions regarding accepting foreign cultures. Of course, Njinga did not want the white man’s culture to rule over her own, but if such a strategy could be used against the colonizers, then she did not mind using it. During her years of diplomacy with the Portuguese, she converted to Christianity through a baptism ceremony and, over the years, also agreed to let her people be converted.

When the Dutch reached the African continent as direct opponents of the Portuguese, Njinga decided to form an alliance with the Dutch. Her council and perhaps she herself knew that the Dutch would do just about the same as the Portuguese, but Njinga probably planned on dealing with one enemy at a time. The Dutch did ultimately turn when they wanted to just replace the Portuguese slave trade routes and businesses with their own men. In the end, they did not prove to be worth much to Njinga either, as they had to cancel their plans of attacking a Portuguese fort with Njinga’s army because the Portuguese had brought in more troops at the port town of Luanda. One of Njinga’s sisters, Funji, had already been killed by a governor, and Njinga had planned to raid the fort to rescue her other sister, Kambu. But the Dutch army had to retreat to Luanda, spoiling her plan, and ultimately the Dutch were totally driven out of Africa by the Portuguese.

How Successful Was Queen Njinge In Her Endeavors?

Towards the latter part of her life, Queen Njinge seems to have focused on just two objectives in her life—to protect her people from European slavery and to somehow rescue Kambu, as she was the next in line to the throne after her eventual death. It was during this time that she came across two Capuchin priests, along with the priest who had presided over her baptism ceremony. She realized that the Catholic religion was something that all these colonizers and invaders could be united under, and the Pope was the ultimate figure they all abided by. Queen Njinge started writing letters to the erstwhile Pope, Alexander VII, asking for recognition as the Christian ruler of the kingdom of Ndongo. She was certain that if the Pope granted her recognition, all European forces, including the King of Portugal, were bound to accept her rule. She kept sending these letters for many years without getting any reply, and sometime in the middle, the Portuguese in Ndongo decided to call a truce with her. They returned Kambu to Njinge, who later became the queen of the kingdom after Njinge’s death. The family line that Njinge had protected so dedicatedly did have three more queens after herself.

Finally, in 1661, the Pope wrote back to Njinge, granting her recognition as the Christian ruler of the kingdom of Ndongo, and her people were finally safe from being enslaved. However, as the years and centuries rolled by, the entire African continent became overrun by European colonizers as the profits of the slave trade grew exponentially and helped build the large wealth that still runs America and Europe to this day. Ndongo also ultimately fell many years after Njinge’s death, and it became part of modern-day Angola in Central-West Africa. Although the story of Njinge as the warrior queen was lost in the middle years, her legend was revived once again by local fighters for independence in the 1960s. While Angola was still under Portuguese occupation, the fighters found inspiration in Njinge, who was the ancestor of their very land and ultimately won independence in 1975.

“African Queens: Njinga” is a 2023 Documentary Drama Series streaming on Netflix. 

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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