Alternative Spellings: Nzinga, Dona Ana de Sousa, Ana de Souza, Zhinga, N’Zhinga, Jinga, and Ngola Ana Nzinga Mbande
Catholic Church

Queen Njinga of Ndongo and Matamba, Angola’s most famous precolonial ruler, lived from 1582 to 1663.[1] Njinga struggled to maintain the independence of Ndongo against Portuguese aggression and became the dominant African player in the politics of Angola from 1624 until her death in 1663. This account examines the torturous route that Queen Njinga of Ndongo and Matamba took towards Roman Catholicism. It demonstrates how spirituality played a central role in the decisions she made between 1622 and 1663 as she attempted to gain power and establish legitimacy in central Angola. The account further situates Njinga’s spirituality in the context of both the indigenous African belief system and Roman Catholicism and shows how Njinga appropriated elements from both traditions to serve her political aims.

Njinga and Spirituality: The Early Years

According to Giovanni Cavazzi, one of the Capuchin missionaries who ministered to Njinga from 1657 to her death in 1663, as a child Njinga was brought up in the local religion and was comfortable practicing it. He relates that she received her name Njinga (from kujinga, Kimbundu for “to twist, turn, or wrap”) because she was born with the umbilical cord tied around her neck, adding that the name was meant to describe a person who was destined to be proud, haughty, ambitious, and arrogant.[2] Njinga told another missionary, Antonio da Gaeta da Napoli, that, as her father’s favorite child, she had been taught all the traditions by him. Gaeta himself comments that he was impressed with her knowledge of the art of military dancing and by her ability to wield the battle axe, skills that her people associated with leadership.[3]

Signs of Njinga’s political acumen and her willingness to use religion to advance her own agenda in her quest for legitimacy surfaced long before her famous meeting with João Correia de Sousa, the Portuguese Governor of Angola, in 1622. Nor was Ndongo’s King Ngola Mbandi’s choice of his sister Njinga to lead the diplomatic mission to Luanda made without political calculation. In 1621 Mbandi faced a major political crisis. He had come to power in 1617, two years before the Portuguese governor Vasconcelas and his Imbangala allies attacked Ndongo, and had found it difficult to prevent disgruntled vassals from joining the Portuguese invaders. He also found it taxing to protect others who faced growing Portuguese demands for tribute in slaves and warriors (guerra preta). While her brother was proving no match for the Portuguese, the astute Njinga had been building up her fortunes at court. Indeed, long before her brother Mbandi selected her as his envoy to the Portuguese, Njinga presented such a threat to Mbandi that tradition indicates he had her only son (his own nephew) murdered and caused her two sisters to be infertile.[4] Whether these events happened or not, Mbandi and Njinga were estranged and Njinga was not living with her brother when he reached out to her to head the peace negotiations with the Portuguese. Although outwardly welcoming her estranged brother’s demand that she head the diplomatic mission to the Portuguese in Luanda, Njinga was planning her own political combat. Christian conversion and forgiveness were certainly far from Njinga’s mind.

Politics, Christianity, and Afro-Portuguese Relations

Njinga’s mixture of politics and religion was influenced by the Afro-Portuguese conventions of diplomacy that emerged in 1491 when the leader of the Kingdom of Kongo, King Nzinga a Nkuwu, voluntarily converted to Christianity along with his close relatives. Before Nkuwu’s conversion, political leadership in the region, as elsewhere in the premodern world, was embedded in local ideas that combined magical, religious or ritual, and legal elements. Following Nkuwu’s conversion to Christianity, the close ties that developed between the Kongo leadership and Catholic Portugal as well as with the Vatican had a major impact on politics and religion in Central Africa. In Kongo itself, King Afonso (1509–43), the elder son of Nzinga a Nkuwu, explained his military victory over his pagan brother in religious terms by rationalizing later that the figure of the Christian Saint James Major, the patron saint of Portugal, so frightened his brother and his brother’s supporters that they fled from the battlefield. From Afonso’s time, to be considered a legitimate ruler of Kongo, a person had to be a Christian, and a Catholic missionary had to take part in his coronation.

In Ndongo, Kongo’s neighbor to the south, Christian ideas and rituals never replaced the local magical, ritual, and legal beliefs and practices to which the people required a candidate aspiring for political leadership to conform. Local custom endured in Ndongo even though between 1518 and Njinga’s birth in 1582 a total of three Portuguese embassies had arrived there in response to the request of the ruling ngolas for the Portuguese king to send missionaries to convert them and their people.[5] Every one of those missions failed in that effort.[6] After the failure of the last mission, in 1575, the Portuguese waged many devastating wars against the rulers of Ndongo.

Obstacles to successful missionary undertaking in Ndongo were many. On the Portuguese side, the priests who accompanied the diplomatic and military missions were part of Portugal’s larger objectives for commerce and territorial conquest in Central Africa. King Sebastião of Portugal sent the first Catholic Christian mission to Ndongo in 1560 in response to at least three requests for missionaries that the leaders of Ndongo had sent to Portugal between 1518 and the 1550s. The group’s members, led by Paulo Dias de Novais but also including two Jesuits, were required to “meet with the King of Angola and . . . make him and his people Christian, as has been done with the king of Congo.”[7] Despite these lofty goals, no large-scale conversion was forthcoming. Furthermore, when Paulo Dias de Novais returned to Angola in 1575, seven years before Njinga’s birth, conversion to Christianity was playing second fiddle to the military, mining, and slave trading objectives of the Portuguese in Ndongo. Portuguese success in conquering parts of Ndongo did lead to the conversion of several important local rulers whose territories were forcibly incorporated into the new Portuguese colony of Angola. Many of these rulers, however, sought baptism only as a way of avoiding being subject to Portuguese arms and to obtain military protection from the demands of their overlord, the king of Ndongo.

From the point of view of the Catholic kings of Spain and Portugal, religion was not devoid of politics, and in Angola, conversion of Africans to Christianity was an essential part of a larger design to expand their political presence. Thus, even before the two missions that de Novais undertook in 1560 and 1575, conversion of the king and his people figured prominently in royal directives. De Novais, and others who followed him, were required to work on converting the Africans, and members of the Jesuit and later Capuchin and Dominican orders who obtained permission to enter Central Africa were all supposed to undertake such conversion efforts. For example, Bento Banho Cardoso, nominated as governor in 1611, was required to “work as much as possible for peace and friendship with the king of Angola” and, above all, to see that the king agreed “to spread our Holy Faith in his kingdom.”[8] Similarly, the regimento given to João Correia de Sousa in 1616 called on him to “do all in his power to have peace and friendship” with the king of Angola and to ensure that the king “agree to have our faith preached in his kingdom.”[9]

Official directives notwithstanding, the king and people of Ndongo had no reason to trust the Portuguese governors—or the missionaries—who came with royal regimentos that required them to spread Christianity and to make only just wars. In point of fact, instead of performing baptisms and converting the rulers and peoples in the region, de Novais and subsequent royal officials made constant wars in their desire to establish a permanent coastal enclave and strategic military outposts along the Kwanza River for their slave trading activities.

When Njinga, the sister of the ruling Ngola Mbandi, traveled to Luanda in 1622, she had already from her infancy lived through the horror and devastation that the Portuguese armies, supported by their priests, had inflicted on Ndongo. She believed that their military and political successes against her country had been in part due to the Christian ideology that protected them. The first building constructed in every outpost the Portuguese built in Ndongo was a church. Although the African priests who accompanied the ngolas in their battles against the Portuguese performed all the rituals to the ancestors at the rivers and the base of the massive mountains that tradition dictated were necessary, the Ndongo forces were no match for the Portuguese armies with their firearms and the ferocious African allies (Imbangalas) that they recruited. Indeed, for five years before Njinga’s diplomatic mission to Luanda, she had been witness to some of the most vicious of the Portuguese military campaigns against her people. In this period, Luis de Vasconcelas, one of the Portuguese governors, recruited several companies of non-Kimbundu-speaking Imbangalas who depopulated villages and sent thousands of her people to slavery “across the salt water.”[10]

During his term as governor of Angola (1617–21), Vasconcelas’s relentless wars and slave raids considerably weakened Ndongo, and the Portuguese carved out swaths of territory whose local representatives were required to send tribute in slaves as well as soldiers (guerra preta) to fight alongside regular Portuguese troops. Indeed, Vanconcelas succeeded in exporting more than 50,000 slaves and left a major humanitarian crisis with significant numbers among the remaining population becoming refugees in their own land. This humanitarian crisis had so weakened the Ndongo state that Ngola Mbandi and his household were forced to flee from their court at Kabasa and take refuge on the Kindonga islands in the Kwanza River, one of the many capitals of Ndongo kings.

At this point of crisis, Ngola Mbandi selected Njinga to head a diplomatic mission to Luanda to signal to the newly arrived Governor João Correia de Sousa that he was ready to make peace. When asked by her brother, she went to Luanda and conducted successful peace negotiations. Moreover, when pressed by Governor de Sousa, Njinga decided to remain in Luanda, learn more about Christian beliefs, and be baptized at the age of forty. From her own background as the daughter and granddaughter of past ngolas and as the sister of the present ngola, Njinga’s engagement with Christianity—as will be shown—can be seen as politically motivated. Her decision to be baptized came about because of her desire to see Ndongo remain an independent state, rather than because of the depth of her conviction. Her engagement with the local ideas of the magical, ritual, and legal dimensions of leadership had similar motivations.

Njinga, Christianity, and African Religion

When Njinga agreed to head the mission to Luanda, she regarded it as an opportunity to further her own political standing among influential members in Ndongo’s court. When she arrived in Luanda at the head of a large Mbundu delegation (composed of slaves sent as presents to the Portuguese, personal attendants, musicians, and the like), Njinga was housed with one of the most well-respected Portuguese officials, called Payo de Araujo de Azevedo, and his wife Ana da Silva. (He had the title of Capitão-Mor but did not carry out any official functions or receive a salary from the king.) Njinga saw Catholic Christianity up close during her time in de Azevedo’s household, especially under the guidance of de Azevedo’s wife, Ana da Silva. She certainly would have been keenly aware that the Portuguese would ask her to be baptized, and, since her brother Ngola Mbandi had given her permission to submit to baptism as a way of consolidating peace with the Portuguese, she did not resist the entreaties of the Portuguese when they pressed her to be baptized before returning to Ndongo.[11] As an astute student of history and politics, Njinga would have been aware of the history of Kongo’s conversion and the privileged status that Kongo had achieved as a Christian kingdom. She would also have been aware of the many disgruntled local leaders in Ndongo, some of whom had sought baptism as a way of ingratiating themselves with the Portuguese. Thus Njinga’s decision to be baptized was a means both to gain some advantages at the court of Ndongo by successfully negotiating a peace treaty with the Portuguese and at the same time to impress Portuguese officials with her sincerity and willingness to convert.

During her months in Luanda, Njinga exhibited her ability to mix politics with religion. For example, when she appeared for the audience with Correia de Sousa, she planned for all contingencies. She knew that the governor would want to treat her as the Portuguese treated some of the subordinate rulers whom they had conquered. Njinga’s strategy was to show that she represented an independent African kingdom. As such she entered the hall “dressed in a remarkable way according to the custom of black people, accompanied by a good many pages and waiting women.”[12] She was acutely aware that a successful public display of power was crucial for the success of her mission. More important, however, Njinga’s intent was to enhance her own prestige among her people. Thus she insisted on protocol. Indeed, when the governor placed a rug on the floor and beckoned her to sit, as was the usual custom when Portuguese officials in the area were dealing with Africans, Njinga refused to sit on the rug. As Njinga and others in her court related the incident to the Capuchin missionary Cavazzi several years later, “when she saw she was not given a magnificent and showy chair she called one of her waiting-women, and sat on her as if she had been a chair, rising and sitting down as necessary, and explained her embassy with much acuteness and intelligence of mind.”[13]

Njinga displayed remarkable diplomatic skill at this meeting, agreeing with those parts of the proposal that called for the King of Ndongo to ally with the Portuguese, but wisely arguing that she could not agree that her brother should pay an annual tribute to the King of Portugal as the governor was insisting. She rightly argued that “he who is born free . . . should maintain himself in freedom, and not submit to others, and so lose freedom which is so esteemed by all, as there is nothing worse nor more abhorred than slavery.”[14]

But Njinga did agree to be baptized before leaving Luanda. The details are murky. Ana da Silva, her host, would certainly have played a role in Njinga’s baptism. Cavazzi believed, however, that it was the governor himself who encouraged her to be baptized while lavishly entertaining her during her stay in Luanda. As Cavazzi wrote, Njinga, “moved by the cogent reasons of the Zealous governor . . . yielded like wax to flame.”[15] Njinga, at forty years, took the baptismal name of Azevedo’s wife Ana, who also served as her godmother, and the surname de Sousa, the same as governor João Correia de Sousa (1621–22), who also served as her godfather. Feted publicly by the Luanda settlers and showered with presents, including silver and gold, Njinga left Luanda to return in triumph to her brother’s court at Kabasa.

Njinga’s commitment to her new faith was tested as soon as the Portuguese Christian escorts the governor had provided left her at the city’s edge and she turned her attention to the two-hundred-mile journey back to Kabasa. She was familiar with the dangers she confronted—the raging rapids on the River Cuanza, the likelihood of encountering crocodiles and other marine animals that could swallow a man, and the elephants, pythons, and other wild animals that could appear unexpectedly from the forests that bordered the passageways and carry off members of her party. However much Njinga’s baptism may have meant to her, it was not to the rosary and other Christian relics that the priests and other well-wishers in Luanda had given her that she turned for reassurance and guidance. She called on her own priests who had accompanied her to say the prayers and to do the time-tested ceremonies and rituals to her ancestors.[16]

After her safe arrival back in Kabasa, Njinga’s new political career began. She now harnessed both the prestige that Christianity offered and the traditional rituals of Ndongo to enhance her position as the sister of a reigning ngola and as the daughter of a royal lineage who might one day become ngola. Thus, she did not discard the new Christian ritual objects she had acquired but instead stored them in the same misete (ritual repository) that held the bones and other religious paraphernalia that were essential to the exercise of power in Ndongo.[17]

From the time of her arrival back at court, Njinga deployed her new status to improve her political position among her partisans in Kabasa. In fact, Ngola Mbandi was sufficiently impressed with the new status that Christian baptism conferred on Njinga that he soon requested the Portuguese to send priests to his court so that he also could learn the Catholic faith and be baptized. Viewing this as a threat to her own rising status, Njinga vigorously discouraged Ngola Mbandi from being baptized, arguing that as Ngola he had to safeguard the traditional religious rituals. The real reason for this advice, however, had to do with Njinga’s political ambitions. By 1624 Ngola Mbandi was dead! His partisans, and later the Portuguese, would accuse her of poisoning her brother, while others argued that he was actually depressed, for resistance against the Portuguese had done nothing to improve Ndongo’s chance of remaining independent. The Portuguese continued to incorporate large chunks of Ndongo into the colony they called Angola.

Njinga, in the meantime, had seen her fortunes improve. She had been elected “Lady of Ndongo” and wasted no time in sending a letter to the newly-arrived governor Fernão de Sousa, indicating that she wanted to resolve her political differences with the Portuguese and to allow “Fathers of the Company” to baptize those of her people who wished to become Christians. Indeed, Njinga even promised to allow her tendala, the highest official, to be baptized if he desired and indicated that she would ask the bishop to build churches.[18] But there was a quid pro quo to Njinga’s willingness to open her kingdom to missionaries. As de Sousa explained to the king in Portugal, Njinga stipulated in her letter that she would allow the missionaries into Ndongo only if the Portuguese removed the fort they had illegally built in her lands at Embaca, just a few miles from the capital Kabasa.[19]

Although the Jesuit hierarchy in Portugal was eager to accept Njinga’s word, believing that such an event would open “a great door for evangelization,” officials in Luanda were skeptical.[20] Indeed, Fernão de Sousa claimed that Njinga’s request for priests was due more to fear of Portuguese arms than to devotion. De Sousa’s response to Njinga’s request was no different from the policy that had characterized Afro-Portuguese relations since the year 1483, when the first Portuguese mission to Central Africa arrived in the Kingdom of the Kongo. For both the Portuguese and the Africans, conversion to Christianity had both political and religious dimensions. For the Portuguese, conversion represented political submission to Portuguese imperialism, while for the Africans, Christian conversion advanced their own local political agendas.

For example, when governor Fernão de Sousa promised that he would give safe passage to the two missionary fathers Jeronimo Vogado and Francisco Paconio who were willing to go directly to Njinga’s court in Kabasa, he insisted that Njinga first return “the slaves who had fled from this kingdom.” Receiving word that Njinga had reneged on her promise to return the slaves who had fled to Ndongo and who he believed were being drafted into Njinga’s army, thereby giving her the military edge, de Sousa immediately sent missives for the two missionaries who were on their way to Ndongo to return to the Portuguese fort at Embaca.[21] Religion remained a crucial factor in the political relations between Njinga and the Portuguese from 1624 until her death in 1663.

Years of Flight and Struggle

Although in 1623 Njinga had dissuaded her brother from accepting Christianity, unsurprisingly, a couple years later, in 1625, she allowed both her sisters, Cambo and Fungi, to be baptized with great pomp in Luanda. They took, respectively, “Dona (Lady) Barbara” and “Dona (Lady) Graça” as their baptismal names.[22] Both served as Njinga’s spies during the years they lived in Luanda and at the Portuguese fort at Massangano. In 1657 Njinga succeeded in getting the Portuguese to release her sister Cambo/Barbara. Her younger sister Fungi/Graça had lost her life by drowning when she was placed in one of the rapids of the Cuanza River, the Portuguese having found out that she had been acting as a spy for Njinga during her years in captivity. They found evidence of this only in 1646 when they captured Njinga’s kilombo, a military camp that she had set up not too far from the Portuguese fort at Massangano. [23]

The fact is that from the very beginning of her relationship with the Portuguese, Njinga did not hesitate to use religion to achieve her main political goal of preserving the independence of Ndongo. Religion was central to Njinga’s approach to diplomacy. The Portuguese appreciated this fact, for they too used religion as a central aspect of their political maneuvering in Central Africa. Indeed, in 1626 when Governor de Sousa had to justify his shift from negotiating with Njinga to planning a war against her, a step that the king had expressly forbidden in the charter that de Sousa had received, he argued his case for war not before the secular authorities, but before “the religious teachers, the lettered clergy, [and] the vicar General,” who all supported the position that “the war was just and necessary.”[24]

However eager Njinga was to demonstrate through written correspondence with the Portuguese governor that she was ready to live as a Christian and to allow her people to be baptized, she never believed that she should abandon the traditional beliefs and rituals. She knew that these were crucial for her position as a legitimate ruler. Thus, whenever Njinga was about to make a major political decision, she called on the indigenous religious practitioners for advice. For example, in 1626 when the Portuguese cornered her in the first major campaign that Fernão de Sousa made against her and when she was ready to capitulate, she took time out to call on the advice of her late brother through the religious practitioners who always accompanied her. Cavazzi relates that as the troops stood ready to lay down their arms, the shingilla (traditional priest) gave her her dead brother’s response that “to become a vassal of the Portuguese was to lose freedom and become slaves instead of lords and that it was better to retain one’s liberty by flight.”25 In gratitude, Njinga sacrificed “fourteen of the most beautiful young girls of her court” and fled, so that when the Portuguese arrived at her camp on the island in the Cuanza where she had moved, all they came upon were “the fourteen dead girls without any sign of force or rope.”[25]

After her flight, as she went from one place to the other struggling to keep ahead of the Portuguese and to exercise control over the growing bands of refugees and mercenaries that she attracted to her cause, Njinga repeatedly called on her spiritual advisors for advice and used traditional means to maintain power. For example, in 1628 she sent her rival Angola Aire—whom the Portuguese had put on the throne of Ndongo and whom Njinga claimed was her slave—an object that consisted of “fetishes that these heathens fear more than arms.” De Sousa reported that the threat was so effective that “the king lost confidence and felt great fear . . . not having the spirit to trust her neither resolving to take his army out.”[26] Indeed, for several decades following her baptism in 1622, Njinga willingly tolerated and participated in her own Kimbundu religious rituals as well as those of the Imbangala mercenaries she led.[27] In fact, so powerful a spiritual figure had Njinga become after she had joined forces with the Imbangala against the Portuguese that Cadornega, the soldier-historian who participated in the 1626–27 campaigns against her, wrote that “this valorous king as they called her, and Queen because she is a woman, wanted to finish us off, sent against us those who loved and respected her as their God.”[28] As Njinga’s reputation as a political leader grew, so too did her reputation as a spirit-possessed person. Her many spectacular escapes from Portuguese forces attempting to capture her only enhanced her spiritual reputation the more. Throughout the 1630s she adopted all the rituals of the Imbangala mercenaries she led, and she and her Ndongo subjects made one daring escape after another. She harassed allies of the Portuguese and encouraged her Ndongo kijicos (“subjects,” whom the Portuguese called their “slaves”) to join her cause. By the time she succeeded in conquering the neighboring kingdom of Matamba, in the early 1630s, her status as a religious and political figure was recognized by Africans far and wide.

From her base in Matamba, Njinga continued the fight. In this struggle she relied on both Christian and African spiritual guidance as an essential element in her strategy. This fact became evident when the Portuguese routed her forces in battle in 1646 in the Dembos area at Cavanga, where she had built her kilombo. With a force of more than 20,000 men—including African archers, the troops of Njinga’s rival Hari Ngola, seasoned Portuguese residents skilled in local warfare, freed slaves of the Portuguese, and Imbangala mercenaries—they overcame the combined Dutch, Njinga, and Dembos forces that had previously been successfully attacking them. They succeeded in capturing Njinga’s camp, and she and her Dutch and African allies were forced to abandon the kilombo they had occupied.

Booty from the captured camp, which the Portuguese forces looted before burning, provided evidence of the important role that both Christianity and Ndongo indigenous religious beliefs and rituals held for Njinga. Cadornega, who participated in the attack, believed that “the devil had fooled her or her diviners, assuring them of a major victory against the Portuguese.”[29] The Portuguese forces, on entering the camp, were scandalized to find a “diabolical house” where Njinga’s priests did their rituals. Next to the house was another house that turned out to be a church with an altar, where a priest, Jeronimo de Sequeira, whom Njinga had imprisoned, was forced to say mass for Njinga. In fact, Njinga treated the priest well, calling him Nganga Angola (Father Angola), and he often answered her with the response “Calunga, Calunga queto” (Heaven, Our Heaven). (They also found under the altar several letters that Njinga had received from her sister Dona Graça, whom the Portuguese had imprisoned.)

In addition to Sequeira, Njinga had in the camp two Congo priests, named Miguel de Medeiros and Miguel de Castro, relatives of Garcia II, King of Kongo, who had sent them to congratulate Njinga for her victories against the Portuguese. The Portuguese accused the two priests of disloyalty, since during the Dutch invasion in 1641 they had desecrated the Cathedral in São Salvador by placing in it a large puppet (estufemo) dressed like a Dutchman and saying this was their restorer.[30] Not only did the Catholic priests (both African and European) have crucial roles to play in the quilombo, but Njinga continued to consult the traditional practitioners as well. These personages occupied “a favored place” in the courtyard, where the fronts of their houses prominently displayed the items of their trade, including the “animal skins, roots of trees, and herbs” that were so crucial in their ceremonies.[31]

Although Njinga—reinforced by four hundred Dutch troops and some eight thousand of her own elite archers—made a major counterattack in 1647, the war proved disastrous. In the end, the battles of 1646–47 against the Portuguese made Njinga lose on both the military and personal fronts. Her fickle Dutch allies abandoned her and sought peace with the Portuguese. Graça’s self-incriminating letters, which the Portuguese found underneath the chapel in the camp, brought Njinga’s sister the ultimate punishment for her loyalty. Portuguese troops dropped Graça into one of the whirlpools in the Kwanza River, where she immediately disappeared. Njinga’s sister Barbara became a prisoner and would go on to be one of the principal issues in Njinga’s later peace negotiations with the Portuguese. Although Njinga continued to harass the Portuguese forces, with the expulsion of the Dutch from Angola in 1648 and the military reinforcement that the Portuguese received from Brazil, she had little prospect of winning her cause against the Portuguese on the battlefield.

Njinga Comes Full Circle: Rapprochement with Roman Catholicism

Although in the immediate aftermath of her 1648 defeat Njinga gave little indication that she would not continue her wars against the Portuguese, the murder of one sister and the imprisonment of the other must have weighed heavily on her. By 1650 the Portuguese may have concluded that Njinga had been sufficiently humbled by her military defeat, but Njinga did not give up on religious diplomacy and she turned to missionaries.[32] Between 1650 and 1656, Njinga began a writing campaign to the Capuchin missionaries in Luanda, indicating her willingness to have missionaries come to Matamba to baptize her people.[33] She again indicated her willingness to have her ambassador receive baptism. At the same time she turned her attention to devising strategies for using religious diplomacy to achieve peace with the Portuguese, obtaining the release of her sister Barbara from the Portuguese, and—her very central aim—making sure that Matamba and the areas of Ndongo that she still controlled would maintain their independence. All her efforts during the last thirteen years of her life were devoted to these issues. The religious diplomacy she adopted allowed her to succeed.

The coming of a new governor, Luis Martins de Sousa Chichorro, who arrived on October 7, 1654, to set up his administration, provided her with an opening. His rule began with several quick military campaigns, but Njinga—who in 1650 had written directly to the Capuchins who had come from Rome to do missionary work in Angola—recruited the Capuchins as her allies against the Portuguese and the Jesuits. By 1656 Njinga’s Capuchin allies, along with the several ambassadors that she kept sending to Luanda, succeeded in convincing a reluctant governor and a skeptical Council in Luanda that it was in the best interest of the Portuguese king and the colony to accept Njinga’s request for peace. With the peace treaty that both parties signed, the Portuguese agreed to release her sister Barbara, and in turn Njinga promised, among other things, that she would return to the Catholic faith, give up Imbangala rituals, allow her people to be baptized, and pay 230 slaves.[34]

Although it is impossible to reconstruct fully the sequence of events that led Njinga to conduct the negotiations with the Portuguese which issued in the release of Barbara, to sign a peace treaty with the Portuguese, to welcome Capuchin missionaries to her court at Matamba, and to place increasing reliance on the Capuchin missionaries as well as religious ambassadors, some clues into her achievement are available. The change began in 1655 while her army was attacking lands lying to the east of Mbwila, the semi-autonomous region of Christian Kongo. As she related the story to Antonio Gaeta (the Capuchin priest who was present in 1656 at the signing of the peace treaty between Njinga and the Portuguese), six months before Gaeta’s arrival at her court, the general of Njinga’s army, Njinga Mona, had captured a crucifix that had been left on the battlefield but had thrown it into the bush. During the night, however, he dreamed that the crucifix had spoken to him with these words: “You took me in war and abused me, pick me up and take me to your lady, if you do not, you cannot leave.” The following morning, the stunned general went back to the woods, where he found part of the wooden crucifix (without the cross). Wrapping it in skin, he carried it to Njinga. On receiving the cross-less crucifix and hearing this hardened general relate his experience, Njinga carefully took what was left of the crucifix, put it in a secluded wing of her courtyard, and for the next six months meditated daily in front of it.[35] Thus, by the time missionaries arrived in Matamba to hand over her sister and to begin the process of converting her people and kingdom, Njinga was on her way to becoming an exemplary Catholic.

The first thing she did once the peace treaty had been signed and her beloved sister Dona Barbara had been delivered safely to her in Matamba was to begin the process of becoming a true Christian as an example for her people. Even in taking this step, however, Njinga had to consult her Xingulas (spirit mediums) so that they could contact the spirit of her brother and her Imbangala allies so that they could approve her decision to give up the traditional religion. Once their approval was received, however, Njinga did not look back. She publicly burned all the ritual objects associated with the old religion, kissed the robes of the missionaries, and allowed them to prepare her for a Christian marriage and the life of a Christian. To prepare the way for the Christian revolution she hoped to bring about in Matamba, she proclaimed that all her people should marry according to Christian rites, that a church should be built to commemorate the faith, that women would be allowed to give birth in the ukilombos (a practice that had been forbidden), and that all babies born should be baptized. Four thousand babies were baptized shortly after the missionary Gaeta arrived in Matamba. For the next eight years, until her death in 1663, Njinga dedicated her life to the cause of rebuilding Matamba as a Christian state. Not only did she participate in building the church that she named Santa Maria de Matamba, but she welcomed the priests who came to Matamba and went to daily confession to ask for forgiveness for her former life. She would build other churches as well, and also wrote to the pope and to the Propaganda Fide asking for more priests to staff the churches and to open schools for her people.


On the surface, Njinga died as a Christian who had been totally reconciled to the church. Still questions remain. How deep was her commitment to Catholic Christianity? To what extent was her late return to Christianity a strategic move to make sure Matamba remained independent of Portuguese control? Like the question of Njinga’s legitimacy, the question of her commitment to Christianity was being debated even as she lay on her deathbed. The traditional priests and her advisors insisted that she be buried with traditional rites, while the Capuchin Cavazzi argued that she had asked on her deathbed to be buried with Christian rites dressed in the Capuchin habit that she had obtained from Gaeta.

These questions resurfaced not more than a month after Njinga’s death, when both the Africans and the Portuguese held public ceremonies to commemorate her life. To the Europeans, Njinga died a Christian. The governor and the other important men dressed in mourning cloths as they attended the public ceremony. The proceedings included a church ceremony, with private funds provided to cover the expenses. The Africans, however, saw things differently. They held a separate ceremony, which followed both African and European conventions, to celebrate Njinga’s life. The thousands of Africans who attended praised Njinga’s life, but some would not accept her death. They blamed the missionaries, accusing the “Capuchins [of being] magicians who with witchcraft had done their Queen to death . . . because there was a rumor among the Ethiopians that Queen Ginga would not die.”[36]

We will never know how deeply committed Njinga was to the Christian faith during her lifetime. She operated in a political universe undergoing upheaval, and her religious alignment shifted depending on the political situation she faced. But the description that Cavazzi, the Capuchin Italian missionary who lived in Njinga’s court from 1658 to 1663, gives of her deathbed confession before he administered the last rites leaves no doubt that, however she lived her life, she died a convert to Catholic Christianity.

Linda M. Heywood


  1. This biography is adapted from Linda M. Heywood, “Queen Njinga and Her Faiths: Religion and Politics in Seventeenth-Century Angola,” Journal of African Christian Biography 5, no. 1 (January 2020): 31-47; Linda M. Heywood, “Queen Njinga and Her Faiths: Religion and Politics in Seventeenth-Century Angola Wendy Belcher, “The Life and Visions of Krəstos Śämra, a Fifteenth-Century Ethiopian Woman Saint,” in African Christian Biography: Stories, Lives, and Challenges, Dana L. Robert, ed. (Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: Cluster Publications, 2018).

  2. Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi, “Missione Evangelica nel Regno de Congo,” vol. A (unpublished Araldi manuscripts, n.d.), bk. 2 (hereinafter Cavazzi, “Missione Evangelica,” with page numbers).

  3. Antonio da Gaeta, La maravigliosa conversione alla santa fede di Cristo della regina Singa e del svo regno di Matamba nell’Africa meridionale (Naples, 1669).

  4. Cavazzi, “Missione Evangelica,” 23–25.

  5. Ngola (similar to “king”) was the title given to the rulers of the Ndongo Kingdom. The current country of Angola derives its name from this title.

  6. The earliest mission was in 1520. See, for example, Regimento to Manuel Pacheco and Baltasar de Castro, February 16, 1520, in Monumenta Missionaria Africana, ed. António Brásio, 1st ser., vols. 1–11 (Lisbon: Agência Geral do Ultramar, Divisão de Publicações e Biblioteca, 1952–71), vols. 12–15 (Lisbon: Academia Portuguesa da História, 1981–88) (hereinafter MMA), 1:431–32. See also “Missào do Padre Cornelio Gomes no Congo” (1554), in MMA, 2:362.

  7. “Instrução Régia à Paulo Dias de Novais,” December 20, 1559, in MMA, 2:446–48.

  8. “Regimento do Governador de Angola,” September 22, 1611, in MMA, 6:26.

  9. “Regimento do Governador de Angola,” March 9, 1616, in MMA, 6:258.

  10. See, for example, Linda M. Heywood, Queen Njinga of Angola: Africa’s Warrior Queen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2017), 219–20.

  11. Cavazzi, “Missione Evangelica,” 24.

  12. Cavazzi, “Missione Evangelica,” 25.

  13. Cavazzi, “Missione Evangelica,” 24–25.

  14. Cavazzi, “Missione Evangelica,” 24–26.

  15. Cavazzi, “Missione Evangelica,” 26.

  16. See Heywood, Queen Njinga of Angola, 75–76.

  17. Cavazzi, “Missione Evangelica,” 27.

  18. Fernão de Sousa to the King, August 12, 1624, in MMA, 7:248–50. Fernão de Sousa to the King, August 12, 1624, in MMA, 7:248–50.

  19. “Notícias da Africa Ocidental (1624–1625),” in MMA, 7:300; Linda M. Heywood and John K. Thornton, Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585–1660 (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007), 128–29.

  20. “Carta de Fernão de Sousa,” August 20, 1625, in MMA, 7:361.

  21. Beatrix Heintze, Fontes para a história de Angola do século XVII (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner-Verlag-Wiesbaden, 1985), 2:196; Cavazzi, “Missione Evangelica,” 29.

  22. For details of this incident, see Heywood, Queen Njinga of Angola, 150–52.

  23. Letter of Fernão de Sousa to the King, February 21, 1626, in MMA, 7:419.

  24. Cavazzi, “Missione Evangelica,” 38.

  25. Cavazzi, “Missione Evangelica.” 38.

  26. Heintze, Fontes, 2:197.

  27. António de Oliveira de Cadornega, História Geral das Guerras Angolanas, 1680–1681, ed. José Matia Delgado (Lisbon: Agência-Geral do Ultramar, 1972), 1:121.

  28. Cadornega, História Geral, 1:132.

  29. Cadornega, História Geral, 1:399.

  30. Consulta ao Conselho Ultramirno, August 12, 1665, in MMA, vol. 12.

  31. Cadornega, História Geral, 2:412–28.

  32. Salvador de Correia to King, October 6, 1650, in MMA, 10:571.

  33. See, for example, “Carta do Padre Serafim de Cartona aos Cardeis de Propaganda Fide,” June 5, 1651, in MMA, 11:43; Letters of Father Serafim de Cartona ao Provincial da Toscana, May 15, 1652, in MMA, 11:191–92; and Carta do Padre Serafim de Cartona Á Propaganda Fide, October 2, 1655, in MMA, 11:444–46.

  34. For the peace agreement, see “Capitulações do Governor de Angola com a Rainha Dona Ana J,” April 10, 1657, in MMA, ed. Brásio, 12:57–60.

  35. Gaeta, La maravigliosa conversione, bk. 11:115.

  36. Cavazzi, “Missione Evangelica,” 208–9.

This article, received in 2020, was written by Linda M. Heywood who is professor of African history and the history of the African diaspora and African American studies at Boston University. She is the author of Contested Power in Angola: 1840s to the Present (Univ. of Rochester Press, 2009), editor of Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the American Diaspora (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002), and coauthor with John Thornton of Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007), winner of the Melville Herskovits Award in 2008. Her most recent book is Njinga of Angola: Africa’s Warrior Queen (Harvard Univ. Press, 2017). This biography was excerpted and adapted by Tyler Lenocker from her original article “Queen Njinga and Her Faiths: Religion and Politics in Seventeenth-Century Angola” in African Christian Biography: Stories, Lives, and Challenges, ed. by Dana Robert (Cluster 2018), also republished in the January 2020 issue of the Journal of African Christian Biography.